Friday, 28 August 2009

The English Landscape in the 20th Century

[A book review published in the journal Landscapes - cite this paper as D. Hicks 2008. Review of T. Rowley The English Landscape in the 20th Century. Landscapes 8(1): 86-90]
image: An American tank in the River Windrush at Burford, Oxon, circa 1944, with damaged medieval bridge in background. A glimpse of the dangers of unrestrained modernity? [asks Rowley, this volume]
How do we research and manage the landscapes of 20th-century England? As the turn of the millennium recedes behind us this question will increasingly be asked. Even before the year 2000 the limits of enquiry into the recent past in heritage studies, architectural history and contemporary history had virtually dissolved. The change of name in 1992 of the Thirties Society to the Twentieth Century Society, for example, pre-empted the end of the century by eight years. But for landscape studies, itself a product of that century, this question about the modern world is particularly entangled. The appearance of this enjoyable new book by Trevor Rowley indicates that the first answers are coming from a perhaps rather unlikely source: landscape archaeology.

It is commonly assumed that the landscape approaches that developed during the second half of the 20th century did so in some kind of unified opposition to the modern world. We might point to Jacquetta Hawkes’ contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain,
A Land , which evoked a damaged landscape that ‘show[ed] in its ravaged face that husbandry has been replaced by exploitation - an exploitation designed to satisfy man’s vanity, his greed and possessiveness, his wish for domination’ (Hawkes, 1951, 177).
A few years later, we could recall W.G. Hoskins’ description of the Luftwaffe pilots who had bombed Portsmouth as ‘missionaries of 20th-century civilisation’ (Hoskins, 1954, 456), or his influential contention, in the closing chapter of his The Making of the English Landscape , that ‘since…the year 1914, every single change in the English landscape has either uglified it, or destroyed its meaning, or both’ (Hoskins, 1955, 231). Indeed, Matthew Johnson has recently argued that ‘the intellectual project of Hoskins, and to a great extent many of his contemporaries [such as Maurice Beresford and John Hurst] in this formative period of landscape history and archaeology, was the Romantic project of Wordsworth and his age, translated into academic practice’ (Johnson, 2006, 34-36).

But the emergence of landscape studies during the 20th century did not always involve a straightforwardly anti-modern or nostalgic attitude towards the contemporary world. As David Matless has observed, the 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of attempts ‘to ally preservation and progress, tradition and modernity, city and country in order to define Englishness as orderly and modern’ in which the ‘planner-preservationist’ was placed in ‘a position of governance in relation to the transformation of landscape’ (Matless, 1998, 14). Hoskins’ promotion of the study of venacular landscapes thus represented not only a critique of conventional economic history but also a challenge to the ‘planner-preservationism’ of Patrick Abercrombie and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (Matless, 1998, 278).

In this context, the significance of
The English Landscape in the Twentieth Century is due not just to the fact that it is the first book-length study that looks back at this most recent layer of landscape change. Other studies are, after all, already emerging which attempt more comprehensive accounts of the landscape character of this period (see especially Penrose, 2007). Instead, it derives mainly from the fact that it represents a reflection on the very landscapes from which ideas of landscape studies emerged, written by a scholar who played a key role in the reception of these two alternative attitudes to landscape and modernity during the 1970s.

By the early 1970s industrial archaeology - a field that played an important role in the development of British landscape archaeology (e.g. Alfrey and Clark, 1993; Palmer and Neaverson, 1999) – was witnessing the first sustained engagements with the material remains of the very recent past (Stratton and Trinder, 2000; Hicks, 2007). Meanwhile the post-war contexts of urban and transport development meant that a generation of landscape scholars, introduced through local studies to the work of Hoskins, Beresford, Hurst and Philip Rahtz, came to engage with the 20th-century world through rescue archaeology and the planning system. Landscape archaeology and local studies, at least as they were developed in places like Oxford and Bristol, came to be characterised by a certain ambivalence over their sympathy with Hoskins’ stated opposition to modernity on the one side, and their desire to use the frameworks of modernist town and country planning to mitigate the impact of contemporary development on the historic environment, in towns or on road schemes, on the other.

