BOOK REVIEW by Bob Ricketts

'A Certain Degree of Magnificence'
By Brian Kerr

Published by Eventispress, in 2019. ISBN 978-0-9932608-6-5.
161 pages. Available from local bookshops, or via Amazon, or signed copies from the author via Price on enquiry.

This is Brian’s second book exploring Bedfordshire’s landscape (the first was An Unassuming County The Making of the Bedfordshire Countryside, published in 2014). ‘A Certain Degree of Magnifence’ traces the county’s landscape history from the early settlement to the present, weaving together geology, farming and landscape ‘shapers’ such as Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton and their wealthy patrons, as well as the impact of post-war pressures from housing development and leisure use.
The author is a soil scientist Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University, who may be familiar to readers from his series of informative and entertaining lectures and field trips for the Rothsay Education Centre.

The preface provides a helpful graphical chronolgical overview, linked to the subsequent chapters, encompassing date ranges, climate, national events and Bedfordshire examples. Some of the latter seem slightly random choices – for ‘Roman Farms and Farmers’ the examples given are Romano-British farms at Priory Park and ‘Manton Lane villa’ – though the nature of this site is still unproven and there are more established villa sites in the south of the county. Bedford and Ampthill castle, rightly, are included for the early Medieval period, but Cainhoe is also quoted, rather than the much larger Luton.

The first chapter – ‘A Warming Land – Human Footprints (10,500 -2500 BC) largely sketches out recent geology, with relatively little coverage of what is known about early human traces and settlement in Bedfordshire or more recent archaeological research – the work of Worthington Smith and James Watt are given more prominence.
Chapter two – ‘A Settled Land (2500 BC- AD 43’) – ambitiously covers 2,500 years of settlement, setting the context, national trends and citing evidence and insights from recent excavations in the Biddenham Loop, the Black Cat roundabout and Old Warden. At times, a few of the conclusions seem questionable – the author states correctly that part of the site of the Iron Age hillfort at Mowsbury was re-used during the Medieval period, creating a moat, but concludes that this was because an increasingly populated landscape made “protection and defensive works more important”, whereas most recent research ascribes moats to displays of status and, more prosiacally, drainage.
Chapter three deals with ‘Roman Farms and Farmers’, but is quite limited in extent, particularly given the evidence from recent excavations. Reference to the role of small urban settlements such as Sandy, the possible ‘planned’ village at Kempston, southern villa sites, would have helped to flesh out the account. The inclusion, however, of evidence of a possible Roman vineyard at Ampthill, with plan, is welcome.
Chapter four narrates pre-Conquest migration and settlement., but again, the trwatment lacks depth, for example, any reference to studies of maping placename evidence, and only one reference to early urban development.
Chapter five – ‘The Campaign for Information – The Normans and the Domesday Book’ – is more detailed, but has odd omissions, for example, under the section on castle,Ampthill and Luton are missing, though more important than that at Totternhoe, which is given prominence. Bedfordshire has a high number of castles (see James Scott-Petre’s 2012 The Castles of Bedfordshire), linked to its pattern of landholding, but there is no reference to this. Despite extensive monastic estates in Bedfordshire and their impact on farming, the economy and the landscape, the author focuses largely on the Cistercians and particularly Old Warden.
Chapter six – ‘Things Fall Apart – Plague, Famine and Collapse (1300-1750)’ covers 450 eventful years in just eight pages. There is an over-emphasis on the national, context, rather than how this played-out locally. Pre-Plague agricultural retrenchment in Bedfordshire was researched extensively by Baker, but his findings aren’t referred to. Equally, there is no reference to the significent early enclosure which took place from the late-Medieval and early-Modern period and its impact. Chapter seven – ‘Improving On Nature – Gardens, Parks, Farms and Woods (1700-1850) is strong in its treatment of the great parklands, including the work of Brown and Repton in Bedfordshire, over eight pages being allocated to this, with some excellent colour photographs, as well as the ‘tree collectors’ and model farms.
Chapter eight – ‘Winners and Losers – Enclosure Changes and the Landscape (1700-1850)’ deals largely with enclosure and its impact on the rural poor, as well as forestry, but gives few insights into the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ in Bedfordshire and the steady transformation of farming practice and productivity.

Chapter nine – ‘High Farming – Bricks and Steam (1850-1914)’ – touches briefly on the growth of market gardening, provides a useful description of the development of industrial-scale brick-making, is excellent in its treatment of the agricultural engineering achievements of John and James Howard and Dan Albone (the Ivel Agricultural Motor Company), and reminds us of the contribution of the Laxtons to fruit-growing, both locally and nationally. On the other hand, the great Agricultural Depression from the mid-1870s, which hit Bedfordshire farmers hard, only recieves two paragraphs, despite an abundance of evidence and research.
Chapter ten –‘Rations and Shortages (1914-1955)’ – provides only a very general overview of the local effect of the massive changes resulting from the two World Wars and economic depression.
Chapter eleven – ‘Finding a Balance – Public Footpaths and Public Interest (1955-2016)’ – narrates issues such as public access, planning, preservation and protection.
Chapter twelve –‘Preachers, Painters and Poets’ – explores the relationship between the landscape and spirituality and art – John Bunyan, Thomas Fisher, George Stubbs, Arthur Anderson, Edward Thomas and John Clare. I found this chapter both informative and intriguing, and a useful reminder of aspects of Bedfordshire’s artistic and cultural heritage.
The final chapter – ‘The Power of Place – More than just a nice view’ – reprises the author’s key themes and reflects on the future of Bedfordshire’s landscapes. This is followed by a short, but useful appendix listing places to visit, with brief details and map references, and suggestions for further reading. On a more general point, whilst there are some good, interesting illustrations, a list would have been helpful, as would a more detailed index. For a book about landscape, there are surprisingly few maps – I counted only five. As a reviewer with – as a former historical geographer – an interest in landscape and agricultural history – I found it difficult to form an overall assessment of this book. It provides a useful overview of the development of the landscape of Bedfordshire – as did the author’s earlier volume – and there was much that was interesting. On the other hand, I found the treatment of some key periods and themes – Roman settlement and farming, early enclosure, the Agricultural Revolution and the late-Victorian agricultural depression, and how they impacted on local landscapes and lives – lacking in detail, and with an over-emphasis on the national context. In short, this is a worthwhile introduction for the general reader to how our county’s agriculture and landscape has developed, and my recommendation is based on this. Not, however, one for the specialist. A good introduction to the subject.


Illustration of book cover