Green Futures 29, 2001, page 24-25 by Graham Fairclough

Truth to tell, the character of our countryside owes more to culture than to nature. Landscape maps can reveal the role of our past in shaping the present. Graham Fairclough reads the lessons - for the future.

Drawing out the daughter of time

When we map the character of the countryside, its no nature trail we are following. What we trace out are the patterns of human action, the cultural ecosystems built up over the millennia. English Heritage is currently engaged in doing just that, county by county, in its Historic Landscape Characterisation programme. And it is a project with a vital purpose. As past shapes present, so the history of todays landscape holds crucial pointers for future policy.

Our countryside is a landscape of great diversity, but no part of it is any longer wholly natural: there is no wilderness. Even where it looks most natural, as in the uplands, its appearance can be traced to human action in the distant and not-so-distant past. No one disputes that this is true. But it is much more than just an interesting historical footnote. Archaeology and history explain how landscape works, and how our responses to it are shaped. This knowledge, in turn, can help us to guide change wisely. When making tomorrows landscape we ignore at our peril what happened in the past, and how those events made the countryside what it is today.

Yet the maintenance of the landscapes historic character is largely ignored in national policies, which is worrying, with the future of the countryside under consideration in the wake of foot and mouth. Environmental and economic policies, to be effective, need to take account of past human influence and current human cultural responses. We should not pretend we have a clean sheet to work with, any more than we should think the clock can be turned back.

Putting the past on the policy map

Understanding the historical process, then, is one of the best guides to future sustainable uses. English Heritages national programme of Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) is one contribution to this understanding. It is an archaeologists approach, in that it draws meaning from the physical structure of the landscape, and puts emphasis on its time dimension, on past human activity, and on the processes and causes of change. But it is not concerned with understanding past, lost landscapes: the aim is, rather, to value the historic aspects of what exists in the here and now. Each map in the programme presents in simple terms, for the first time ever, the historic character of the present day landscape of a whole county. The work is carried out by archaeologists working for county Sites and Monuments Records

(SMRs), the foundation of historic environment conservation. And behind each map sits a sophisticated computerised geographical information system. This can be used to answer an enormous range of conservation-led questions - about rates of boundary loss, for instance, or the rarity of particular types of landscape, or the relationship between sites and their landscapes. To take just one example of how this translates into policy: hedgerow regulations can properly recognise a hedges

cultural significance, not only how many birds it supports. The maps rapidly assess the impact of proposed change on landscape character, and can be updated as landscape and understanding change. They provide new information to guide land-use planning, landscape strategies and farming policies.

Historic Landscape characterisation is created by everything in the landscape:

  • man-made things such as stone walls
  • things that are natural but made by human action, such as hedgerows
  • less tangible characteristics such as time-depth archaeological sites
  • the cultivated mosaic of enclosed and non-enclosed land, arable and grazing
  • historically based land-use categories such as woodland, heath and moorland
  • ornamental landscape
  • 20th-century military land urban development
  • mineral extraction.

Characterisation maps all this so it can be managed sustainably.


County maps and the wider framework

The HLC maps are funded jointly by EHs Monuments Protection Programme and county councils. They will play a significant role in putting into practice the ideas about characterisation, managing change, participation and inclusion that were laid out in a review carried out by EH at the governments request last year on behalf of the whole sector, Historic Environment Review, 2000: Power of Place, A Future for the Historic Environment

The HLC programme also complements two existing national landscape frameworks:

Common ground for future direction

The HLC maps fill a major gap. Cornwalls was the first, in 1995, and half of Englands counties now have one or are making one. The first generation of maps will stand as a benchmark for monitoring change. Looking ahead, too, they offer a framework for collating public perception. They are publicly accessible in SMRs, and some will soon be on the web. They create common ground for real people as well as experts to contribute to the debate about the landscapes future. Everyone can find some relationship to these issues, because everyone has a stake in them, whether their landscape is on their doorstep or in their heart or memory. And this challenges us to use the maps to strengthen democratic participation. A first step will soon be taken by the Bowland-Lune Valley landscape project, which will explore local residents and visitors responses to the existing HLC map for Lancashire, and ask them to contribute ideas to the next one.

Most of all, the Historic Landscape Characterisation maps offer a key to sustainable development. They give clues for managing and changing the landscape so that it remains rooted in its culture. They are signposts showing how to leave enough for our successors to decide what sort of landscape they wish to live with.

English Heritages HLC mapping programme is aligned with the European Landscape Convention, launched in Florence in October 2000. The convention (not yet signed by the UK) is central to achieving sustainability in the cultural landscape. It proposes assessment of the character of landscape as one of the main ways to ensure its protection and management.

And it celebrates the European landscapes diversity, and its social and cultural as well as economic value - creating jobs, supporting tourism, but more importantly creating European, regional and local identity, or cementing common inheritance.

The Bowland-Lune Valley project in Lancashire is the English contribution to a 10-country EU-funded three-year Culture 2000 project called European Pathways to the Cultural Landscape.

Graham Fairclough is head of English Heritages Monuments and Countryside Protection Programme


Project Overview

The new English Heritage Characterisation Team

ArcView Screenshot

The publication


This document has been printed from

© 2005 Pathways to Cultural Landscapes

With the support of the Culture 2000 programme of the European Union