The Making of the English Landscape


Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977.


Man-made creations of the 17th. & 18th. centuries apply to country houses and their parks, and to the parliamentary enclosures that gave us a good deal of our modern patterns of fields, hedges and by-roads, but more than half of England never underwent this kind of enclosure but evolved in an entirely different way and in some regions the landscape had been virtually completed by the eve of the Black Death. (1348).

Hoskins acknowledges the great contribution of archaeology to our understanding of the landscape past and present, giving evidence of "often interrelated prehistoric Roman and Saxon landscapes underlying the present surface and, sometimes, moulding it and in some places even breaking through" (p12), but opts here to confine himself to the "visible landscape".


The present day English landscape is almost entirely the product of the last 1500 years starting with earliest Anglo-Saxon villages of around 450 A.D. Up to Early Iron Age (500 B.C.) there was a very small population: pastoral, tiny irregular corn plots, isolated settlements and overall little impact on landscape. From 500 B.C. on, settled villages, especially Celtic (Cornwall) with regular (rectangular) wide (100 ft) fields (unlike later narrow strips) are found and can be seen by aerial photography. Many of the Celtic farm sites may have been abandoned at an early date and reoccupied in Medieval times, altho’ some may have been in continuous occupation to today. The double ditch or ‘hollow way’ = boundary between 2 estates sometimes medieval, sometimes Saxon or even Celtic.

Belgae arrived just after 100 B.C., spread over SE and into Midlands and with the heavy plough opened up new lands for cultivation/habitation leading to a population increase to, perhaps, 400K at Roman Conquest (early A.D.). Even Roman contribution to landscape was tiny and survives as roads, sites of villas and a few canals and dikes. Roman roads are important in the history of the landscape because they opened up land on a hitherto unknown scale, but they were not exploited, along with rivers, for colonisation until Anglo-Saxon times. Roman villas/estates, with large open fields, were developed generally on lighter soils but forest clearance progressed. Adjacent to villas native hamlets/villages, (not organised into streets), with small fields, grew up. Roman canals were for drainage and communication. The Romans built towns but these very small, scattered and unimportant in an overall sense. Belgae, Romans and their predecessors had made little overall impact, tho’ locally important, and what they had tamed was falling into decay/abandoned before Anglo-Saxon invasion (ca. 450 A.D.), so latter faced essentially a wilderness.


From 450 to 1066 England became a land of villages, large, compact, nucleated. The village can be found everywhere in England. In Midlands especially = predominant/only form of settlement; in N and W Co’s get mixed settlements of villages/hamlets/isolated farms. Villages were accompanied by open field system traces of which were often obliterated before parliamentary enclosures of 18th. century.

Woodland clearance = greatest single form of change especially in early Old English settlement. (Later came drainage of fens & marshes & estuarine flats and reclaiming of the high, stone-strewn moorlands). Woodland clearance was effected by axe, burning, grazing.

3 village shapes; (a) with central green/square, (b) single street [which may have developed along busy routes], (c) haphazard/fragmented. In (a) farmhouses front onto green which has a well and a church, central or to one side with, later, a school and/or a hall. The a)-type shape, like modern African village, was defensive or protective, while (c) was of type founded, on common land or forest clearances, by individual squatters with no leader, no group or concentrated plan. In open field system villages spread along first furlong of arable. In fens there were no open field and young men dispersed into marshes to establish hamlets & farmsteads so, from late Saxon times on, have ancestral village on ridge with roads radiating out in all directions to daughter settlements. Fenland is dotted with their names and laced with winding roads while open-field parishes have village near centre with few/no names outside it and the rare, isolated farmstead dating from 18 cent. parliamentary enclosure.

Tho’ villages have been greatly altered over the centuries one feature, the Anglo-Saxon double ditch boundary has not. Probably only around most important estates because of great amount of slave labour required for construction. Can follow these armed with a Saxon charter and the 2.5" map.

