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on 11 March 1999
The Norfolk Broads are artificial, not natural. Forests traditionally could exist without a tree in sight. Oliver Rackham has a few surprises up his sleeve but what really makes this book great is that for all its 500 or so pages, its a total page turner!
The British countryside was made: barely an acre of our land is in its prehistoric state. This book shows how woods, fields ponds and heath grew up alongside mankind; how they were used, and how historical documents as well as the land itself takes us far back into history.
The land changes slowly, and despite the damage of the last 100 years there is much of historical interest to be found, and the guided walks of the illustrated edition take you there.
A beautiful example of how a lifelong academic can remain passionate about his subject and totally readable. I read the non-illustrated version, but I checked the illustrated one in the local bookshop and it looks fantastic.
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This is as close to an essential text as you get if you are interested in the development of the English Countryside and current state of the Environment in the UK. Written with the clear authority of excellent research, but presented in a way which is highly accessible, this is a model of both scholarship and style. After introducing the research methods used by the book it book addresses aspects of the landscape such as fields, woodlands and moorlands on a chapter by chapter basis. However, the book always manages to maintain a coherent picture of these aspects within the wider landscape. The origin and nature of the British Countryside is swathed in many myths and factoids - this book goes a very long way to addressing these. As the other reviews have said - it comes highly recommended.
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on 26 May 2009
This informative book is a must for anyone interested in the development and evolution of our countryside. It covers everything around us from ancient pollarding techniques and forestry; designer parks; celtic field systems; historical hedges and highways; heaths and moorland; to anything water. It helps us to look at familiar local landmarks around us with a new understanding. It also includes eight illustrated and well-described walks that explain exactly how to decipher what we are looking at.

Oliver Rackham's highly respected knowledge ensures this is a valuable reference book on the subject, and his clear writing skills make it an easy and fascinating read in its own right. It is beautifully illustrated with numerous maps and plans, some diagrams and a wealth of high quality photographs.

I initially borrowed this book from the library, but decided it was a must to own a copy. I now constantly dip into it for information, or just curl up and read it for pleasure.
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on 13 April 2016
When I first picked this book up, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Yes, it had won the Angel Literary Award, and had had HEAPS of great critical feedback, but honestly, I couldn't really...see the point of it. The history of Britain's countryside; did I really think that that was a topic which was worth devoting a book to? No. Well, I can tell you now that Rackham hasn't only devoted a book to it. He has devoted one of the longest books...EVER WRITTEN to it. Seriously, the text is so small in relation to the size of the pages that I'd calculate that an ordinarily set out fiction book would be around eight hundred and eighty pages long if it contained as many words as this one!
So, what of the content of the book itself? Well, it's very definitive. Rackham covers every British habitat, describing how each has changed since the end of the last Ice Age. As he does so, he scours the archives for any and every literary source he can find to help him with his historical documentation. You can tell that this guy went to Cambridge University. He references all of his sources very professionally, compiling a neat list of them at the back of the book. In fact, his research has been so extensive that there are over SIX HUNDRED references! He really has tried his utmost best here to give us a complete record of how our countryside has been shaped through history. Nevertheless, history of every guise is always going to be incomplete, and in this book, you really can feel those gaping holes screaming at you from the pages. However, I'm beyond nit-picking there, and those historical gaps are most certainly not Rackhams' fault. So yes, on the whole, I have nothing but praise here. Also good to see is the way in which Rackham writes it. His narrative is often incredibly readable, lively and generous; and there are even a few moments of laugh-out-loud humor. This said, sometimes - (for me at least) - the narrative does get headache-provokingly laborious and slow. It's probably just because Rackham goes into so much depth with it all, digging into corners of history which most of us wouldn't even give one about! Some bits of the narrative really are just reams of jargon which go right over your head. But that's probably just me exposing the fact that I have no committed archaeological interest. Anyone who does, however, may be able to hold a sustained interest throughout the whole of the book. In fact, if you're a big fan of Time Team, this book may well be your wet dream! For the general reader though, it really does get a bit boring in certain places, and if you're anything like me, there will be many moments as you read where you'll go, "Ugh; come on; just move on from that, will you?!" Having said this, there were some chapters which - while still pretty slow-paced - nonetheless had me incredibly well gripped with interest; the chapter on heathlands was particularly fascinating for me. I hardly had to skim-read through any of those! In fact, if THOSE chapters are anything to go on, you'd guess that Rackham really has tried to include something for everyone here.
Do I have any criticism? Well, only a little. Apart from the slow narrative, there are a couple of statements which don't actually...make any sense! They're actually scientifically inaccurate, and Rackham gives us squat to back them up. There's one, for example, which says, "Medieval rabbits were evidently very weak and frail. Warrens had to be dug for them."
"Warrens had to be dug for them"? How is THAT conclusive evidence that medieval rabbits were frail?! And how do you know that if the rabbits of that age were just left to their own devices, they wouldn't have been able to dig warrens for themselves? They manage it alrite by themselves nowadays! And don't tell me that evolution's an excuse, because the Medieval period really did just happen like half a century ago. It takes HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS - if not MILLIONS - of years for evolution to make credible impacts on living organisms and their characteristics. Sherlock Holmes once said, "Once one has eliminated the impossible, that which remains, however improbable, must be the thruth." Rackham here has blundered a blind guess at the truth without first eliminating the impossible. Apart from this though, the book is absolutely pitch perfect. There really is an aweful lot to like about it, even if you're not a budding history fan. It will make you see the British Isles in a totally different light, as it will have opened your eyes to the many historical events which have made them what they are today. This book is immensely interesting and enlightening, and it will really make you appreciate our home islands like never before.
Reviewed by Arron S. Munro.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 June 2011
I bought Oliver Rackham's original History of the Countryside, lent it to a close relative and never saw it again; expensive mistake! Someone, probably fed up with my long face, bought me the illustrated edition as a consolation prize, so I've read and owned both. It's hard to be objective choosing between the two in the circumstances, but I think I marginally preferred the original with its greater detail. Certainly the big, colour illustrations in this edition are a real pleasure, and ease one gently through a description and analysis which is far from trivial. However the abridged text sometimes comes across as rather terse, some of the richness of the writing in the original edition having been sacrificed for brevity. And the original edition isn't without illustrations; its just that here there is more colour, they are larger, and inset in the text.

