The power of books and the English landscape

A view of the coastline from the summit of Golden Cap, Dorset, at dawn

World Book Day celebrates books, extraordinary books that transport us, that take us beyond ourselves - but to a recognisable place. Often we are ambushed by the words, words that touch us and unlock our heart.

We all view the world though our own unique experience and as an archaeologist I see the beauty of our countryside as the expression of the many generations that worked and shaped it, a precious jewel to be conserved.

Writers evoke the many moods of places, places like Thomas Hardy’s Dorset or Winston Graham’s Cornwall.

Wheal Coates and Chapel Porth, Cornwall
Wheal Coates at Chapel Porth, Cornwall
Wheal Coates and Chapel Porth, Cornwall

Through their writing, we are drawn to the locations that helped spark these authors into their creative genius - Hardy’s Cottage, Max Gate, Trerice.

The buildings are the launch pad to their setting - the intricate majesty of the South West’s coast and countryside.

'The Making of the English Landscape', W.G. Hoskins

The first book I recommend is by W.G. Hoskins. In his introduction, he tells the book’s story: he had searched in vain for a book which unravelled the intricate history of the landscape -therefore, in frustration, he created this pivotal work.

He writes in 'The Making of the English Landscape':

" The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess. There are discoveries to be made in it for which no written documents exist, or have ever existed"
- W.G. Hoskins

At college, his book inspired me to go out and seek the myriad hidden stories held within ordinary farmsteads and fields.

However, landscape is far more than a museum of past lives: it is a work of artistry.

The landscape has moods, light and shade, it constantly alters in weather and seasons, has memories.

'I Capture the Castle', D. Smith

How can our experience of it be captured? A book can guide us there, perhaps in a few pages describing an ordinary, though extraordinary, Mayday walk through fields to a village.

" I seemed to capture everything together - medieval England, myself at ten, the summers of the past and the summer really coming."
- D. Smith

Dodie Smith writes a fabulous dream-like passage in ‘I Capture the Castle’ such a surprising book… ‘Did anything as beautiful as this ever happen before?'

'Homage to Catalonia', G. Orwell

Our surroundings are so precious, internationally so.

This was certainly the opinion of George Orwell who after escaping from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War wrote:

" And then England – Southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way…to believe that anything is really happening anywhere"
- G. Orwell

'The Remains of the Day', K. Ishiguro

Books grab us and encourage us to go and care for and experience our surroundings before it is too late.

My last quote is from 'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stephens, the butler, is given leave to escape his gilded cage, a great house in Oxfordshire (Dyrham in the film).

To take a journey across the south west to meet a love he cannot acknowledge.

He stops in unfamiliar surroundings and an old man invites him to take a path ‘you won’t get a better view anywhere in England’.

Figsbury Ring, Wiltshire
Figsbury Ring in sunshine
Figsbury Ring, Wiltshire

The incident is a metaphor for the book. Take your chances while you can.

Stephens takes the steep and winding path and is not disappointed.  That evening in Salisbury he recalls the moment.

" For it is true, when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling-the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness.
We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify this lofty adjective"
- K. Ishiguro

Open a book today, let it beckon you down a new path.    


Hoskins, W.G., 1955, The Making of the English Landscape, Penguin Books, 14-15.
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989,The Remains of the Day, 24-27.
Orwell, G., 1938, Homage to Catalonia, Penguin Books, Faber & Faber, 220-221.
Smith, D., 1949, I Capture the Castle, Random House, 177-185.