Scandinavian conquest from late 800’s on gave numerous new villages and renaming of many existing ones. Hard to distinguish which is which because of renaming and because Scandinavians did not bring a discernible new type/structure. Scandinavians did bring (i) intensification of forest clearance and establishment of many new villages and (ii) establishment of isolated hamlets and farmsteads associated often with drainage of fen/marshland.


By 1086 can get some estimate of population density from Domesday Book. (Do small parishes indicate high population density and visa versa?). Up till then greatest change = forest clearance with attack on marshes and fens well advanced and that on moorlands just beginning. All change was manual, therefore, very slow and piecemeal. There was some power from water mills, (for grinding corn), which appeared in 8th. cent. but distribution was patchy. (Wind & Fulling mills did not come into existence till towards end of 12th. cent.). By 1086 churches had appeared as had nearly all present-day villages except those in N. and Midlands which came with the Industrial Revolution. Each village had 2-3 open fields of a few 100 acres each & bounded by bog or marsh or primeval forest. In more difficult areas there were small fields (1-2 acres) of irregular shape resulting from isolated, individual effort, hard-won and brought into production an acre or less at a time. (Might be rock-strewn, tiny fields with stone walls, as Connemara). Elsewhere field shape related to type of plough. A few towns existed but these were really just collections of huts, sometimes with earthen fortifications, and very small. Overall, very low population density and great areas were untouched. Great explosion of activity in 8-9 generations from Domesday Book to Black Death (1348) which put a decisive end to first great wave of medieval colonisation.

Woodlands :

Most were cleared into arable by individual peasants in 12th. & 13th. centuries. Some villages were created also identified by place names with "wood" or "beare". Also old villages enlarged their open fields. Norman kings created royal forests (some areas preserved by Anglo-Saxon kings) which destroyed some villages/farms and, to some extent, limited clearing. [Royal forest may have covered one-third of country in time of Henry II (1154-1189)]. Clearance continued with payment of fines and lump sums (to Richard I & John : 1189-1199 & 1199-1216). Parks and parkland were developed also.

Marsh, Fen and Moor :

These present a distinct mapscape/landscape of tangled roads and lanes, sometimes petering out into a maze of drains; embankments on seaward side, often with road on top. Roads are often long straights with abrupt turns. Names with "fleet" or "sea" or "haven" are often found far inland, indicative of reclamation from the sea. Thick sprinkling of dispersed farmsteads/few hamlets with a considerable village every few miles. First settlements were nucleated villages on high, dry ground, founded by Old English not before 7th. century (no early placenames, no heathen cemetery). Some incursion, (see placenames) by Danish took place in 10th century. Big reclamation, with abundant evidence for making of banks and ditches, between 1150 and 1300. Dikes used to advance arable simultaneously into fens and towards sea. Used as sheep pasture (See "ship" in placenames). From 8th. century chalk and limestone downlands also used for extensive sheep pasture. Monasteries responsible, largely in Yorkshire Dales and in Wales for drainage and woodland clearance and extension of sheep grazing, generally on wilderness but sometimes over-running villages. On true moorland the landscape was tamed by individuals or small groups.

Buildings in the Landscape :

By eve of Black death (1348) population had reached ca. 4m (3X that @ 1086), hundreds of thousands of acres had been tamed, many new towns, some new villages and thousands of isolated farmsteads and hamlets were created. Still the land was thinly settled. In parts, one found monastic buildings, some on grand scale, some 5-600 in all. Thousands of parish churches, some simple, some grand had been built especially from 1150-1250 and division into ecclesiastical parishes completed. Some parishes were very small (dense population), some huge and reflected in density of church buildings. Churches gave focus/centre to new or heretofore scattered communities.

Windmills and Fulling mills appeared towards end of 12th. century. Windmills were especially plentiful in S. and E. of England where they are still common. Fulling mills were more localised and have disappeared.

‘Fever of borough creation’ in 12th. and 13th. centuries gave many towns founded by kings, bishops, abbots, lay magnates and even small local landowners. Some grew and prospered, some languished. This led to a big development of roads, linking towns, and big growth in bridge building. Some towns were laid out on a grid but most were allowed to grow unplanned.

