Heritage, Landscape and Wellbeing in the Lincolnshire Wolds
Understanding how the interrelationships between historic and natural environment contribute to wellbeing.
Nowadays we take it for granted that our physical and mental wellbeing is significantly enhanced by spending time in nature.
The pandemic has focussed people’s interest in being outdoors, especially in their local green spaces, and ‘green social prescribing’ emphasises the health benefits of nature-based activities.
At the same time, we have begun to accumulate evidence that engaging with heritage has similar benefits (Reilly et al 2018), though much of this is focussed on formal visitor attractions and participation in community heritage projects.
The interaction of natural and historic landscape
However, the contribution to wellbeing outcomes of the wider historic landscape has been less appreciated, despite a range of initiatives (Darvill et al 2019).
This is because in environmental policy landscape is often still equated exclusively with nature. For example, the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (HM Government 2018) aims to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty of our landscapes’, while heritage is represented only as specific features, such as Scheduled Monuments. In a similar way, intangible aspects of heritage such as ‘sense of place’ are recognised as ‘cultural services’ in ecosystems approaches but often ‘the material role that the historic environment plays in shaping the natural world is not considered’ (Fluck and Holyoak 2017).
In contrast, the European Landscape Convention (ELC) defines landscape as ‘an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors’.
Since all parts of the English landscape have been inhabited or exploited by people for millennia, we cannot understand the landscape in the present, or plan a sustainable future, without knowing its history.
The concept of ‘natural beauty’, as used in the designation of ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ (AONBs), may in policy terms include landscapes which have been shaped by human activities, but is it clear to the wider community which we wish to engage that this includes historic features? If landscape is indeed a matter of perception, then we in the historic environment sector need to raise awareness of its historic dimension.
To ensure that landscape policy embraces the historic as much as the natural environment we need to demonstrate that the historic character of a landscape can contribute to wellbeing just as much as nature.
This has to involve not only promoting understanding of landscape archaeology but also demonstrating that, while they may be separated in policy terms, the natural and historic environments are in reality entangled in ways that add value to each other, resulting in enhanced benefit to people’s wellbeing. For example, places we perceive simply as ‘nature’, such as woodland or heathland, are actually the result of human management over long periods of time, without which they would have a very different character. Conversely, human-made features of the historic landscape, such as hedgerows or drystone walls, often have thriving ecosystems which would not otherwise exist.
The historic landscape of the Lincolnshire Wolds
The Lincolnshire Wolds are the highest range of hills in eastern England, running from the Humber to the edge of the Fens. They differ from other chalk landscapes in having a complex topography extensively modified by glaciations, which have given rise to plateau hill-tops and steep-sided valleys.
In the Lincolnshire Wolds an AHRC-funded networking project, led by Historic England, under the Landscape Decisions Programme has been working to understand the inter-relationships between heritage, nature and wellbeing in the landscape, as a prelude to planning a larger project that could research and promote the area’s (relatively) under-appreciated archaeological heritage.
The intersection of cultural heritage and natural environment is immediately evident in the Wolds’ designation as an AONB despite it being a landscape of intensive arable agriculture, with inevitable pressures on wildlife and biodiversity, and field patterns that are largely a product of Parliamentary enclosure (Fig 1). Nevertheless, the AONB has a variety of important habitat types within a landscape of diverse terrain and impressive vistas.
Similarly, for the historic environment, the superficially regimented agricultural landscape contains a host of historic features, visible and buried, ranging from Neolithic long barrows to medieval village earthworks and post-medieval farmsteads, as well as intangible aspects like the area’s connections with the poet Tennyson. Such features contribute to the diversity of Wolds habitats, with designated earthworks managed in pasture and extant long barrows often topped by trees.
Conversely what we know about the archaeology of the area is connected to the affordances of modern land-use, for example through the potential for arable fields to reveal cropmarks and artefact scatters
Appreciation of historic landscape and wellbeing
One question for the network is how improved public understanding of the heritage of the Wolds could lead to greater enjoyment of the landscape and therefore wellbeing.
