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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Literature Review: The History of the Countryside by Oliver Rackham

Oliver Rackham was a prominent author and academic. His interests – among several – were concerned with nature, ecology, trees, woodland, conservation, and the British countryside. An honorary graduate from my own alma-meter The University of Essex, Rackham’s work on the impact of humans on rural Britain is important. He was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to Nature Conservation.

The History of the Countryside is regarded as the finest triumph of Rackham’s esteemed career and research. The book was published in 1986 and remains essential reading for those involved in similar investigations to Rackham’s. Despite being released close to forty years ago, much of Rackham’s thoughts on conservation are relevant today. Alongside this, many of the features of the countryside – such as specific animals, trees, highways, and forests continue to be present across The United Kingdom. The History of the Countryside in no way feels outdated, and much of the book has had an immediate impact on my own understanding of what is around me.

The book is an over 400-page account of the history of the British countryside. It chronicles its past dating from prehistory to the 1980s, with chapters covering a wide array of countryside characteristics. The book reads as a celebration of decades of work. With statistics, records and scientific research Rackham’s book is not only intrinsic, but also joyful to read. I got the sense throughout that this was not a compilation of scientific features made for a publisher, but a personal expedition by the author. Rackham also avoids straying into a uchronic view of the countryside – instead, basing his findings on documented statistics rather than a dream-like opinion of a “merry” countryside. He does have a strong belief on how the country should remain, but at no point does this overpower the writing. I compare Rackham’s work Richard Mabey’s – especially his The Unofficial Countryside. They are both authors with a strong interest in nature, conservation, and the country – but also intelligent, respectable voices in these fields. I plan to read more of Richard Mabey - alongside other authors such as Ronald Blythe, Roger Deakin, and Robert MacFarlane – with a new perspective after reading Rackham’s work. The book has given me a greater understanding on what the countryside consists of, and how mankind has had an impact upon it.

Much of Rackham’s research throughout the book relates to East Anglia. Like myself, Rackham – born in Norwich - is from the region and this added a personal layer to the text. Many of the places mentioned are familiar to me. Not only this, but much of my own research, writing and walking will take place in many of the areas cited. I used Rackham’s book in the way someone would use an enclyopedia – reading it out of order, picking and choosing. I selected chapters covering areas and topics that would be most appropriate to my own research before reading the rest of the comprehensive information in the book afterwards. Chapters on highways, woodland and farmland were relevant for my upcoming walk along the A12 - whilst those on elms and extinct animals, for example, helped to bolster my weak expertise. Many of these elements of the countryside will appear in my own writing – especially the crossover of ancient and planned countryside. I must highlight how valuable this book has been – it has given me an in-depth look at what to consider when walking, how to identify natural features and how they got there.

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