Castles appeared in late 11th. century and before long there was one in every important town. Also isolated castles gave rise to towns for service and protection.


The Abandonment of Villages :

Bubonic plague first struck in late summer, 1348. It reduced population by 1/3 to ½, ended the ‘land hunger’ of the 13th. century, led to a retreat from marginal land with abandonment of infertile farms. Many villages were deserted, some 1,300, not all due to Black Death as some were dying anyhow. Dying out of villages led to amalgamation of parishes to be seen on 1" map. Traces of villages still to be seen on ground. Abandonment often helped by clearances by landlords to make way for pasture which required less labour.

New Colonization :

From 1348-1500 not all was retreat. There is evidence that the worst hit was Midlands (which had been most prosperous) and in poorer, more thinly populated areas life went on once the worst of the epidemic passed. In some places growth continued but on much more modest scale as around Canterbury. A few new settlements came into being, namely fishing villages probably due to a development in the fishing industry.

New Buildings :

From 1350-1500 a big number of new buildings came into being : hundreds of churches were rebuilt or enlarged, hundreds of little private oratories or chapels were founded, attached to remote houses or at lonely cross-roads, many castles, many bridges were built from new or rebuilt in stone. There is very little evidence of new church building in Midlands, (the hard hit area), but many rebuilt or enlarged in SW so that the Perpendicular Gothic is characteristic style there. Church towers sprang up everywhere, many plain and dull. These were easier to build than spires even with granite. Many of the stone bridges survive to today.

With arrival of anarchy and private warfare in 15th. century great men built themselves castles/fortified houses, many of brick the general use of which did not become widespread, (when stone available), except for large houses, until the end of 17th. century.


The Landscape in 1500 :

In 1500 there were 8m sheep to <3m people & too few people to civilize the whole landscape or, indeed, even the more accessible, tractable areas. Still heavily, extensively wooded & timber was the main source for fuel and construction of all kinds so there were huge woodland clearances over period 1500-1688, some for iron working, some for pasture. While the moors remained open & largely uninhabited, in some counties, e.g., Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, fields were enclosed and hedged by time of Henry VIII (1509-1547), probably because pasture was abundant there. This enclosure appears to have begun in 13th. century and continued into 14th. & 15th. Sometimes original strips were fenced to give long, narrow rectangles, sometimes whole furlongs to give large rectangular fields of 30-40 acres. The latter were subdivided later for sake of shelter and control of grazing. These smaller fields tend to have straight hedges compared with the irregular small enclosures created directly from the forest.

Towns were still small and relatively unimportant.

The Enclosure of Midland Fields :

The Midlands had the ‘classic’ open field system. Some changes were brought about by creation of granges by Cistercian Houses in 12t. & 13th. centuries, followed in 14th. & 15th. centuries by decay & abandonment of villages, which, at first, was a natural/passive process but later expedited by landlords to create pastureland. Where land was wholly owned by a landlord one finds enclosure of enormous single fields, later subdivided/hedged for shelter and control of grazing. Enclosures by Tudor squires abated in middle 1500’s (due to opposition by government) but spread again by agreement among freeholders from last ¼ of 1500’s till the civil War. After the Restoration (1660) enclosure was actively supported by government to give the modern type English landscape. Should note that English hedges are of all dates, Celtic, Saxon, Danish, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, even Victorian. They make a complex pattern with a complicated history.

The Flowering of Rural England :

The depopulating enclosures of the 15th./16th. centuries, tho’ devastating in small local areas, should not be exaggerated. In the Lowland Zone many villages vanished, some shrivelled, but many survived into the warm, expansive age of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). From about 1570-1640, except in 4 counties of the north, a great wave of building/rebuilding, from Country Houses to the houses of all except the poorest, occured. (No cottages survive from the 16th. century) Houses of villagers, yeomen and lesser farmers were built in stone, where available, and 2-storey houses, with smaller partitioned rooms, replaced the typical 2-room structure. In Yorkshire one finds stone-built houses, sheltered by sycamore; in the Midlands, stone or brick, surrounded by ash & elm; in West Midlands, the typical ‘black-and-white’ timbered houses; in the east much destroyed or swamped by the Victorian red brick of the industrial villages. This change in architecture resulted from a desire for privacy and an increase in population and wealth; cities & markets were growing as was industry.

