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18 September 2014
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Landscape History: Top Tips

By Dr Alan Crosby
Image of members of the research group surveying the land in Thriplow
Gathering clues about the landscape in Thriplow 

Find out more about key aspects of researching the landscape that apply to any area. See how maps, a broad range of documents and the help of specialists can help the local historian.


Landscape and its history is a theme which interests many local historians, intrigued by what they see around them - the fields, lanes, streets and houses - and want to understand more about the way in which the present landscape evolved over the centuries.

' ...local historians and even people researching landscape are seemingly reluctant to get mud all over their Wellingtons ... '

Shirley Wittering joined with a group of other people to try to solve a series of puzzles about the history of the landscape in and around the small village of Thriplow near Cambridge (see the Landscape feature). There are several key elements in their research, which could apply to any local history project which involves research and analysis of landscape.

  • Using the existing printed sources
  • Get to know the landscape
  • Other professionals
  • Make full use of maps
  • Documentary evidence
Using the existing printed sources

There is no sense in going over ground that has already been covered, so the Thriplow group has read all the available material published in the past 200 years. This has given them a very good framework for their own research and saved a very great deal of time and effort. They made use of the local studies library in Cambridge for much of this background research.

Get to know the landscape

Spend a lot of time walking through the landscape itself - this might seem an obvious thing to do, but it is surprising how often local historians and even people researching landscape are seemingly reluctant to get mud all over their Wellingtons and go out into the landscape itself.

The Thriplow group placed this activity at the centre of their project and made it the focus of their other work, because they rightly considered that the landscape was the most important document that they had. The same would apply to any investigation of urban landscapes, the streets and buildings of towns and cities. There is no substitute for looking at the world around us.

Other professionals

Seek the help of archaeologists: archaeology is an increasingly specialised subject, and the group was helped enormously by being able to consult the experts in the university archaeology department and the county council's archaeological team. The group's members have not done any excavation, because that should only be done under professional and expert supervision, but the archaeologists have been extremely helpful in many aspects of their work.

Make use of maps

One of the great advantages of local history in Britain is that a tradition of local map-making was followed by the unequalled work of the Ordnance Survey from the early 19th century. This means that most communities have two centuries of detailed cartographic evidence, and many have much longer coverage (some lucky places have detailed maps dating from the first decades of the 16th century).

All landscape historians should treat maps as a central element in their research. Maps allow us to chart changes over time, for each is like a snapshot of landscape and environment at a given time. A succession of maps shows how change has progressed, what new features have appeared and which have vanished.

'It is never possible to find specific evidence for everything in the past ...'

A map is also the perfect base on which to plot all sorts of details of the present-day landscape. It is like a visual notebook. A map is also the essential way for us to see the geography of a place - what is sometimes called the 'spatial dimension'. It is like a canvas on which images of human activity have been painted.

If you really want to understand a place, find out which maps are available, study them, analyse and compare them, using them as a practical tool for guiding yourself around the place in the past and the present. Learn to read present-day maps but, equally important, learn to 'think yourself into' the maps that show the past.

Documentary evidence

Employ documentary evidence to tie together the other elements in the research, so that the ideas and observations which result from the fieldwork and the map interpretation are supported, whenever possible, by the written record. It is never possible to find specific evidence for everything in the past, simply because most of what happened was never written down in the first place, but it is important to seek evidence which helps to confirm or refute the theories you might have devised.

Often the written evidence will be indirect and circumstantial, hinting at what was going on in the past without telling us explicitly. In landscape history, as in other areas of historical research, we learn to use such hints, cautiously and carefully, to build up a convincing picture of the processes and patterns of landscape development, but we should always cross-reference the written record with the other two angles - the maps and plans and the landscape itself.

Published: 2005-0304

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