Francis Pryor
Allen Lane, £16.99
ISBN 978-0241299982
Review Spencer Gavin Smith

If anyone is capable of introducing the casual reader to the landscapes of Britain it is Professor Francis Pryor. In a career spanning the last 30 years, he has brought to life lost environments, settlements, and human experience at some of the most ephemeral and enigmatic sites through his archaeological excavations – and, latterly, his books. His latest volume is an anthology of his experiences of various British landscapes, and his personal responses to them.

In the introductory chapter, Francis visits Charles Darwin’s former home, Down House near Bromley, and explains the connection between his family and the Darwins, and how the walks Darwin took around the pathways he laid out helped formulate his ideas for his world-changing book, On the Origin of Species. The chapter felt both intimate in its conversational style and expansive in the way a landscape could provide a space to think about the wider world.

Covering the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales – west to east from Tintagel to Boston, and south to north from Romney Marsh to Edinburgh – each of the 24 short chapters focuses on a particular story and places it into a wider context. From a personal point of view, it was interesting to read his take on two landscapes I am very familiar with: the Great Orme Copper Mines near Llandudno and the Severn Gorge around Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. While Francis and I appear to think about the experience of the prehistoric miners in similar ways, the way we explore the Ironbridge Gorge is very different, and therein lies the beauty of this book: making the familiar unfamiliar, or at the very least providing a new perspective on it.

A book which has Britain as part of the title should contain more of the diverse landscapes of Wales and Scotland than the single entry for the former and a pair of entries for the latter, but if a second volume is forthcoming, as it should be, then I look forward to reading another engaging series of explorations.

This review appeared in CA 341.

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