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Thoughts on the evolution of rural geography in the British Isles

Points de vue sur l'évolution de la géographie rurale dans les Îles Britanniques
Hugh Clout
p. 279-284


L’article propose une lecture critique des recherches menées sur les espaces ruraux britanniques. Se livrant à un exercice d’analyse historique de la discipline outre-manche, il montre que, dans un pays passé précocement à une société urbaine et industrielle, l’intérêt a d’abord davantage porté sur la préservation des paysages bucoliques de la campagne que sur les fonctions nourricières des espaces ruraux. Il dégage également l’influence joué par l’école française de géographie dans ce qu’il nomme la « proto-rural geography » des années 1930 aux années 1960. Dressant un tableau de la géographie rurale britannique actuelle, tant par les thématiques abordées que par les centres universitaires influents, il présente la vivacité et la diversité des champs de recherche britanniques, dont témoigne plus particulièrement la publication depuis 1985 du périodique interdisciplinaire Journal of Rural Studies.

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1Reflecting on the emergence of rural geography in the British Isles at least four introductory points need to be made. First: the complex ‘industrial revolution’ experienced in England, Wales and Scotland was early by the standards of continental Europe, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and following an equally complex ‘agricultural revolution’. As the socio-economic processes leading to these changes interacted, rural-urban migration followed a rapid decline in the number of farm holdings and farm workers. Second: as a result, the proportion of the total population living in towns and cities in England and Wales reached 50% as early as the census of 1851. This fact conditions the relative lack of agricultural ‘roots’ in for most British families, the way that the countryside is perceived (as more than simply space for food production), and Britain’s poor reputation for cuisine when rural traditions of food preparation lost among the nation’s industrial proletariat living in towns and cities. Third: at the height of the British Empire (1850-1940) much food was imported from temperate Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with British farming being opened up to competition from producers around the globe ranging from Denmark to Argentina. Fourth: from the second half of the 19th century onwards, efforts were made to conserve and protect cherished, beautiful parts of rural Britain in full recognition that the countryside represented much more than food-producing space in national life. Thus, the National Trust and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England were established before 1900.

2Turning from the British countryside to the discipline of Geography, it must be understood that the subject only came to be recognised in its own right after 1919, despite the work of pioneers in earlier decades. Between the two world wars, members of the first real generation of geographers were keen to define, defend and promote their discipline. Some had been trained as historians, others as natural scientists. All drew inspiration from Vidalian geography, the Annales de Géographie, the great regional monographs presenting parts of France, and the International Geographical Congresses and subsequent publications. French was understood by almost all academics, the German language and German scholarship having fallen out of favour as a result of World War I. In the inter-war years, doctoral qualifications were rare among university teachers in Britain, with the PhD being viewed with suspicion as a ‘German’ degree. The few professors who had acquired doctorates had earned the DSc qualification for published work. Most university geographers worked single-handed and devoted most of their energies to teaching the whole syllabus to students in every year of study. They published little and many relied on the writings of French and North American geographers for inspiration.

3In this restrained intellectual milieu, four distinctive strands of ‘proto rural geography’ may be discerned between 1930 and 1960; I present them in no particular order.

41) One form of rural geography was linked to historical geography associated, for example, with the research of Henry Clifford Darby. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Albert Demangeon, Roger Dion and other French academics as he fashioned his own research on the ‘Changing English Landscape’ (the title of his famous lecture course), the drainage of the Fens in east Anglia, and the cartographic representation of Domesday England when the Normans arrived in the second half of the 11th century. Later in his career, Darby would develop more practical rural concerns for national parks, water conservation and the rural environment more generally (Clout 2007a).

52) The second early strand of rural geography is associated with Lawrence Dudley Stamp who orchestrated Britain’s first Land Utilisation Survey (LUS) from the London School of Economics during the 1930s (Clout 2003). This massive, field-by-field enquiry, with associated reports written for each county in the land, fits in with interwar (and later war-time and post-war) concerns about the sprawl of British towns and cities into the countryside. Geographers and planners described the rapidly changing territory between Manchester and London as ‘the coffin’. The LUS was vital for physical and regional planning, helping to determine where new towns around London (and in the regions) might best be sited, and where national parks could be defined. A great wave of planning legislation in the second half of the 1940s (agriculture, land use, national parks, new towns) made use of evidence from the LUS. However, this potentially ‘applied’ strand of rural geography was firmly anchored in the economic geography of agriculture and the need to produce sufficient food for the British nation in the harsh years after World War II.

