How to be a Landscape Detective: Six Things to Look For On Your Next Walk

Mary-Ann Ochota By Mary-Ann Ochota

Become a landscape detective and discover the hidden secrets of Britain's past with #GetOutside champion, and anthropology and archaeology specialist, Mary-Ann Ochota.

Wherever you go in Britain there’s history woven into the landscape around you – in the shape of a field, the wall of a cottage, a standing stone or churchyard, even in the grass under your feet…

Archaeological digs and famous historical locations only uncover part of the picture – there are literally thousands of sites scattered across the country that don’t have tickets and tour guides, but are waiting to reveal their secrets.

With a few pointers, you can start to puzzle out what those intriguing lumps and bumps in a field are, how old a church is, why that stone wall is a funny shape, why that tree has three trunks, or why a footpath is suddenly enclosed by a hedgerow tunnel. You can also be a landscape detective simply by looking at an OS map in the comfort of your own armchair. Or click the grid reference to load the locations in OS Maps.

Landscape Spotting is a bit of an addictive pastime – once you start, you’ll find yourself noticing features everywhere!

Here are six features to look out for on your next outdoor adventures

1. Holloways

Ever walked, cycled or driven down a lane that feels like it’s sunk down into the ground? Often coming into or out of villages, with steep, banked sides and towering hedgerows, these tracks are known as Holloways.

Holloways are at least 300 years old, but many in the South West, southern Wales and Welsh borders, East Anglia and the Weald probably have their origins in prehistory. You really are walking in the footsteps of the ancestors!

The deepest Holloways in Britain are as much as 6m below the ground surface, where feet, hooves and wheels have worn down the land surface and rainwater has eroded it over centuries to create a sunken lane, or ‘hollow way’.

In open country, you may still be able to trace the line of an old Holloway – look for a wide grassy furrow with shorter or paler vegetation, where the grass struggles to grow in the harder, compacted soil that was once the track.

A few Holloways were intentionally created as land boundaries. Landowners dug a wide ditch, and threw the soil up into banks on either side. The base of the ditch was then used as a sunken track and the parallel banks formed the Holloway sides. Check your map - the Holloway may still mark a modern parish boundary.

Holloway in Powys

Holloway in Powys

2. Ridge and Furrow

If you see a grass field or hillside area in central England that has long parallel rows of wide humps in the surface, you may be looking at the remnants of a 1,000 year old pattern called Ridge and Furrow, created by medieval ploughing.

From around 800AD to the mid 1500s, most land used for farming crops wasn’t enclosed by hedges or walls. Instead, farmers were allocated strips of the communal Great Fields that surrounded their village. Each strip was ploughed individually in a clockwise pattern, and the plough threw the soil inwards, creating a flat area ready for planting – the Ridge. The soil level between each strip got lower and lower – the Furrow.

Ridge and Furrow only survives in fields that are now used for pasture, or rough land that is no longer farmed at all. This itself is a clue to the history of the time – in the 12th and 13th centuries there was enormous population pressure on agricultural land. The best, most fertile land was already under the plough, so ‘land-hungry’ farmers were forced on to steeper, rougher hillside areas and places with poor soil. Then the Black Death of 1348-50 killed half the British population. With the population decimated, there was more fertile land to go around the survivors and poorer land was abandoned, leaving the plough marks frozen in time.

Also look for: Strip Lynchets

Flights of terraces that run horizontally across steeper hillsides, known as Strip Lynchets. These were hand dug around 600 years ago to make it easier to plough, plant and harvest steep land - also the result of hungry medieval people looking for space to farm.

Ridge and Furrow near Brunton, Northumberland (NU 210 248)

Ridge and Furrow near Brunton, Northumberland (NU 210 248)

3. Stone Age tombs

The oldest visible monuments in the British landscape are Long Barrows, burial sites from the Neolithic – the Late Stone Age - around 4200BC. If you spot one, you’ve just added more than six thousand years of human history to the landscape you’re looking at! They are long, lozenge-shaped earth mounds. Ones that are still visible to the naked eye are usually marked on OS maps.

Chambered Tombs also date from the Late Stone Age – these have internal stone chambers where bodies – or parts of dismembered bodies – were placed by their community. Chambered tombs that have been excavated are often open and you can go inside to explore. Great examples include West Kennet in Wiltshire (SU 103 676) and Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey (SH 507 701).

West Kennet, Wiltshire

West Kennet, Wiltshire

Pentre Ifan portal dolmen, Pembrokeshire – the remains of a Chambered Tomb which has lost its original covering of earth, revealing the impressive megaliths (giant stones) that formed the burial chambers. SN 099 370

Pentre Ifan portal dolmen, Pembrokeshire – the remains of a Chambered Tomb which has lost its original covering of earth, revealing the impressive megaliths (giant stones) that formed the burial chambers. SN 099 370

4. Ancient Burial mounds

Round Barrows, sometimes called Tumuli, are the most common prehistoric monuments in the country. These circular earthen mounds are often seen in groups, and you can sometimes spot them on the crests of hills, or as uncultivated lumps in farmers’ fields – because of the precious archaeology below, the land can’t be ploughed. They date to the Bronze Age – mostly between 2400BC and 1200BC.