Rackham arranges his book thematically. Chapter headings are:
Rural Detection; Animals and Plants; Woodland; Wood Pasture; Boundaries and Fields; Trees of Hedgerow and Farmland; Highways; Grassland and Heath; Moorland; Ponds, Dells and Pits; Marshes, Fens, Rivers and the Sea. Here the text broadly follows the original edition, and there is a bibliography of suggested further reading, and a detailed index at the back.

There are, in addition 8 annotated walks, which are like mini-field-trips, designed to let you see many of the features described in the book out there in the landscape. Unfortunately the book is rather too large and heavy to take with you, so you'd presumably photocopy the relevant pages before setting out. As the walks are all over Great Britain, it is unlikely that any but the most dedicated would do more than a couple of them.

I would suggest this is the best version to buy as a gift, or if you are a general reader seeking to understand more about what you see around you, especially if you are a keen walker. For more depth, and for anyone studying geography or environmental science, go for the original. This is clearly what Rackham himself intends. Collins New Naturalist Library (100) - Woodlands by Rackham is a serious, detailed study which is packed with fascinating reading too; well worth a look.
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on 30 June 2006
Rackham, a senior fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, outdoes himself with this stunning exposition of the English countryside. He displays a grasp of his material both wide and deep, saturated with intuitive understanding and ecological consciousness. Rackham really outdoes himself with this one! Highly recommended. The treatment of Essex marshland represents a particular contribution to the literautre.
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on 20 September 2000
In addition to reviewer 1's comments, you will also find that this is a very well-written, enjoyable book, even if you don't have an academic interest in the countryside, like me. I thoroughly enjoyed it for it's illumination of th truth and disposal of complete myths that I had always accepted as given truths about woodland. I have since noticed, for example, that planted trees (apart from farmed forestry) nearly always fail. I enjoyed the book, and my rambles around the UK have been much enriched.
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on 29 March 2012
As a keen walker and very amateur naturalist I have more than a passing interest in the countryside. I'm into trees, birding, dragonflies, botany to mention just a few. Beyond that though, as I walk through the countryside, I'd like to understand how it has been formed. I've spent a lot of time wondering why things are like they are. Why does my local wood have large holes in the ground? why are some trees pollarded? why is that large nettle bed where it is and what is this ridge and furrow all about? It's all very well being able to identify birds and dragonflies and grasses and sedges, but there are far bigger mysteries out there to struggle with. Then I found this book. It goes some considerable way in explaining how the countryside has formed. Reading it has given me the considerable pleasure of being able to go out and solve a few mysteries.

I've owned this book for ages, in fact as a collector of books I have both paper and hardback editions. This is simply the finest book I've read on the subject by some considerable margin and Oliver Rackham is undoubtedly an absolute legend. Not only is this book a joy to read, it is an absolute mine of information. You will not find a better book. The very fact that Oliver Rackham books are so eminently collectable is testament to the genius of the author. Don't mess around, if you're interested in our fantastic countryside, then you have to own this book.
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on 5 February 2000
As the previous reviewer says, this is completely fascinating. I read the illustrated abridgement, and while I found it a page turner, it does read like an abridgement. The pictures are great though. Can't wait to get hold of the full edition.
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on 28 December 2013
Have you longed to understand the history of the countryside - put aside the lies of the tree planting loby and understand the real history of the British countryside and how the ecology of British woodlands works - well if you have read this book and make your own mind up. Oliver Rackham is a genious (if slightly mad - but that is proberbly a complement to a radical free thinker).
An absaloute must for all those genuinly interested in the landscape and ecological history of these islands.
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