63) Rural settlement studies were rather few in number, tending to develop from the ‘ethnic’ explanations for differing morphologies devised by August Meitzen and others in the 19th century. Most enquiries of this kind were conducted in the western, arguably ‘Celtic’, parts of the British Isles. In this form of rural geography, links with anthropology and biology were strong; major scholars were Herbert John Fleure and Emrys Bowen at Aberystwyth in the ‘Pays de Galles’, to echo Bowen’s chosen terminology. Wales, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Scotland and western England received particular attention, with the later research of Pierre Flatrès building on this tradition.

74) Finally, there was early concern among geographers to conserve both fragile and beautiful ‘natural environments’ that drew on evidence from the biological sciences and geology as well as physical geography.

8If we ‘fast forward’ to the 1960s (roughly when I became a student at University College London in 1962) the configuration of rural geography in Britain looks somewhat different.

91) Darby’s research teams at UCL had focused on Domesday Book (11th century), the 19th-century tithe returns and other statistical sources that elucidated the historical geography of the British countryside. One of Darby’s younger colleagues was John Terence (Terry) Coppock whose PhD thesis was a study of changing agriculture and land use in the Chiltern Hills (to the north-west of London) between 1800 and 1960. Coppock made use of historical sources and undertook extensive mapping and other enquiries in the field (Clout 2002). He developed a genuine fascination for data of all kinds relating to the British countryside.

102) Following the death of L.D. Stamp, Alice Coleman (based at Kings College London) launched a Second LUS that was far more complicated than the first and would never be completed. Coppock channelled his data-led enquiries into writing books on the geography of British agriculture and depicting its variety in atlases. His first agricultural atlas appeared in the mid-1960s, before the age of computerized data handing and mapping. He also recognized the growing importance of non-agricultural activities, such as leisure, recreation and tourism, in the countryside. In 1966 Coppock left UCL to become a professor in the University of Edinburgh, where he established a new research unit focusing both on farming and rural tourism. Funds from Scottish sources for work on Scotland were of major importance and assisted Coppock in pioneering computerized data analysis and cartographic representation. At UCL, Richard Munton replaced Coppock as the lecturer with responsibility for agricultural geography (Clout 2007b).

113) Rural geographers with concern for patterns of settlement and the morphology of villages, hamlets and other features continued to operate especially in western Britain and in Ireland, and developed important links with archaeologists and rural historians. For example, research led by Harry Thorpe at Birmingham combined archival studies with fieldwork and archaeological excavation.

124) Physical geographers became more actively involved in planning procedures to protect fragile and beautiful rural landscapes, and with the official designation of sites of special scientific interest.

13It was into this environment of rural studies that I was immersed as an undergraduate student at UCL (1962-65) where I was taught about the rural geography of the British Isles, continental Europe and the USA. A few years later, as a young researcher, I studied the landscape evolution of bocage country in the Pays de Bray and the associated socio-economic transformation that occurred between 1750 and 1960. Then, I spent some interesting summers investigating a range of contemporary rural issues in the Auvergne, under the guidance of Professor André Fel of the University of Clermont-Ferrand. After field investigations, I wrote articles on rural depopulation and repopulation, remembrement, farm structural reform, the advance of woodland across formerly cultivated land, and the proliferation of second homes, with particular attention to the limitations of using a ‘distance decay’ model to explain their location.

14On the basis of this experience, I had the privilege of pioneering a course specifically called ‘Rural Geography’ for second year students at UCL. Initially, I incorporated both historical and contemporary information, and ranged far and wide from Britain into Europe and to North America, Australasia and even Africa. I had the evidence but, frankly, the methodological underpinnings were less than firm. Nonetheless, the lectures were successful and attracted large numbers of undergraduates. Soon, I reformatted the course to concentrate on contemporary themes in the British Isles and Europe, drawing inspiration from the ‘sociological’ work of such scholars as Ray Pahl, Placide Rambaud and Pierre George. The rural course ran in parallel with an equally popular course on urban geography. Soon after my colleague James H. Johnson published his Urban Geography (1967) textbook I produced a companion volume, Rural Geography: an introductory survey (1972).