It is no surprise, then, that Trevor Rowley’s book captures precisely this ambivalence about continuity and change. Rowley seeks ‘to use some of Hoskins’ methods of landscape analysis to look at many of the things which he found so distasteful, to try to understand what we have created and why’ (pp. xiv-xv). He presents a thematic survey of English landscapes – from airports and new towns to villages and seaside resorts, observing that ‘the English landscape at the beginning of the twenty-first century owes more to the previous hundred years than any previous age’ (p. 1), and demonstrating that the remains of the 20th century require serious archaeological and historical consideration. But Rowley does not simply apply a landscape approach to the most recent layer of landscape change – a descriptive account of the latest scratches on the palimpsest. There is simply too much to cover.

Instead, this is a more ‘partial’ account (in both senses of the word) in which the author is by no means distanced from the landscape he is describing. This is no bad thing. Indeed it probably represents the only appropriate response to the sheer quantities and diversity of materials that survive from the most recent past. For instance, while the book’s tendency to draw its examples from the south of England can be frustrating, more often such choices of emphasis lead to a pleasing sense that the book is a personal, situated and sometimes passionate essay. We witness the 20th-century landscape from Rowley’s desk in Appleton, just to the south-west of Oxford in the shadow of power lines that run from the infamous cooling towers of Didcot Power Station (completed 1968): towers that, Rowley observes, ‘are not..universally disliked, and some admire them for their grace and cleanness of line’ (p. 249).

The book is packed with interesting facts and observations about modern landscape change, and for that reason alone is a crucial addition to the library of any landscape historian. But at the same time, while certain aspects of the 20th century are emphasised, others are silenced. This is considerably more problematic.

One of the principal themes of the book is concerned with relationship between heritage and Englishness. Much of book is about how ‘the English landscape’, as it had been formed up to the end of the 19th century, fared during the subsequent 100 years. Our point of departure for this 20th-century study is therefore not, as one might imagine, the
fin-de-siècle ambiance of a Tesco supermarket car park, or the Greenwich peninsula, but…Stonehenge. The image of afternoon cricket matches among the sarsens is juxtaposed with accounts of wagonloads of urban visitors chipping at the stones for souvenirs, and concerns over the site’s being ‘bought by an American and being transported across the Atlantic’(pp. vii-xv).

As Rowley’s discussions of other sites and landscapes proceed, they make rhetorical use (sometimes approving, sometimes critical) of a bewildering range of cultural benchmarks of Englishness and heritage: from the vanished steam trains in Edward Thomas’ nostalgic poem ‘I remember Adlestrop’ (pp. 421-2), to John Betjaman’s sentamentalised metroland (p. 208), the disintegration of rural England described in
Cider with Rosie, and the victory of ‘concrete and tyres’ in Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Going, Going’ (p.1). For Rowley, the risk that in the 20th century the English landscape and its past would be ‘debased’ was of the utmost seriousness. The ominous ‘sound of horns and motors’ from The Waste Land (p. 32) are evoked alongside the motoring toad in Wind in the Willows (p 26).
Rowley describes the victory of 20th-century planning archaeology, despite the emergence of a ‘Theme Park Britain’: ‘after a century noted for its philistine vandalism, in this one area at least there is some room for cautious optimism’ (p. 437). It is striking that the forces that the planning system kept at bay are often portrayed as foreign, and especially American. Discussing the influence of Los Angeles-trained architects on the development of Milton Keynes (p. 188), or the process through which 1920s Park Lane gave way to a new ‘typical American appearance’ (p. 91), the English resistance of unplanned or chaotic modernisation is often expressed through contrasts with the United States:

‘It is precisely because of planning control that England still has large unspoilt rural areas and roads free of the unsightly billboards which are to be found blighting the roads in parts of North America. A compulsory journey on the highway between Tampa and Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida should be undertaken by anyone who complains that planning is the root of all our countryside evils.’ (p. 8)

The most dramatic warning of the dangers of unrestrained modernity for the English landscape is a photograph of an American tank damaging a medieval bridge over the River Windrush in the Oxfordshire village of Burford (see figure above).

