Towards a deep history of landscape

Understanding the significance people attach to landscapes over long timescales is an important element in landscape decision-making. Yet it can be difficult for historians to accurately capture how previous generations experienced the landscapes around them. Drawing on new research, Jeremy Burchardt identifies four distinct patterns in how people related to landscapes in the past.

There is a long tradition of historical research on landscape, which has enormously enriched our understanding of the way it has been shaped by human activity over time. Historians and historical geographers have also explored how landscape has been represented, for example as a symbol of national identity, and what the social, political and potentially economic consequences of this have been.

Until recently there has been much less research on how people experienced landscape in the past, but historians are now beginning to address this. Our aim is to achieve a better understanding of the affective significance of landscape to people over long timescales. This has the potential to inform policy in a number of ways, for example in connection with the wellbeing agenda, access rights and land use planning.

The main difficulty we face in attempting to recover the history of landscape experience is that it is a highly variable, rarely articulated phenomenon which can be affected by almost any other aspect of a person’s life. Two people walking through a wood might experience it very differently, for example, if one of them had recently been reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees whereas the other had just lost their job, but they might not even talk about this, let alone write it down.

One of the most promising approaches historians have recently been developing to address this difficulty is comparative biography. Very detailed source material is required, allowing us to catch and contextualise the typically scattered, fragmentary traces of past landscape experience. Working in this tradition, my own research draws on eight remarkable long-run unpublished diaries written between the 1870s and 1960s, with a view to opening up a carefully contextualised ‘deep history’ of landscape experience in modern England.

These exceptionally rich diaries make it possible to trace continuities and changes in landscape experience across almost the entirety of the diarists’ lifespans. Clearly, many more such studies will be necessary before we have anything like a comprehensive picture, but the initial results are fascinating. On the one hand, landscape appears to have made a much more central and critical contribution to wellbeing, at least in some cases, than has generally been recognised. On the other, there are also indications that people differed more widely in how they related to landscape, and what they valued in it, than we had thought. My research revealed four major patterns but had time allowed me to cast my net wider, additional patterns would undoubtedly have emerged. The four patterns were:

  • Adherers, who valued landscapes as a source of continuity
  • Withdrawers, who valued landscapes as a refuge from personal difficulties
  • Restorers, who valued landscapes as sites of ethical and spiritual renewal
  • Explorers, who valued landscapes for self-discovery and development

Although cultural influences and ongoing socio-economic circumstances had some effect, these patterns were primarily rooted in psycho-social experiences during childhood and youth. Partly perhaps because of this, the four patterns cut across class, gender and even age (I cannot comment on ethnicity as unfortunately I was unable to find any sufficiently detailed landscape-related diaries written by people of colour from this period; one of the diarists however was Jewish).

More research is needed, and it is important to recognise that landscape experience in England has undoubtedly changed in many respects since the 1960s, but the study does have some potentially interesting implications for policy. It underlines how vital landscapes (especially, in this study, rural landscapes) can be for mental and emotional wellbeing. It raises the possibility that people may differ systematically in what they value rural landscapes for, in ways that do not necessarily map onto standard categories of analysis.

More research on this in a contemporary context would be valuable, otherwise there is a risk that landscape decision-making could fail to reflect the needs of large but ‘hidden’ groups of users. Other more specific findings with potential policy implications include the crucial importance for some people (‘Adherers’) of continuity in their valued landscapes, while ‘Withdrawers’ cherished secluded, off-the-beaten track landscapes, suggesting that facilitating access to landscapes may not always have positive effects for all users.

For ‘Restorers’, being able to access tranquil outdoor spaces frequently and quickly could be important, emphasising the value of small rural enclaves and urban green space close to where people live and work. ‘Explorers’ preferred landscapes that, while accessible, were not over-managed, and found it particularly rewarding to participate actively in the landscape, for example by gathering wild food and other resources, cooking, camping, swimming and tree-climbing. These forms of active participation are not always encouraged by landscape managers and planners: perhaps there is scope for more imaginative and constructive thinking in this area.

More detailed findings from the project will be presented at the ‘Changing Landscapes, Changing Lives’ online symposium on Friday 23 September. Other speakers will include Dr Kerri Andrews on the history of women walking, Dr Stephen Mileson on peasant perceptions of landscape and Professor Matthew Kelly on the pioneering preservationists Pauline Dower and Sylvia Sayer. All are welcome – please email if you wish to register.

Jeremy Burchardt’s Lifescapes: The Experience of Landscape in Britain, 1870-1960, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in April 2023


Dr Jeremy Burchardt is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Reading and the Principal Investigator of the ‘Changing Landscapes, Changing Lives’ project.