The exceptionally diverse geological foundation of Britain has given rise to landscapes of great variety, a natural heritage enhanced by a continuous human presence over several millennia which has shaped and reshaped the material to form the present uniquely rich pattern of fields and fells, woods and parks, villages and farmsteads. Celebrated in literature and art, this densely textured landscape, usually domesticated but with its wilder beauties too, has become a kind of national emblem, lived in lovingly and vigorously defended against change by its inhabitants.
The country can be broadly divided into Upland and Lowland Britain. The former, generally of older, harder material, comprises much of the north and southwest of England and virtually the whole of Wales and Scotland. As well as rolling, open moorlands, where the eye ranges freely over vast expanses of coarse grass, bracken or heather, there are mountain chains, modest in elevation but exhibiting most of the features of much higher and more extensive systems, attracting serious climbers as well as walkers.
To the south and east the gentler relief of Lowland Britain is mostly composed of less resistant material. Much is “scarp and vale” country where undulating chalk and limestone hills terminate in steep escarpments commanding grand panoramas over broad clay vales.
Most of the course of the Earth’s history can be traced in these landscapes. From the unimaginably distant Pre-Cambrian, more than 600 million years ago, came the Torridonian sandstone and Lewisian gneiss of northwest Scotland as well as the compact, isolated uplands of Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire and the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. The violent volcanic activity of Ordovician times left the shales and slates of Snowdonia and the Lake District. Extreme pressure from the southeast in the Caledonian mountain-building period produced the northeast/southwest “grain” of ridges and valleys so evident in much of Wales and Scotland. Most of the abundant reserves of coal originated in the tropical vegetation of Carboniferous times. Except for the extreme south, the whole country was affected by the action of the often immensely thick ice sheets of the series of Ice Ages. The characteristically sculpted forms of the high mountains testify to the great power of the glaciers as they advanced and retreated, eroding and transporting vast quantities of material, much of which was spread over the lowlands by the mighty ancestors of today’s rivers. As the last of the ice melted, the sea level rose, the land bridge joining Britain to the continent of Europe was flooded, and a truncated Thames, hitherto a tributary of the Rhine, acquired its own outlet to the sea.
The taming and settling of the landscape can be traced back to the fifth millennium BC when Neolithic farmers began to clear the wildwood, the dense forests which had spread northwards in the wake of the retreating ice. The imprint of each succeeding age may be traced, not only in the obvious features of prehistoric stone circles, burial mounds and hill-forts, the planned network of Roman roads or the countless medieval churches, but also in the everyday fabric of the working countryside, where a track may first have been trodden in the Bronze Age or a hedge planted by Saxon settlers.
The many-layered landscape is now characterised by enclosure, a web of fields bounded by hedges in the lowlands, by drystone walls in the uplands and by dykes in areas reclaimed from the sea. Small fields with irregular boundaries are likely to be ancient in origin; a regular chequer-board of hawthorn hedges is the result of agricultural “Improvement” in the 18C and 19C.
In spite of conditions which are ideal for tree growth, only eight per cent of the land surface is wooded. About half of this consists of recent coniferous plantations, mostly in the uplands. In many parts of the lowlands, the lack of great forests is compensated for by an abundance of small woods and by the countless individual trees growing in parks and gardens, and above all, in the hedgerows.
Standing out from this orderly pattern are the “commons”, rough open tracts of grass and scrub. Once the villager’s source of fodder, food and game, they now provide fresh air and exercise for both town and country people.
The country is well-watered. The abundant rainfall, carried off the hills by a multitude of streams, feeds the rivers which, though of no great length, often end in splendid estuaries which bring salt water and the feel of the sea far inland.
The irregular outline of the country and the complex geology combine to form a long and varied coastline. Where the mountains meet the sea there is exceptionally fine coastal scenery, such as the spectacular chalk-white cliffs near Dover, symbol of English insularity. Many of the better stretches of sand and shingle have been appropriated by seaside resorts but there are some quieter beaches as well as remote marshlands and lonely sand dunes.