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Landscape Mysteries - An Interview with Aubrey Manning

Updated Monday, 24th October 2005

What drives the programme's host to be so passionate about the landscape? Aubrey reveals all in our interview.

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Aubrey Manning

How did you become interested in the Natural World?
We had a small garden in Chiswick where I was born and I remember being fascinated by snails and ants, but it was with our move into the Surrey countryside near Windsor Park that I really became involved. There were fields next to our house with a stream running through. In secondary school a new master founded a scout troop and a friend and I began working for our 'Naturalist's Badge' - I was hooked!

How did you develop your own interest in the Natural World?
I began devouring natural history books - especially on bird behaviour and I knew I wanted to become a zoologist. I went up to University College, London (generally acknowledged to be the fount of all goodness!) to read zoology. Eventually I went on to Oxford to do research under Niko Tinbergen on animal behaviour which has always remained my first interest.

What advice would you give to someone becoming interested in the Natural World?
Just keep observing closely. One group, flowers or mosses, beetles or birds will particularly attract you. Get hold of an introductory book and begin identifying what's there locally. I remember so vividly that within a week of getting 'The Observer's Book of British Birds' I had clearly identified what then were exotic species to me - tree creeper, nuthatch, greenfinch, jay - which had always been there of course. You just need your eyes opened and the natural world begins to spring to life all around you.

Do you think we are largely unaware of how our landscape was formed?
Yes because we just take it for granted. Few of us get any geology at school. It sometimes comes in as a bit of geography, but lately geography, as she is taught, tries to align itself with the social sciences and is full of economics. I'm old fashioned and agree with the old line that 'geography is about maps!' It should become a key element of a wholistic education about the natural world and its history - landscape being our own familiar part of that story.

Aubrey Manning

What landscapes do you find most interesting?
A hard one. Once you begin looking and get to know something about how they came into being and what they hold, then every one is interesting. But here’s a few off the top of my head:

North-west Scotland with those extraordinary peaks rising out the lochans and peat hags - some of the oldest rocks in the world are here;

The flat, flat landscapes of the fens or Romney Marsh. The gigantic skies seem to envelop you;

The chalk downlands of Dorset; spectacular cliffs and wonderful flowers and insects;

The Vale of Evesham, archetypal 'English countryside' with, for me, deeply emotional associations with Elgar's music and A. E. Housman's poetry.

Which mysteries in the series were you most keen to solve?
The age and origins of the chalk figures and the extraordinary story of the NE Yorkshire alum industry.

What other mysteries of the landscape would you most like to investigate?
I'd like to learn much more about the history of Britain's woodlands as the ice has advanced and retreated over the past 2 million years. I'd like to know about the fluctuations in our fauna over the same time. Industrial archaeology too - the history of the canals and then the railways and how they changed access across Britain and affected its landscapes. The story of Cornish tin 'industry'; first alluvial, then mines, which has been operating since the Bronze Age and must have made Cornwall a major place of call for many cultures.

How can people find out about the landscape in their own area?
Observe and discover what questions rise. Then the public library for books and contact with local enthusiasts - archaeologists, historians and naturalists. They're always there and, in my experience, delighted to find others who share their interests!

Some people think Britain has no dramatic geological features like the Grand Canyon in the US or Ayers Rock in Australia. Do you think Britain's geology is rather boring by comparison?
No, of course not! Our scale is often smaller but, for example, the drama of the chalk sea cliffs of England matches up to anything else. Then the north-west of Scotland just flings geology into your eyes! Finally, just contemplate the rock formations of 'Hutton's Unconformity' on the shores of the Firth of Forth, about 25 miles east of Edinburgh. One of the world's holiest of places for any geologist - it is where their science began!

Aubrey Manning Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

How do animals and plants help you to interpret the history of a landscape?
Once you get to recognise common plants and animals then they will often tell you about underlying rocks and climate - acid soils vs. base rich soils etc. The peat formations of Scotland - now a sign of cool, acid, wet conditions - often reveal remnants of past forests. Sometimes there are signs of early Bronze Age cultivation when the climate was warmer and it was possible to cultivate wheat above 1200 feet! Of course, going back further into the past, the fossil remains of plants and animals may paint a dramatic picture of landscapes we shared with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroces and spotted hyenas!

What do you take with you into a landscape to help you interpret it?
If you've read something about an area before you head out, then you'll see much more. Otherwise what you need tends to be obvious - binoculars for large things, hand lens for small - perhaps a net and jars to hold insects temporarily while you identify them. Budding geologists will need a trade-mark geological hammer - to be used only with great restraint and discretion. Of course, if you can find one, the best thing of all to take out with you is an expert on what you're interested in!

Do you ever feel you fully understand a landscape feature or are you drawn to investigate it further?
You never know the whole story do you? Sometimes you feel everything is coming together - for me, the mighty wealth and works of the monks and tenants of Glastonbury Abbey, suddenly opened my eyes to the history of the Tor, the fields, the canals, the old buildings around me. But there's always more detail and for that one must delve further into the historical documents or the pollen revealed in the peat cores and so on.

Do you sometimes find that you need historical archives, documents, cultural history to make sense of the landscape, geology and science?
Absolutely - above I've just given the example of the Glastonbury story. The wonderful thing for me about investigating landscapes is how all the great sources of knowledge, all the professional skills come together. Investigating The Long Man of Wilmington, for example. A geophysicist checks the age of a soil using Optically Stimulated Luminescence - how long since it was last exposed to light. The results are compared with those of a biologist who discovers what land snails were living in the soil at that time. An archaeologist identifies the age of pieces of pottery found at the site and an historian checks up the parish documents to find when some feature was first recorded by people living a few centuries ago. It is co-operative detective work of the very highest order!

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