Geographically Britain is immensely varied. Nobody lives more than one hundred and twenty kilometres from tidal water; the Thames is tidal right through London and beyond. The British, wherever they travel, are constantly bumping up against the sea, and when they get there they may find long sandy beaches, rocky inlets, chalk cliffs, mudflats or placid coves. The geological structure is complicated and convoluted. Children at school learn that the northern part of Scotland used to belong to Canada, but sailed away until it collided with Britain-and that this explains the long diagonal rift across Scotland that includes Loch Ness and its monster. Nobody is very surprised. The bones of our country are close to the surface, so that even though the climate is officially ‘mild and damp’ throughout Britain, we know that within a distance of less than one hundred and thirty kilometres we can struggle with sub-arctic conditions or enjoy a subtropical forest garden. None of our rivers are large but it is possible to trace the course of a river from mountain spring to tidal estuary in one day’s long walk; and if you stand on the top of the highest i mountain in Wales and look east towards the Urals on the other side of Europe, there is nothing higher in the way to obstruct your hypothetical view.
Our agriculture and our industry were intimately related to these variations in the’ geography of our country. To understand how we live, work and distribute our products, you need to consider the relationship between the land and the fifty-five million people who live on it. Perhaps because we are an overcrowded island, land is thought of as something to be used, to be developed, to be given a purpose. If you were to fly in a low-flying aircraft over England you would see a land-use pattern unlike that of any other country. It is a pattern of eighteenth century agricultural changes, nineteenth century industrial development, and twentieth century adaptations
to what had become out-dated established usages.
In England, unlike most of Europe, we never developed a peasant culture of more or less self-sufficient family units farming their own bit of land and living limited but independent lives. Most people were employed by landowners, either as tenant farmers or as agricultural workers. The workers would improve their poor wages by spinning and weaving cloth, by growing their own vegetables, and by grazing their cows or sheep on common land. But new methods of farming invented in the eighteenth century made the land much more productive, and therefore the common land much more desirable as a source of profit. So landowners began to enclose the common land, depriving workers of their traditional rights to raise animals. The land was enclosed by planting hedges round it, creating small protected areas of irregular shapes, according to the line of ancient boundaries and the haphazard development of the scheme. The delightful effect of patchwork green, characteristic of our countryside, is a tribute to early efficient farming and landless labourers.
During the nineteenth century, the landowner farmers felt constantly threatened by the possibility of cheap imports from abroad. Parliament passed laws to protect their high prices-until at last the urban poor, supported by those who believed in free trade forced Parliament to allow cheap food into the country. The advantages for the city-dwellers were obvious, but in the countryside British agriculture suffered a great depression. The new machines also encouraged depopulation of the countryside.