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Winter Is The Perfect Time To Discover The History Of The British Landscape

02/01/2017 11:24
Deborah Pendell via Getty Images

Forget long summer days, fields of golden wheat and hedgerows bursting with life. The short, dark days of winter give the would-be Landscape Spotter the perfect opportunity to discover Ancient burial mounds, deserted medieval villages, and the clues about how our forebears' shaped the British Landscape.

Wherever you go in Britain there's history woven into the landscape around you - and those bright winter days with low, slanting sunlight and a cover of frost can show up bumps in a field that would otherwise be invisible, ancient carvings on rocks, and the secrets of trees and hedgerows that are usually hidden by blousy summer vegetation.

With a few pointers, you can start to puzzle out what those intriguing hummocks in a field are, how old a church is, why that stone wall is a funny shape, that tree has three trunks, or a footpath is suddenly enclosed by a hedgerow tunnel.

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Cows in the Outer Hebrides Photo Credit: Catriona Savage

Here are six features to look out for on your next outdoor adventure

1. Holloways
Ever walked, cycled or driven down a lane that feels like it's sunk down into the ground? Often coming into or out of villages, with steep, banked sides and towering hedgerows, these tracks are known as Holloways.

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A Holloway in Powys, Wales Photo Credit: Mary-Ann Ochota

Holloways are at least 300 years old, but many in the South West, southern Wales and Welsh borders, East Anglia and the Weald probably have their origins in prehistory. You really are walking in the footsteps of the ancestors!

The deepest Holloways in Britain are as much as 6m below the ground surface, where feet, hooves and wheels have worn down the land surface and rainwater has eroded it over centuries to create a sunken lane, or 'hollow way'.

In open country, you may still be able to trace the line of an old Holloway - look for a wide grassy furrow with shorter or paler vegetation, where the grass struggles to grow in the harder, compacted soil that was once the track.

A few Holloways were intentionally created as land boundaries. Landowners dug a wide ditch, and threw the soil up into banks on either side. The base of the ditch was then used as a sunken track and the parallel banks formed the Holloway sides. Check your map - the Holloway may still mark a modern parish boundary.

2. Ridge and Furrow
If you see a grass field or hillside area in central England that has long parallel rows of wide humps in the surface, you may be looking at the remnants of a 1,000 year old pattern called Ridge and Furrow, created by medieval ploughing.

From around 800AD to the mid 1500s, most land used for farming crops wasn't enclosed by hedges or walls. Instead, farmers were allocated strips of the communal Great Fields that surrounded their village. Each strip was ploughed individually in a clockwise pattern, and the plough threw the soil inwards, creating a flat area ready for planting - the Ridge. The soil level between each strip got lower and lower - the Furrow.

Ridge and Furrow only survives in fields that are now used for pasture, or rough land that is no longer farmed at all. This itself is a clue to the history of the time - in the 12th and 13th centuries there was enormous population pressure on agricultural land. The best, most fertile land was already under the plough, so 'land-hungry' farmers were forced on to steeper, rougher hillside areas and places with poor soil. Then the Black Death of 1348-50 killed half the British population. With the population decimated, there was more fertile land to go around the survivors and poorer land was abandoned, leaving the plough marks frozen in time.

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West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire photo credit: Mary-Ann Ochota

3. Stone Age tombs
The oldest visible monuments in the British landscape are Long Barrows, burial sites from the Neolithic - the Late Stone Age - around 4200BC. If you spot one, you've just added more than six thousand years of human history to the landscape you're looking at! They are long, lozenge-shaped earth mounds. Ones that are still visible to the naked eye are usually marked on OS maps.

Chambered Tombs also date from the Late Stone Age - these have internal stone chambers where bodies - or parts of dismembered bodies - were placed by their community. Chambered tombs that have been excavated are often open and you can go inside to explore. Great examples include West Kennet in Wiltshire (SU 103 676) and Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey (SH 507 701).

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Bronkham Hill Barrow Cemetery Photo credit: Jim Champion Creative Commons

4. Ancient Burial mounds
Round Barrows, sometimes called Tumuli, are the most common prehistoric monuments in the country. These circular earthen mounds are often seen in groups, and you can sometimes spot them on the crests of hills, or as uncultivated lumps in farmers' fields - because of the precious archaeology below, the land can't be ploughed. They date to the Bronze Age - mostly between 2400BC and 1200BC.

Although there are no written records from Britain at this time, the archaeology suggests there was a change in religious and social practices - instead of communal tombs, people start to be buried as individuals, either cremated first or placed in a crouched position in a grave with food, jewellery and other offerings like cups of honey wine. Some round barrows have been excavated by archaeologists, but others remain undisturbed. Next time you see a Round Barrow, take a moment to imagine what, and who, may be inside it!

5. Strangely-shaped graveyards
Graveyards are usually older than the church buildings they contain. Even though the bodies rot away, centuries of burials progressively raise the earth surface, so as a rule of thumb, the higher a graveyard is compared to the surrounding land, the older it is. It's estimated that the average English parish churchyard contains at least 10,000 bodies. Urban cemeteries may contain more than 100,000!

Churchyards are usually rectangular, with the church positioned roughly centrally. If a churchyard is circular or oval, it suggests that you're looking at a very early church site (from 600AD or even earlier), or a place where the church was built on an earlier pagan site.

ALSO LOOK FOR:
Lych Gates

Open sided gatehouses at the entrance of a churchyard, named after the old English for 'corpse' (lich). This was where the priest would meet the body at the churchyard entrance, say initial prayers, then lead the way into the church.

6. Dry Stone Walls
Some of the most intriguing dry stone walls you'll see are abandoned Intake walls (or newtake walls). They can climb vertiginous slopes of rough moorland, then end abruptly, or loop back down.

Many of these were a result of Enclosure Acts that were passed by parliament between 1750 and 1850, when commons, moorlands, and open fields were allocated to private landowners.

These new landowners were keen to build walls and then lease the land to tenant farmers - even if the land wasn't up to it. You'll see abandoned plots of land in many upland areas including the Grampians and the Lake District. The hungry, hardworking tenant farmers are memorialised in evocative place-names: Mount Famine in the Peak District (SK 055 848), and Starvation Hill, Never Gains, Famish Acre and Mount Misery (SX 636 705) on Dartmoor.

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Wasdale Head, Cumbria photo credit: Mary-Ann Ochota

ALSO LOOK FOR:
Holes in Walls
Lunky holes (or hogg holes or sheep creeps) at the base of a wall, for shepherds to move their animals between fields or into pens. When not actively being used, the hole will be roughly blocked with slabs or boulders.

A small hole at the base of the wall may be a smoot, to allow small animals to pass through the wall, rather than burrow under it, destabilising the foundations. A small hole mid-way up a wall may be a sighting hole for shooting game whilst remaining hidden.

HIDDEN HISTORIES: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape is out now, priced £20

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illustration: Ian O'Halloran; photo: Joe Bass

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