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Nicholas Crane and the changing British landscape

PUBLISHED: 09:42 24 January 2017 | UPDATED: 09:42 24 January 2017

Nick Crane

Nick Crane

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As president of the Royal Geographical Society and former frontman of BBC’s Coast, there isn’t much Nicholas Crane doesn’t know about our island. Here he talks to Jake Taylor about the key role Hertfordshire has played in his latest epic book charting the changing British landscape

The Making of the British LandscapeThe Making of the British Landscape

As the lead presenter of the BBC’s popular and long-running Coast series, Nicholas Crane strode fervently, come rain or shine, across the length and breadth of the nation, bringing his passion for Britain’s varied topography into our homes. Yet despite fronting a host of geographical shows and penning a number of books, these ventures pale in comparison to Crane’s latest project – a huge (more than 2,000-page) geographical history, The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present. And Hertfordshire plays a key part.

For Crane, president of the Royal Geographical Society, his latest book has been a labour of love since his university days, and the initial reaction to it has been promising, says the 67-year-old. ‘It seems it has touched a chord with people, which is very exciting, having laboured on it for so long. It took eight years to write and I’ve been thinking about it for 30. To have readers respond like this is pretty amazing.’

And as Crane returns to his indefatigable and seemingly-endless journey across Britain in order to promote his recent work, one county in particular holds a special place in his heart.

‘My father grew up in Hertfordshire and it’s certainly somewhere that means a lot to me personally,’ he explains. ‘So, Harpenden, St Albans and the Chiltern Hills are part of my birthright in a way. It’s a part of Britain that I’ve always known about through my father and it’s a place I go to quite a bit.’

The Grand Union Canal at Berkhamsted - part of the continuing story of the townThe Grand Union Canal at Berkhamsted - part of the continuing story of the town

Beyond his personal affection for the county, he has a professional interest in it too, as it has been ‘a big part of the story of Britain’s changing landscape’.

‘Hertfordshire is part of the belt of Britain that has always been unbelievably active in terms of landscape transformation,’ Crane says. ‘It’s close to the chalk belt that runs through southern Britain, and of course St Albans has been a key place in the Roman story and was a key place before the Romans got here as well as a tribal headquarters, with a huge Iron Age camp outside Wheathampstead.’

He says that in terms of topography it’s massively varied. ‘You’ve got the Chiltern Hills on one extreme, and then the plains to the north-west at the other, so it’s very varied. It’s also on this threshold between London and the countryside, so it’s that transitional zone between the biggest city in the country – London now has more people living in it than the whole of Scotland and Wales combined – and Hertfordshire, the green belt that separates this simply gigantic metropolitan animal from the countryside.’

Crane continues, in his effortlessly passionate way, to describe the wildlife that resided in the county before humans arrived and began to make their substantial mark.

View from the Pegsdon Hills in west Herts in the Chilterns. Near the route of the prehistoric Icknield Way,  the steep chalk hills offer views way beyond the countyView from the Pegsdon Hills in west Herts in the Chilterns. Near the route of the prehistoric Icknield Way, the steep chalk hills offer views way beyond the county

‘In Hertfordshire there would have been herds of wild horse,’ he enthuses. ‘There would have been herds of reindeer grazing. And up on the Chiltern Hills there would have been Arctic foxes and ptarmigan, which are these wonderful birds you can still see in parts of the Scottish Highlands in winter with this curious croaking when they take to the wing. There would have been lemmings underneath the snows, and even steppe pika.’

As humans began to arrive in the pristine British wilderness, these species began to disappear through over-hunting and diminishing habitats. The ice-age permafrost gave way to rolling plains and Neolithic peoples thrived on the abundant wildlife. Later, the Romans arrived and found a plethora of suitable spots to continue their expansion into the untamed north.

‘The Romans were responsible for the propagation of about a hundred or so towns,’ Crane says. ‘St Albans was one of the key urban centres in southern Britain. It was quite highly developed, on a great site with the river. The Romans tended to build their towns on the sites of existing settlements, so there was an Iron Age settlement already at St Albans that was re-colonised by the Romans, who brought with them their grid of streets and their masonry buildings. They built a forum there and it was a key location for Roman infrastructure in southern Britain.’

The later urban sprawl at places like St Albans is key to Crane’s understanding of the story of Britain. ‘It’s the towns and cities that really define our lives,’ he states. Buildings such as St Albans Cathedral, the original structure of which was begun in the eighth century AD, are now as important to Crane as naturally-occurring landmarks.

St Albans Cathedral from Verulamium Park. The remains of walls from the Roman town can be seen in the foregroundSt Albans Cathedral from Verulamium Park. The remains of walls from the Roman town can be seen in the foreground

‘When you look at a cathedral you’re looking at a sacred place that has been constructed artificially and has replaced the sacred places of our Mesolithic ancestors,’ he explains. ‘In the era of hunting and foraging, people didn’t leave permanent landmarks that they regarded as sacred. Once Christianity takes root, we have a kind of palette of sacred places like churches and chapels and cathedrals that take over from earlier forms of sacred place.’

Although Crane’s affection for the county as a whole is clear, one location in particular piques his interest time and time again.

‘I’m very fond of Berkhamsted because it’s one of those places where you can see so much of Britain’s history at a glance,’ he reveals. ‘Within an hour’s walking around, you get the story of Britain from wildwood up on the chalks where people would have been hunting and foraging in Mesolithic and Neolithic times, then the beech woods coming down the valley where you have this natural cut into the Chiltern Hills that became a main roadway, and then a route of the canal, and then a railway.’

It’s places such as Berkhamsted – with ‘all these layers of our past in a single location’ – that perpetually inspire Crane to continue to share his passion, especially in the face of the world’s increasingly erratic climate that threatens many settlements globally.

‘I do believe that our destiny is locked into geography, the planet and its environment,’ he says. ‘So the more people who understand the different systems at work, the more equipped we will be with the relevant knowledge to protect our environment for future generations.’

The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present (Orion Books) is out now, RRP £20.

Information about the role of the Royal Geographical Society in developing and promoting geographical knowledge, can be found at rgs.org

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