Although there are no written records from Britain at this time, the archaeology suggests there was a change in religious and social practices – instead of communal tombs, people start to be buried as individuals, either cremated first or placed in a crouched position in a grave with food, jewellery and other offerings like cups of honey wine. Some round barrows have been excavated by archaeologists, but others remain undisturbed. Next time you see a Round Barrow, take a moment to imagine what, and who, may be inside it!

The linear cemetery of round barrows on Bronkham Hill, Dorset (SY 626 868) Image: Geograph/Jim Champion

The linear cemetery of round barrows on Bronkham Hill, Dorset (SY 626 868) Image: Geograph/Jim Champion

Burial Cairn on Fan Foel

Burial Cairn on Fan Foel

5. Strangely-shaped graveyards

Graveyards are usually older than the church buildings they contain. Even though the bodies rot away, centuries of burials progressively raise the earth surface, so as a rule of thumb, the higher a graveyard is compared to the surrounding land, the older it is. It’s estimated that the average English parish churchyard contains at least 10,000 bodies. Urban cemeteries may contain more than 100,000!

Churchyards are usually rectangular, with the church positioned roughly centrally. If a churchyard is circular or oval, it suggests that you’re looking at a very early church site (from 600AD or even earlier), or a place where the church was built on an earlier pagan site.

St Michael's Church at Llanfihangel Helygen, Powys (SO 045 643), is a remote one-room church with a small, irregular churchyard – probably reusing a pre-Christian sacred site.

St Michael's Church at Llanfihangel Helygen, Powys (SO 045 643), is a remote one-room church with a small, irregular churchyard – probably reusing a pre-Christian sacred site.

At Knowlton in Dorset (SU 024 103), a Norman church built in the middle of a well-preserved henge earthwork which was already 4,000 years old when the church was built.

At Knowlton in Dorset (SU 024 103), a Norman church built in the middle of a well-preserved henge earthwork which was already 4,000 years old when the church was built.

Also look for: Yew Trees

Many churchyards in Britain contain Yew trees (Taxus baccata), the longest-living organisms in the whole of Europe. Native Britons considered the yew to be a sacred tree, so when early Christians co-opted pagan sites, yew trees came with the land.

Yew trees are only officially designated as ‘ancient’ when they’re around 800 years old with a girth greater than 7m (23ft), and it’s thought the oldest churchyard yews are an incredible 4-5,000 years old – visit them at St Coeddi’s Church, Fortingall in Perthshire (NN 742 471), St Dygain’s Church in Llangernyw, Conwy (SH 874 674) and St Cynog’s Church, Defynnog, Powys (SN 925 279)

Also look for: Lych Gates

Open sided gatehouses at the entrance of a churchyard, named after the old English for ‘corpse’ (lich). This was where the priest would meet the body at the churchyard entrance, say initial prayers, then lead the way into the church.

Example of Lych Gates

Example of Lych Gates

Example of Lych Gates

Example of Lych Gates

6. Dry Stone Walls

Some of the most intriguing dry stone walls you’ll see are abandoned Intake walls (or newtake walls). They can climb vertiginous slopes of rough moorland, then end abruptly, or loop back down.

Many of these were a result of Enclosure Acts that were passed by parliament between 1750 and 1850, when commons, moorlands, and open fields were allocated to private landowners.

These new landowners were keen to build walls and then lease the land to tenant farmers – even if the land wasn’t up to it. You’ll see abandoned plots of land in many upland areas including the Grampians and the Lake District. The hungry, hardworking tenant farmers are memorialised in evocative place-names: Mount Famine in the Peak District (SK 055 848), and Starvation Hill, Never Gains, Famish Acre and Mount Misery (SX 636 705) on Dartmoor.

stone wall in the Outer Hebrides (credit: Catriona Savage

Stone wall in the Outer Hebrides (credit: Catriona Savage)

Also look for: Holes in Walls

Lunky holes (or hogg holes or sheep creeps) at the base of a wall, for shepherds to move their animals between fields or into pens. When not actively being used, the hole will be roughly blocked with slabs or boulders.

A small hole at the base of the wall may be a smoot, to allow small animals to pass through the wall, rather than burrow under it, destabilising the foundations. A small hole mid-way up a wall may be a sighting hole for shooting game whilst remaining hidden.


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Entertaining and factually rigorous, Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape by British broadcaster and anthropologist, Mary-Ann Ochota, will help you decipher the story of our landscape through the features you can see around you.

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Mary-Ann Ochota By Mary-Ann Ochota

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#GetOutside champion Mary-Ann Ochota is a British broadcaster and anthropologist specialising in anthropology, archaeology, social history and adventure factual television.

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