Peter Haggett, The Quantocks: Biography of an English Region, The Point Walter Press, Chew Magna Somerset, 2012, xii + 212 pages, 236 illustrations, £25 paper. ISBN 978-0-9573352-0-2.


See Ron Johnston’s Society & Space Open Site review of Home in the Howling Wilderness by Peter Holland

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During the 1950s-1960s, as the development of systematic specialisms within human and physical geography gathered pace, some within the academic discipline argued that nevertheless its core must remain the interpretation and portrayal of regions. Some, such as Mead (1963), provided fine exemplars of that argument (see Mead, 2007, which contains a full bibliography of his writings on Finland). Many regional geographies, however, were not of high quality: they fully justified Peter Gould’s attack on those geographers who portrayed themselves as ‘competent amateurs’ (the phrase was Sauer’s: 1956) when really their work, in his words, was ‘bumbling amateurism and antiquarianism … piling up a tipheap of unstructured factual accounts’ (Gould, 1979: 140).

One problem with much regional geography as practised then exemplified the key disciplinary concept of scale. Whereas the classic studies of French pays, pioneered by Vidal de la Blache (1903) and his students (Clout, 2009), dealt with the unique genres de vie of relatively small and distinct (mostly rural) areas, many of the regional textbooks produced in the immediate post-World War II decades dealt with large sub-continental areas and were almost devoid of local detail, let alone colour: you sometimes got the impression that the authors had not even been to the places they were writing about—unlike Gottmann (1955), who had visited every county of Virginia before he wrote about its geography. Some of those books were little more than formulaic descriptions of what was where that neither gave a feel for the place nor stimulated a desire to explore it further. Little wonder that students were seduced by the siren calls of the ‘new geographies’ then on offer.

One of those seduced was Peter Haggett, among the most distinguished contributors to geography as spatial science/locational analysis. Yet he retained a desire to write a regional book, at the right scale, to do what Fraser Hart suggested—to much scorn—was the ‘highest form of the geographer’s art … the production of evocative descriptions that facilitate an understanding and an appreciation of regions’ (1982: 1). Peter has now done just that, for a region he has known since childhood and lived close to for most of his academic career. The Quantocks cover a small—less than 150 square miles—portion of west Somerset in southwest England; at their core is a low range of hills with asymmetric eastern and western slopes and a surrounding apron of lowlands, extending northwards to the Bristol Channel coast. The area is predominantly rural, though far from untouched by small-scale industry and urban sprawl from nearby centres, plus the alien imposition of nuclear power stations. It exemplifies how many centuries of interaction between a relatively small population and its physical environment have created a unique assemblage of local landscapes illustrating how people have modified their physical inheritance—not always for the better—to sustain their chosen ways of life, with the wealthy and powerful having by far the greatest impact.

The Quantocks has as its subtitle Biography of an English Region: it portrays not only in words but also through numerous clear diagrams (by the author) and superb photographs (by his daughter Jackie) the major features that have contributed to the landscape palimpsest and make the region both distinctive and interesting. To do that Peter has mastered the extant sources—including much ‘grey literature’—and woven together material from a wide range of disciplinary specialisms: he is as much at ease interpreting pollen diagrams and geological cross-sections as plotting the family trees of the area’s main landholders and estimating past population changes using back-projection methods—as well as illustrating what he learned from his close friend Torsten Hägerstrand, that an area’s story incorporates the ‘choreography of inter-twining life-paths over generation after generation … [the] bundle of lives, a few known but most unknown, which have shaped and reshaped the landscape we see today’ (page 1). Peter can unravel that bundle because he knows the Quantock Hills: he has walked their paths and bridleways, explored the deep combes on their eastern slopes and dammed their streams, investigated the tombstones in village churches, and read the landscapes through the lives of those who made them. In the old cliché of regional geographers, he got to know the area through the soles of his feet. The production of the book was a labour of love, and that love comes through on every page.