Northern counties did their rebuilding from 1690’s onwards, at the time when the rest of the country was in a wave of 2nd. rebuilding. From this period, when philanthropic fervour was at its height, the many attractive village schools and almshouses were built. Between 1570 and 1770, the work of colonisation was essentially completed and life became more comfortable and leisurely. After 1770 we witness the break-up of the village communities, the degradation of the rural population and the flight into the towns.

Country Houses and Parks :

Built for the pleasure of living, not for protection/defence, the benefit of a strong central government and judiciary, the country houses originated in the early 1500’s and their building continued for 400 years. They were surrounded by parks, many of thousands of acres in extent, and many originating from simple forest enclosure [the original meaning of the word]. Parks grew more extensive during the 1700’s, the age of the territorial aristocracy, and their construction sometimes led to the destruction or relocation of whole villages. By 1600’s England had a timber famine and tree planting, with the introduction of many exotic species, became common. So too did landscape gardening, on a grand scale, (with trees/lakes/follies), associated with the names of Kent (1685-1748) and ‘Capability’ Brown (1715-1783). Park development continued thro’ the 19th. century


By 1700 large tracts, especially in W. and N. and partly in SE., were more or less as today, but millions of acres between Yorkshire & Devon coasts were still largely medieval with open fields, common pasture, and moorland and basically unchanged since the 13th. century.

The Extent of the Enclosure :

Parliamentary act & award dealt with ca. 4.5m acres of arable and about 2m acres of commons/"waste". Up to c. 1730 most enclosure done by private agreement between the owners but under George II (1727-1760), and especially from 1750, parliament actively, thro’ parish commissioners, changed the face of the English landscape at a revolutionary pace. In some parishes this was merely a completion/tidying up operation and change was small; in the majority it was a complete transformation, a triumph of planning & execution, achieved with remarkable rapidity. The most affected part was a broad band from Yorkshire coast down thro’ the Midlands as far as the Dorset coast, approx. 200 miles by 120 miles. Here an average of 3 acres in 10 were dealt with. Parliamentary enclosure had little effect in the 6 northern counties and in theSW and SE corner.

The Date of Parliamentary Enclosure :

Nearly all was carried out between 1750 and 1850 and most open fields were enclosed in the reign of George III (1760-1820). There were only 8 acts before 1714, 18 under George I (1714-1727), 229 under George II (1727-1760), accounting in all for not more than 400K acres. In the next 40 years 1,479 acts enclosed nearly 2.5m acres with a further 1.5m added (over 1,000 acts) by 1844. The war years post-1800 raised land value and some 1.25m acres of the various "wastes" were enclosed; (0.75m acres had been enclosed between 1760 and 1801).

The New Landscape :

The most pronounced effect was in the Midlands and eastern England, in a solid block of 16 counties. Commissioners’ awards are to be seen in the Records Offices of these counties. Awards were accompanied by maps showing new layout but most have been lost. Even rarer are maps of old scheme of things with overlaying lines outlining the new, a record of the planning of the landscape.

The Fields :

Generally the fields are small (5-10 acres), squarish and hedged but initially were much larger (50-60 acres) in pastureland. The result, e.g., in Midlands, is that, where arable fields were enclosed, the landscape is monotonous and a continuous green sward. On heaths & commons, e.g., Norfolk, the effect was to lead to conversion of poor, (sheep) grazing land into that for production of barley, rye and wheat.

