As a lover of landscape (and cider) I was pleased to read about new initiative by the National Trust to halt the decline in English orchards and attempt to revive them as part of the landscape. Over 60% of orchards have been lost since 1950, partly due to the impact of successive EU agricultural policies which rewarded over-production and encouraged farmers to put down as much land as possible to cash crops, and also due gradual erosion of orchard land around villages due to building and property development.
This project is something to be welcomed, as it is part of a larger move in current rural policy to maintain landscape distinctiveness. In the past, local landscapes showed a high-level of idiosyncracy. There were (and still are) broad regional patterns in the English landscape, such as the distinction between the broad zone of ‘enclosed’ landscapes running in a swathe across the country from the North-East through the midland plane to Dorset and the so-called ‘ancient’ landscapes found in the south-east and much of the west and south-west. Laid over these high-level landscape ‘provinces’ are distinct regional styles of hedge-laying, wall-making and gate building, as well as climatic and geological micro-topographies. This meant that England was a country of many distinct local landscapes.
It is some aspects of this landscape distinctiveness that is being recorded by English Heritage’s important Historic Landscape Characterisation initiative. This is an important project which will allow a base-line assessment of patterns of landscape to be assessed. This will allow the on-going survival of landscape types to be evaluated and allow archaelogists and landscape historians to begin to explore in detail the range of factors that make a particular local landscape distinct. It has its limitations though; its methodology is resolutely cartographical focused on recording the shapes of property parcels and ascribing broad functions to them. This is fine as far as it goes, but it is less useful in recording the many other factors that make a local landscape distinct, such as vernacular architectural traditions and field boundary types.