The book’s core is arranged chronologically, with chapters on the physical background, early settlement, and the medieval period, followed by three other chapters on the early modern period, late Georgian and Victorian landscapes, and then the last century. These are contained within an outer pair. The first—‘A Quantock tapestry’—sets out the book’s main threads, seven strands that for Peter justify a regional biography, in which we learn, for example, of Coleridge’s and the Wordsworths’ sojourns in the area, of the wonderful carved late-medieval bench ends that adorn many of the parish churches, of the region’s myths and literature, and the landscape features that characterise its ‘intrinsic beauty’. The final chapter, an epilogue on ‘Quantock futures’, addresses contemporary  issues—how to protect the moors, heathlands, and combes, the management of tourism, the future of the parish churches in declining small settlements, and the plans for a further nuclear power station on the coast. And then Peter outlines his favourite Quantocks’ walk, followed by a list of eight others for readers to enjoy.

Peter claims that any area has an interesting story to tell if you dig deep enough. He has dug very deep and illustrated how adopting a place can stimulate an inspiring evocation of it through words and pictures. I have been to the Quantocks and appreciated some of its unique characteristics, but having read Peter’s book I shall be going back, to explore and enjoy some of the detail I have missed.

Geographers may claim—as they were once wont to—that they are uniquely prepared through their education and training to interpret landscapes large and small to wide audiences. They were never alone in this—as much writing by landscape historians and others reminds us—and we may now doubt whether there are still components in a geographical education that prepare us for such a task: why is it that academic geographers very rarely appear in either TV series about places and landscapes or the popular magazines whose titles use the disciplinary name? So will there be many more Peter Haggetts to interpret local landscapes for us? He has his peers, not least his former colleague Les Hepple, who was as seduced by spatial science as Peter but also produced two superb landscape biographies (Hepple, 1976; Hepple and Doggett, 1994). But Les was a ‘one-off’ and Peter only returned to write about the Quantocks in his late seventies. How many will follow either of them, and will we be the poorer because we have not treasured some of the best parts of our geographical inheritance in the rush to produce scientific papers that will gain a 4* rating in the next REF? Peter once wrote that ‘what geographers actually do may differ from what they say they are doing’ (Haggett 1990, page 5): perhaps enough of us are slowly gathering material on the places and landscapes we love and will find the time and energy when—as Peter puts it—our ‘last “academic” research volume [is] completed, … last committee chaired, … last research report filed’, to ‘write the little book that has lain at the back of my mind for so long’ (page viii). I hope so, for if Peter’s example is the model, we will then leave a lasting legacy of a type of geography that, at its best, really tells us what the world is like and how it came to be like that.



Clout HD (2009) Patronage and the Production of Geographical Knowledge in France: the Testimony of the First Hundred Regional Monographs. Monograph 41. London: Historical Geography Research Group.

Gottmann J (1955) Virginia at Mid-Century. New York, Henry Holt.

Gould PR (1979) Geography 1957-1977: the Augean period. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69: 139-51.

Haggett P (1990) The Geographer’s Art. Oxford, Blackwell.

Hart JF (1982) The highest form of the geographer’s art. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 1-29.

Hepple LW (1976) A History of Northumberland and Newcastle upon Tyne. Chichester, Phillimore.

Hepple LW and A Doggett (1994) The Chilterns (second edition). Chichester: Phillimore.

Mead WR (1963) The adoption of other lands. Geography 48: 241-54.

Mead WR (2007) Adopting Finland. Helsinki: Hakapaino Oy.

Sauer CO (1956) The education of a geographer. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46: 287-99.

Vidal de la Blache P (1903) Tableau de la Géographie de la France. Paris: Hachette.

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Ron Johnston is a Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. His books include Putting Voters in Their Place: Geography and Elections in Great Britain (Oxford University Press, 2011), coauthored with Charles Pattie, and A Century of British Geography (British Academy, 2003), coedited with Michael Williams.