Hedgerows and Trees :

The new fields were hedged with hawthorn (Old English haga = hedge) or, in upland stone country, with stone. In east Midlands ash, sometimes elm, were planted at wide intervals, perhaps, so as not to impede fox hunting. Here also fox-covers were developed. These are scattered over landscape and distinguishable from forest remnants by their regular, rectangular shapes. Elsewhere the ash/elm were thickly sown in the hedges, with willows along streams. Hedging led to a great proliferation of small song birds and the disappearance of heathland birds.

Roads :

There was a great proliferation of by-roads, distinguishable on the 1" map in how they run straight from village to village. They also stand out because of their wide verges.

Farmhouses :

With the creation of new farms, new farmhouses were built on each allotment, some immediately, some after several years. The villages, however, did not generally disintegrate because of increased population and the accompanying demand for housing, and because, by this time, the land was in the hands of relatively very few people so a parish enclosure might involve only 6-7 families. Villages didn’t suffer but tended to become more squalid because occupied more by landless/poorer people. Still, the result was the introduction of the isolated farmhouse and in the Yorkshire to Dorset strip 4/5 farmhouses are a consequence of parliamentary enclosure. Another feature of enclosure is the complete absence of lanes.


The Early Industrial Landscape :

In the early 1600’s England was mainly agricultural and the signs of industry, [viz., quarries, coal works, salt works, glass works, cloth industry], tho’ flourishing locally, were a mere scratching on the surface. However, by the end of the century the industrial landscape was much more evident. The early industrial landscape was very different to that developed with the advent of steam power. There was no conglomeration of factories and slums but a ‘busy’ landscape thickly settled with farmhouses and cottages and a corresponding subdivision of fields into small crofts and paddocks; a web of houses, market towns and collieries set in the countryside. Collieries were located generally on hilltops for ease of access to the coal, less problem with drainage and easier, downhill transport out product by pack-horse.

Water-Power and the Early Mills :

Water-power led to an increase in the size of machines and the development of factories. The big change came with the application of power to the cotton and woollen industries in the 1770’s. Factories were generally in remote places to be near suitable water and, later, to avoid inspection. These can now be seen deserted on slopes of the Pennines. Night/shift working was introduced, (coal gas for lighting was demonstrated in 1792), and work forces of hundreds were common. In early days owners built their houses beside the factories but as pollution, dirt, etc., accumulated the owners moved away. Hamlets and villages grew up around the mills but towns such as Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester proceeded to grow also and to gobble up the landscape. The real dirt and over-crowding came with the steam age in the 19th. century.

Steam-Power and Slums :

Use of coal gave blackening of buildings and fouling of air while waste, as from coalmining, glassworks and chemicals, produced ‘tips’, a ‘mountain landscape’ in miniature. These products of industrialisation achieved their final horrific form with the widespread use of steam-power. Steam-power led to an intense concentration of large-scale industry and the necessary labour-force. Factories were founded on the edges of towns, on the low-lying ground, (to be near canals to ship in coal and ship out goods), surrounded by cheap, rapidly built, terraced housing. The slums were born. [Slum first used in 1820’s and comes from slump = wet mire; Low German slam = mire]. Commons and gardens of the old towns were used for the building of cheap houses, the land made more valuable by the wars of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Other buildings typical of the industrial town began to appear: first were the Anglican churches, Nonconformist chapels, schools and public houses. Public parks arrived in the 1840’s followed by public libraries, followed in turn by the Town Hall. Hamlets grew into towns and the land in between became fouled with waste and stagnant subsidence ponds.


Roads :

Prehistoric tracks and ancient Saxon paths may have been the ways between settlements or to local woods or have passed along boundary ways. Some remain in part as laneways or have merged into hedges or were been taken over by Roman roads or have been incorporated into modern motorways. Apart from the military highways the Romans developed by-roads to serve a local purpose. Medieval market-roads developed in 12th./13th. centuries mostly on existing Saxon tracks. Very few new roads were created between Saxon times and the turn-pike and enclosure roads of the 18th. century. The cattle trade, which developed from 1500’s onwards used existing paths and lanes and, to avoid tolls, remained in use up to middle 1800’s when rail transport took over. The turnpikes contributed little to the landscape as mostly they took over existing routes, (except in industrial areas, like Lancashire, where new towns required new roads between them). Turnpikes run for miles with nothing on them except their toll-houses. Their other contribution was that of numerous fine bridges. Other features of roads are milestones and guide posts while a modern development is the by-pass.