15Written for the Pergamon Press, my rural geography textbook certainly contained an empirical structure but lacked sufficient wide-ranging theory. It explored both people and land in the countryside, and acknowledged that rural depopulation was being overtaken by repopulation in many country areas. This trend was associated with commuting to urban work, establishing rural tourism activities, and the acquisition of retirement residences and second homes. The profundity of agricultural change was fully recognized, as numbers of farms fell rapidly, productivity increased sharply, and the challenge of what would later be called ‘post-productivism’ started to be felt. Already, European Commissioner Sicco Mansholt had suggested that certain less productive, more remote sections of farmland needed to be converted into forests or national parks. It was obvious that the remnants of traditional rural ‘communities’ were on the decline, as car-owning ‘incomers’ arrived in large numbers in many rural areas. Nonetheless, as R.E. Pahl (1965) demonstrated, rural repopulation by former city dwellers did not solve, but rather accentuated, social problems in the countryside. House prices were inflated and rural services (shops, schools, hospitals, public transport, etc) declined to the detriment of the poor, the old and the car-less. By contrast, car-owning ‘incomers’ could drive to obtain these services in nearby towns. Interestingly, a recent textbook, Rural Geography: processes, responses and experiences in rural restructuring (2005) by Michael Woods, contains many of the same themes that we discussed in the early 1970s, although the academic vocabulary employed has changed considerably. Alongside my rural geography course at UCL, which adopted quite a ‘social’ and ‘planning’ orientation, Richard Munton taught a course on the economic geography of agriculture.

16Looking out from the University of London to British academic geography one finds that the Agricultural Geography Study Group of the Institute of British Geographers was particularly buoyant and flourishing during the 1970s under the chairmanship of Terry Coppock. In the early 1980s the title was changed to the Rural Geography Study Group. With 280 members in 1983 this was the fourth largest study group in the whole of the IBG, surpassed only by urban geography, quantitative geography, and geomorphology. During the 1980s British rural geography continued to experience important changes with the introduction of a ‘critical social studies’ dimension that introduced much needed methodological rigour.

171) In the University of London, Richard Munton supervised an important cluster of doctoral students and directed research projects that were financed by the Social Sciences Research Council and then by the Economic and Social Research Council (Clout 2007b). This sequence of activity began with a major enquiry into the use of land for agricultural production and for recreation in the ‘green belt’ around greater London, at a time when political pressures were beginning to mount for declassifying this protected land in order to build more housing. Then followed six studies into the ‘survival strategies’ being used by so-called ‘farming families’ in various parts of Great Britain. Working with Philip Lowe, Terry Marsden and Sarah Whatmore, Munton then conducted a major investigation into the economic restructuring of the British countryside. This was organized at the newly created Rural Studies Research Centre at UCL. Subsequently, Munton led a project into technological change and environmental challenges in British farming, and latterly a series of enquiries into sustainable development in urban as well as rural contexts. After having chaired the Rural Geography Study Group, toward the end of the 1980s Munton became chair of the Environmental Study Group of the IBG; the change of title was significant and indicative of academic refocusing in progress.

182) Beyond the IBG, the 1980s also saw the formation of the Rural Economy and Society Study Group that incorporated many rural geographers and also sociologists, economists, anthropologists and others at this time of pluridisciplinarity.

193) During that decade annual reports in Progress in Human Geography were initially devoted to discussions of agricultural production by Ian Bowler, but they changed their orientation as Sarah Whatmore adopted a ‘political economy approach’ and explored a wide international (anglo-saxon) literature embracing post-structuralist, feminist and other approaches (Clout 2007c).

204) In 1985, British rural geographer Paul Cloke established the international and multidisciplinary Journal of Rural Studies (published by Elsevier), which he continues to edit to this day. With its research articles and books reviews, the Journal of Rural Studies is undoubtedly the most important publication outlet for rural geographers working in the British Isles, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Northern Europe. It is not, of course, the only one since British rural geographers also publish in agricultural, archaeological, environmental, historical, sociological and generalist geographical periodicals.

21From its very inception, the Journal of Rural Studies has been multidisciplinary in character and has sought to establish a bridge between socio-economic and environmentalist approaches. Its first issue in 1985 included work on problems of service provision in thinly populated areas, on green belts and on the conservation of ‘nature’, but surprisingly little on farming and food production. A year later, contributions covered the restructuring of capitalist farming, the challenge of rural deprivation, and the importance of feminist perspectives in rural research. In 1987, attention focused on ‘class conflict’ in the British countryside, on gender studies and on self-help ‘community’ initiatives to cope with decline provision of public services. By the late 1980s, the impact of agricultural set-aside (gel des terres) was being evaluated and the challenge of ‘sustainable development’ was being debated. In 1990, Keith Hoggart launched his provocative argument: ‘Let’s do away with rural’. In subsequent issues, British rural geographers discussed the ‘imaginaire rural’ and also the need to analyse the needs of rural dwellers that tend to be forgotten by researchers: children, the elderly, the infirm, gays and lesbians. Overall, the ‘cultural turn’ is fully represented in the pages of the Journal of Rural Studies, as are Geographical Information Systems (SIG) and other innovative analytical techniques. The concept of ‘land care’ appeared in 1998 and subsequent issues include articles on hunting with hounds (a strongly contested issue in Great Britain), the implications of animal disease for human health, and the rise of organic (‘bio’) food production.

