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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grass-Chewing Contemplation, 13 Oct 2010
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This review is from: British Isles: A Natural History (Hardcover)
Alan Titchmarsh is not a professional geologist, historian, geographer, or climatologist. He's not even a professional naturalist. His area of expertise is in gardening and broadcasting - two words that can be synonymous in the right context - but it is as a communicator in which Titchmarsh excels in this book. Yes, like the excellent TV series to which it relates, the words have been written by the man himself, but the reading on which he has based his knowledge has been wide (if not terribly deep), as evinced by the bibliography at the book's end. In the introduction Titchmarsh modestly justifies his credentials by telling us that "my love of nature has always gone hand in hand with my passion for growing plants. I still have a bird book by my desk, and the fact that I refuse to use garden chemicals is due entirely to the fact that other forms of life have every bit as much right to use my garden as I do."

So Titchmarsh's book is in many ways an introduction to the subject of the natural history of the British Isles; a kind of arm around your shoulder asking you to look at the view, whilst with his other arm he points out at the landscape below to describe features of interest. There are helpful messages for those new to the study, for example telling the reader how to pronounce the word `gneiss', and also helpful messages to those of us who have studied the landscape since we were born, like what is the best grass to chew on whilst contemplating its beauty and meaning. In addition, there are many separate boxes throughout the book to explain concepts and features in more detail from rock types and plate tectonics to the freezing of the River Thames during the Little Ice Age.

Based on the TV series, the book's chapters match the episodes by adopting a forward-chronological patter. But it soon becomes apparent - such as when he talks of the different trilobites to be found in England and Scotland, but only the latter's can also be found in Newfoundland - that this is not a mere book version of the script. There is room to explain things better that were either lightly touched upon in the series, such as the causes of the Ice Age - or were not mentioned at all, for instance Milankovitch's theory on the Earth's orbit and its effect on climate. Having said that, space precludes Titchmarsh from providing a more than brief gloss on the origins of villages: here he uses unfortunate loose and misleading terminology.

It is only when we are halfway into the book that homo sapiens makes his appearance in Britain in large numbers, but the size of that largeness is relative with Titchmarsh cleverly likening the total population to the crowd at a football match. (What nature took thousands of years to achieve has been `ruined' by us in so short a time.) The seventh and final chapter looks at the future of the British landscape. Apparently it's going to be hot, cold, wet, and dry. One thing for definite is that at least it will be interesting.

This book too is interesting. It comes complete with some marvellous photographs, and suggests places to visit to experience in context the evidence of the transformations that have taken place in the British landscape. However, I do have a few gripes: Titchmarsh seems married to the imperial measuring system (but at least metric equivalents are given in brackets); and the author also seems married to the concept of Yorkshire uber Alles. In addition, he talks of the `typical' English countryside when there is no such thing, for instance when discussing the enclosure of open fields. But these are minor grumbles. This is a fine, well-written, and well-illustrated introduction to the origins of the Great British Landscape.
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Nicholas Casley

Location: Plymouth, Devon, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 111