Does understanding the history of a place enhance the health benefits it provides, for example by offering a sense of connection to the past or by enhancing local distinctiveness and a sense of identity?
In this respect the Lincolnshire Wolds appear similar in terms of terrain and modern land use to the Yorkshire Wolds, across the Humber, but their deep history is very different; the Lincolnshire Wolds have a distinctive concentration of Neolithic long barrows that is not found in Yorkshire but lack the extensive Iron Age square barrow cemeteries that are characteristic of the Yorkshire Wolds. Such historical differences frame landscape narratives that contribute to establishing the roots of a Wolds identity (in either region) but also raise questions about how different trajectories arose and what was happening in periods that remain less well understood for this area.
Hence historic environment research can contribute to building narratives that are relevant to local identities, not simply to academic or heritage management objectives.
Establishing the links to wellbeing
Tensions and difficulties nevertheless emerge when thinking about the historic landscape and wellbeing.
Research agendas focussed on new discoveries may downplay the importance of synthesising and promoting what is already known. A recent survey of long barrows in the Wolds (Drury and Allen 2020), although undertaken primarily for management purposes, has provided a unique opportunity to review all the recorded sites and think about their landscape value and further promotion. And, as noted, while upstanding barrows and settlement earthworks help to punctuate the regular appearance of the modern fieldscape, much of the Wolds’ early history is represented by buried archaeological features that are no longer visible on the ground; their direct contribution to people’s perception of the landscape is therefore limited and their significance needs to be communicated in other ways.
It is also important to remember that local communities and visitors may have different perceptions and expectations; residents may feel more local place attachments rather than a general Wolds identity, for example.
Enhancing the wellbeing benefits of walking in historic landscapes
Because the Lincolnshire Wolds lack major heritage attractions and the infrastructure to cope with large gatherings, promoting the values of the landscape as a whole and distributing visitors is important. Walking is already a key component of the visitor offer, with numerous self-guided walks available and a regular walking festival.
One way to improve recognition of the historic landscape’s contribution to wellbeing could be to enhance the heritage information in these walks, for example translating aerial mapping evidence or online HER records into a narrative for each route.
If combined with nature activities that reinforce the value of re-walking the routes at different times of year, and the ability for walkers to feed back their experiences in the form of text or photos, we could develop a more interactive resource that helps make connections between historic and natural environment.
More formally, this kind of approach could also be used to deepen historic landscape characterisations (HLCs) by allowing communities and individuals to record the values they attach to particular locations and HLC types, starting to address an aspiration of HLC that has largely yet to be realised (Swanwick and Fairclough 2018, 31-3). Identities are complex and multiscaled; the benefits of the Wolds landscape need to be accessible to residents and visitors alike. Building the evidence for the therapeutic value of landscape as both nature and heritage therefore requires a diversity of views and values.
About the author
Landscape Strategy Adviser at Historic England
Jonathan is a prehistorian and landscape archaeologist who has worked in various roles for Historic England (formerly English Heritage) since 2001. He is currently Landscape Strategy Adviser in the Archaeological Investigation team.
Contact Jonathan Last
Darvill, T, Barrass, K, Drysdale, L, Heaslip, L and Staelens, Y 2019 Historic Landscapes and Mental Wellbeing. Archaeopress
Drury, D and Allen, T 2020 'New work on long barrows in Lincolnshire'. In A Barclay, D Field and J Leary (eds.) Houses of the Dead?, 121-134. Oxbow
Fluck, H and Holyoak, V 2017 Ecosystem Services, Natural Capital and the Historic Environment. Historic England
HM Government 2018 A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. DEFRA
Reilly, S, Nolan, C and Monckton, L 2018 Wellbeing and the Historic Environment. Historic England
Swanwick, C and Fairclough, G 2018 'Landscape character: experience from Britain'. In G. Fairclough, I. Sarlöv Herlin and C. Swanwick (eds), Routledge Handbook of Landscape Character Assessment: current approaches to characterisation and assessment, 21-36
Further information on the landscape of the Lincolnshire Wolds is available through the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB website.
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