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From Readings in English History Drawn From The Original Sources by Edward P. Cheyney, Ginn and Company; Boston; 1908; pp. 7-9


A Modern Historian's Interest [1897]

[in the Geography of Roman Britain]

[Modern historians have laid great stress on the geography of England as connected with its history. Mr. Green, from whose Making of England [1892] the following extracts are taken, knew the country well, and continually refers to its physical features, especially in describing its early history.]

6. Green’s
of the coun-
try as it was
in the Roman
A wild and half-reclaimed country, the bulk of whose surface was occupied by forest and waste. The rich and lower soil of the river valleys, indeed, which is now the favorite home of agriculture, had in the earliest times been densely covered with primeval scrub; and the only open spaces were those whose nature fitted them less for the growth of trees, — the chalk downs and oölitic uplands that stretched in long lines across the face of Britain from the Channel to the Northern Sea.

Such spaces were found, above all, at the extremities of the great chalk ranges which give form and character to the scenery of southern Britain. Halfway along our southern coast, the huge block of upland which we know as Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs rises in gentle undulations from the alluvial flat of the New Forest to the lines of escarpment which overlook the vale of Pewsey and the upper basin of the Thames. From the eastern side of this upland, three ranges of heights run athwart southern Britain to the north-east and the east, the first passing from the Wiltshire Downs by the Chilterns to the uplands of East Anglia, while the second and third diverge to form the North Downs of Surrey and the South Downs of Sussex. At the extremities of these lines of heights the upland broadens out into spaces which were seized on from the earliest times for human settlement. The downs of our Hampshire formed a “gwent,” or open clearing, whose name still lingers in its “Gwentceaster,” or Winchester; while the upland which became the later home of the North-folk and South-folk formed another and a broader “gwent,” which 8 gave its name to the Gwents of the Iceni, the predecessor of our Norwich. The North Downs, as they neared the sea, widened out, in their turn, into a third upland that still preserves its name of the Caint or Kent, and whose broad front ran from the cliffs of Thanet to those of Dover and Folkestone. Free spaces of the same character were found on the Cotswolds or on the wolds of Lincoln and York; and in all we find traces of early culture and of the presence of a population which has passed away as tillage was drawn to richer soils. . . .

Forests and
But even at the close of the Roman rule the clearings along the river valleys were still mere strips of culture which threaded their way through a mighty waste. To realize the Britain of the Roman age, we must set before us the Poland or northern Russia of our own: a country into whose tracts of forest man is still hewing his way, and where the clearings round town or village hardly break the reaches of silent moorlands or as silent fens. The wolf roamed over the long “desert” that stretched from the Cheviots to the Peak. Beavers built in the streams of marshy hollows, such as that which reached from Beverly to Ravenspur. The wild bull wandered through forest after forest from Ettrick to Hampstead. Though the Roman engineers won fields from Romney Marsh on the Kentish coast, nothing broke the solitude of the peat bogs which stretched up the Parrett into the heart of Somersetshire, of the swamp which struck into the heart of the island along the lower Trent, or of the mightier fen along the eastern coast, the Wash, which then ran inland up the Witham all but to Lincoln, and up the Nen and the Cam as far as Huntingdon and Cambridge.

But neither moor nor fen covered so vast a space of Britain as its woods. The wedge of forest and scrub that filled the hollow between the North and South Downs stretched in an unbroken mass for a hundred and twenty miles, from Hampshire to the valley of the Medway; but, huge as it was, this “Andredsweald” was hardly greater than other of the woodlands which covered Britain. A line of thickets along the shore of the Southampton Water linked it with as large a forest tract to the west, a fragment of which survives in our New Forest, but which then bent away through the present 9 Dorsetshire and spread northward round the western edge of the Wiltshire Downs to the valley of the Frome. The line of the Severn was blocked above Worcester by the forest of Wyre, which extended northward to Cheshire; while the Avon skirted the border of a mighty woodland, of which Shakespeare’s Arden became the dwindled representative, and which all but covered the area of the present Warwickshire. Away to the east the rises of Highgate and Hampstead formed the southern edge of a forest tract that stretched without a break to the Wash, and thus almost touched the belt of woodland which ran athwart Mid-Britain in the forests of Rockingham and Charnwood, and in the Brunewald of the Lincoln heights. The northern part of the province was yet wilder and more inaccessible than the part to the south; for while Sherwood and Needwood filled the space between the Peak and the Trent, the Vale of York was pressed between the moorlands of Pickering and the waste or “desert” that stretched from the Peak of Derbyshire to the Roman wall; and beyond the wall to the Forth the country was little more than a vast wilderness of moorland and woodland which later times knew as the forest of Selkirk.

From The Making of England, by J. R. Green, 1897; pp. 8, 9-12.

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