Canals :

These were created mainly in the last forty years of 18th. and first ¼ of 19th. century. They brought a number of distinctive changes, viz., introduction of water where there was none before, (with resultant changes in flora/fauna), aqueducts, cuttings, embankments, tunnels, locks, bridges, inclined planes and lifts. Also they greatly influenced the growth/appearance of many towns. They contributed to the landscape indirectly too in that, because of cheap transport, they led to the bringing in of materials such as slate, fertilizer and contributed to drainage. Romans had constructed a few waterways but these were not much more than drainage ditches and the first true canal with towpaths and locks was the Exeter (1564-1567). 200 years later, in 1760, Brindley constructed the Worsley to Manchester canal. A feature of earlier canals was their winding, circuitous nature to remain as level as possible and avoid obstacles. Later canals, such as the Grand Trunk Canal (1766-1777) took a more direct route, employing not only aqueducts, cuttings and embankments, but tunnels. By the 1820’s 3,000 miles of canals had been constructed, being particularly prolific (and dirty) in the industrialised districts. But in pastoral Midlands and all over the south of England sparkling canals added to the landscape with their towpaths, lock-keeper’s cottages, stables and Navigation and Canal Inns.

Railways :

The railways made a more massive impact than the canals; they were greater in mileage and penetrated to more remote areas; their tunnels, aqueducts and embankments were greater in size and grandeur. Their indirect effects were equally powerful and far-reaching. For example, because of importation of cheaper materials all local/regional styles of building were exterminated.



We need to study, not just the political history of a town, but its physical growth, where its original core lay, the directions in which it grew and when and why, to account for its plan and shape today.

The Planned Town :

Britain has very few planned towns and they are scattered in space and time. Most English towns grew up in an unplanned, haphazard way. A few planned towns existed prior to 1300 but then none appeared until the planned development of more or less large estates in the late 18th. century towns, notably the spas, and in the middle decades of the 19th. century when the gridiron patterns of Middlesbrough and Barrow-in-Furness were laid out.

Why so few? Because a) the construction of planned towns required complete ownership of the site and b) required a large investment with risk of failure and a slow return, so planned towns were possible only for kings, bishops, abbots, etc. It was safer to provide a site and let development happen. In Celtic Britain the people disliked towns and preferred rural living.

The Open-Field Town :

These towns grew up in the midst of their own open fields and entered the 19th. century with a rapidly rising population and often unable to expand because hemmed in by their own land. Often the land ownership was in the hands of a few people but the problem arose because of burgesses’ grazing rights over 6 months of the year and their reluctance to let go of this and their consequent resistance to enclosure. One such town, Nottingham, described in the 1680’s as Paradise Restored, developed the worst slums in England as described in 1845. This despite having some 1,100 acres of open field to N and S of the town. Even after enclosure the lots were developed independently and so the old pattern of footpaths and furlongs determined the layout of roads and streets. Leicester, only 20 miles distant, had been enclosed in 1764 and so grew and expanded comfortably, while Stamford, hemmed in by open fields and an estate failed to grow because of opposition by the local landlord and remained as it was, frozen in time.

The Market Town :

The majority of old towns have grown up as market towns and are so varied in layout and origin that generalisations are impossible. Most grew around squares which may be rectangular, or balloon-shaped or triangular. The church is generally in or just off the square. A church without a churchyard (burial ground) is invariably a daughter church indicative of a daughter town, as burial rights, being lucrative, were jealously retained by the mother church. Many towns started as regular markets with temporary stalls which later became covered and more permanent and finally were replaced by shops and houses.


This chapter bemoans the destruction of the landscape over the past century or so. It describes the view from the author’s house and how, in one small area of Oxfordshire, one can touch every century going back over the past 1,000 years and more.