What the Romans didn’t have to do for us – create our countryside – Telegraph Blogs

Hambledon Hill in Dorset. (Photo: National Trust)

Hambledon Hill in Dorset. (Photo: National Trust)

What did the Romans ever do for us? The answer, as Monty Python made clear in Life of Brian, is quite a lot – central heating, baths and all the rest of it. The trouble is, the Romans’ achievements drown out what happened before. The Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages did a lot for us, too – but we tend to take them for granted. In the 17th century, Inigo Jones, the father of British architecture, thought Stonehenge was so sophisticated that it must have been built by the Romans.

Stand on Hambledon Hill – which has just been bought by the National Trust – and you see that much of the British landscape is still pre-Roman.

The Blackmore Vale in Dorset is dominated by Hambledon Hill, with its distinctive, manmade crest. Two Neolithic enclosures incorporate an ancient burial site, containing two long barrows – thought to date to the early third millennium BC. Around 2,000 years later, the hilltop was converted into an Iron Age hill fort, with a series of concentric banks and ditches scored into the ground.

This part of Dorset is studded with Iron Age earthworks. The West Country was the centre of pre-Roman activity – from Stonehenge to Woodhenge to Avebury. The Bronze Age heartland of south Wiltshire and Dorset is rich in barrows. They’re found, too, in Berkshire, the northern border of Bronze Age Wessex. Some later Bronze Age fields survive on the Berkshire Downs; and there are still plenty of Iron Age lynchets – cultivated hillside terraces – across England, particularly on chalk downs. Plough a Berkshire field and you slice through 4,000 years of history.

The ancient standing stones of Berkshire –sarsens, or sandstone boulders – litter the landscape; they were used in building the chambered barrow at Wayland’s Smithy, Ashbury, and, a lot later, at Windsor Castle.

In southern Dartmoor, the moors are divided into neat parallel lines by low stone banks, or Bronze Age “reaves” – barriers used on arable and pasture land. They wander out of true every now and then, but their overwhelming force is towards order. Their lines often leap over a sunken river and continue their straight course on the other side of the valley.

It isn’t just the West Country that was largely carved into shape by the time the Romans arrived. The Dengie peninsula, in south-east Essex, was divided as early as the Iron Age into a grid of differently-sized rectangles. There’s another Bronze or Iron Age grid in Tadlow, Cambridgeshire.

Most prehistoric fields are irregularly shaped. They vary in size to meet the differing needs of their farms. On the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, the smallest, most intensively cultivated fields are wrapped close around the farmyard, with larger fields further away, ranged around the smaller fields in a roughly circular pattern.

Devon’s sunken lanes, flanked by banks topped with thick, brambly hedgerows, date back to time immemorial. These hedgerows were often formed by two-fold ditches – where the spoil from the excavated road was piled up on either side to create the semi-tunnel effect.
You can tell how ancient those hedges are by their profile and density. In Devon and Cornwall, ash, elm, oak and sycamore hedges can be staggeringly old. Some of those at Land’s End are Bronze Age, their thick, humped masses blasted into shape by salty Atlantic winds for more than 2,600 years. Britain’s earliest hedges were planted in around 4,000-2,500 BC.

Even by the time Stonehenge was being built, in the third millennium BC, much of the country had been deforested. Stonehenge’s original astronomical use depended not just on having no trees around it, but also on a horizon uninterrupted by long grass, so that the precise alignment of stones could be ensured. By the second millennium BC, half of England was no longer wooded; by the end of the Roman period, the English wildwood had long gone.

You can see pre-Roman influence in our place names, too. Some Celtic terms, for ancient landscape features, such as “penn” (head) and “cruc” (hill, mound or tumulus), were borrowed by the Anglo-Saxons from the Britons who were there before the Romans.

The Thames comes from the Celtic “Tamesa”; the Avon from “afon”, meaning water, as does “isca”, the root of the Rivers Usk and Esk. Place names incorporating Celtic words like “hamps” (“a dry stream in summer”) point to villages that predate the Romans.

Celtic names survive in greater numbers in Wales and Cornwall, where the British fled the Anglo-Saxon advance. The popular Cornish prefix, “Tre-”, as in Tremaine and Tregarn, comes from the Celtic “trev” or “tre”, meaning a village or homestead.

In 2001, DNA tests showed that most of the people living in south England share DNA with pure-blooded Celts. It was an astonishing revelation. More than 2,000 years after the Romans invaded, our pre-Roman landscape is still inhabited by descendants of the ancient Britons who first shaped the contours of Hambledon Hill. How comforting that the National Trust is preserving those deep, sharp, ancient contours for ever.

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8 August 2014 | 6:25 am – Source: telegraph.co.uk

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