Reading the Landscape

I bought a new book last year, and it was a revelation – I thought I should post a review.

THE LIVING LANDSCAPE  -   How to Read and Understand It

Patrick Whitefield    Permanent Publications

Five or six times a year I take a train trip from Cwmbran to Shrewsbury and on to  Welshpool, and I look forward to the journey on this Welsh border line, travelling through the delightful and varying scenery of the Welsh Marches, more often than not with the hills of Wales or Shropshire to the west and lowland to the east. I occasionally write notes of what I see, the differing farms, livestock, trees, field boundaries and trackside herbage, and of course buildings. Often I am surprised at the changes I note, and wonder what I am missing that would explain them. I play at armchair landscape assessment, in a very superficial and defective manner. I guess I am not the only person who plays this game.

So when I saw this new book, I jumped at the chance to understand more about the reasons for the nature of the landscape and countryside I see. And I was not disappointed; Patrick Whitefield’s substantial book is accessible and absorbing, very readable and informative. I now know much more about ‘reading the landscape’, and wherever I travel I shall be looking for changes and reasons, and probably boring my wife with a commentary!

His book is set out very logically, with chapters explaining how geology, soil, height and situation, climate and micro-climate, indigenous animals and livestock, agriculture and other factors all contribute to the formation and evolution of our landscape

Some of the tips, such as the glacial origins of U-shaped valleys, we probably learned at school, and gardeners and wildlife fans will know that some plants are indicative of acid or alkali soils, but how about why molehills tell you the soil is not acid, why jays are responsible for our widespread British Oak, or why medieval fields often have curved boundaries? (Think oxen!). What common wild flower is known as the ‘Poor Man’s Weatherglass’?

Whitefield pulls it all together, and has produced a tour de force on the subject, due to become a standard work. He not only writes easily and informatively, but at times lyrically. One chapter starts: -

“In the drama of the landscape there’s no distinction between actors and scenery. Everything, from rocks to humans, is both part of the scenery and an actor in it”

The only part I found in the least difficult was his long treatise on woodlands and trees. He obviously loves this aspect, and for me it was a little too much. But a minor problem in a wonderful book. For all countryside lovers, this book is exciting and at times entrancing, as one remembers childhood meadows and recognises medieval remnants still here today. My railway trips, and in fact many occasions in familiar and unfamiliar countryside, have been greatly enhanced.

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