The kind of Englishness that Rowley defends is one of regional diversity rather than jingoistic unity. He laments that ‘the close links between man and the land, which had been a central feature of human existence since the origins of mankind, were broken and splintered in the twentieth century’ (p 2). He testifies to the erosion of local differences – especially in architecture and landscape design – and the emergence of a rootless society in which the ‘unlovely multi-storey car parks’ of St Helens (p. 148) are pretty much the same as the car parks of Doncaster, Croydon or Stratford-upon-Avon.

But this exploration of Englishness, heritage and ‘rootedness’ in 20th-century England, so vividly evoked by the resilient stone bridge and the American tank in the river, omits any reference to that other Windrush - the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, at Tilbury Docks in 1948. Or, indeed, any reference at all to the many the diverse new landscapes created and changed by the many immigrant communities who came to Britain during the century. At the end of the century, one in twelve of the population were born overseas, but this description of the English landscape here fails to document, or even to mention, the contribution of the many people who came to England from overseas during the 20th century. In this respect, it is not one that this reviewer recognises: a landscape into which immigrant detention centres, Cardboard City, or the bus stop at which Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 simply do not fit. The book is similarly silent on the changing role of women, or the development of youth culture, during the 20th century. We have deindustrialisation but not the Jarrow March; the 1986 construction of the Metro Centre in Gateshead, but not the 1996 IRA bomb at the Arndale Centre in Manchester. 

These are not simply silences that need to be redressed: they are indications that the victories in heritage management that are rightly celebrated by Rowley were grounded in approaches to defining heritage that are more problematic when it comes to the recent past. They cannot account for the political consequences of our choices to discuss (or to preserve or protect) some sites or landscapes, but not others. Thus, the archaeologist’s engagements are always partial.

Despite these silences, this is a landmark volume and a must-read for all those interested in landscape history. Indeed, by applying the ‘jeweller’s eye’ of the planning archaeologist to a landscape that is still remembered, and often contested, it is certain to catalyse the debate over the 20th-century contribution to English landscapes. As part of a generation that was caught between the counter-modern thinking of Hoskins and the ordering management of modernist planning, Rowley has produced a book that, through its personal reflections, leaves the reader questioning what forms of management are most appropriate for the heritage of the most recent past.

Landscape archaeology’s awkward compromise during the 1970s over attitudes towards the modern world – between counter-modernism and planner-preservationism – led to the accommodation of heritage into modernist planning schemes that were constructing bold new futures, for better or for worse. Now that we find ourselves living within those futures, things are less certain. Looking back, surrounded by the remains of modernist projects, we see that the planner’s clean drafted lines proved to be good deal more complex in practice (see Hayden 2004). We cannot wholly locate 20th-century archaeology or heritage at particular sites or monuments, which can be designated or listed.  They simply will not be contained within a single narrative of significance or value.

The last century is so close, and so much survives, but we are already shaping its transformation into archaeology and heritage. As concrete and steel begin to decay, and as we start to debate and decide what to retain and what to destroy, the diversity of contemporary England demands that we build on the work of pioneers such as Trevor Rowley: by finding ways of comprehending, researching and managing the landscapes of the recent past that accommodate not just multiple voices, but multiple futures as well. Rowley’s thoughtful book will prove an important point of departure in that process.

Alfrey, J. and K. Clark (1993) The Landscape of Industry: Patterns of Change in the Ironbridge Gorge , London: Routledge.
Hawkes, J. (1951) A Land , London: Cresset Press.
Hayden, D. (2004) A Field Guide to Sprawl , New York: W.W. Norton.
Hoskins, W.H. (1954) Devon, London: Collins.
Hoskins, W.G. (1955) The Making of the English Landscape , London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Hicks, D. (2007) Historical Archaeology in Britain, in Encyclopedia of Archaeology , ed. D. Pearsall, San Diego: Academic Press.
Johnson, M.H. (2006) Ideas of Landscape , Oxford: Blackwell.
Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness , London: Reaktion.
Palmer, M. and P. Neaverson (1999) Industrial Archaeology: Principles and Practice , London: Routledge
Penrose, S. (2007) Images of Change, Swindon: English Heritage.
Stratton, M. and B. Trinder (2000) Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology , London: Spon Press.

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