22In the early years of the 21st century, rural geography in the British Isles remains very much open to other disciplines, considers food production as only one activity among many that occur in rural space, and embraces every new methodological trend in human geography (political economy approaches, the cultural turn, feminism, post-modernism, etc). It rises to new challenges such as researching post-productivism, sustainable rural development, service provision, and the perception of countryside as a backdrop, or décor, for urban dwellers to consume when they visit rural space. The identity of British ‘rural geography’ has been challenged repeatedly over the years, as the universality of socio-economic trends that sweep across both and rural and urban areas has been demonstrated. Practitioners have certainly not denied the grounds behind such arguments but continue to maintain that relatively low population densities and distinctive combinations of land use (cropping, pasture, forests, wilderness) continue to give validity to the notion of ‘the rural’.

23Undoubtedly, the institutional basis of British rural geography has changed over the years, as new centres have replaced established ones, and younger academics have replaced those who have reached retirement age.

241) Currently, the most important foci for rural geography are at Exeter (H. Buller, P. Cloke, J. Little, M. Winter), Newcastle (P. Lowe, N. Ward), Cardiff (T. Marsden), Cheltenham (B. Ilbery), Oxford (S. Whatmore), Aberystwyth (M. Woods), Aberdeen, Maynooth and Galway. However, in some of these universities rural geography flourishes within a wider framework of environmental studies.

252) Most other geography departments have at least one ‘rural’ expert, sometimes with distinctive specialisms such as landscape studies at Nottingham and Sussex.

263) In London, Munton established an Environmental Institute at UCL, which covers a wider field than ‘rural geography’, prior to his retirement in 2006.

27Toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century, ‘rural geography’ remains vibrant in British and Irish universities; there has certainly been challenge and change within the sub-discipline over the years, but arguably no fatal crisis has occurred. Perhaps this geographical vitality has been assisted by the creation of an academic niche following the closure of several departments of agricultural economics in British universities in response to the declining significance of farming in the national economy. The international reference points of British rural geographers are essentially those of the English-speaking world. However, some British rural geographers publish in Sociologia Ruralis (the journal of European rural sociology, edited by geographer Henry Buller) and maintain valuable contacts with their European and North American counterparts. Regular colloquia and fieldtrips provide effective meeting grounds for British rural geographers and equivalent colleagues in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the USA and Canada.

28It would not be too audacious to suggest that there remains a genuine role for rural geography in the future, since many of the management challenges that have been identified and researched over the years continue to be present in either original or modified form. Thus, the issue of rural deprivation and the need to provide services for the poor, the elderly and the sick remains as stark now as it was in the past. By contrast, the recent rise in oil prices may modify the speed and extent of métropolisation, associated urban sprawl and long-distance commuting, and may arguably redirect some of future demand for housing back into already built-up areas, rather than into the open countryside. After agricultural productivism, there came post-productivism and the need to devise survival strategies and land-use policies that did not focus exclusively on food production, but now China and India are emerging as rapidly growing consumers of foodstuffs hence commodity prices are rising. For the immediate future, there is an urgent need to generate greater quantities of food and to do so in environmentally sustainable ways. All this must be accomplished in the context of environmental change, with climatic zones changing in response to global warming and productive coastal lowlands being increasingly subject to flooding.

29Without doubt, the institutional structure of rural geography will continue to change and rejuvenate in the years ahead. I contend that the need for research into the substantive components of the countryside will remain as pressing as ever, and probably even more so.

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CLOUT H., 1972, Rural Geography: an introductory survey, Oxford, Pergamon.

CLOUT H., 2002, John Terence Coppock, Proceedings of the British Academy, 115, p. 207-24.

CLOUT H., 2003, Place despcription, regional geography and areas studies, in JOHNSTON R. & WILLIAMS M. (eds), A Century of British Geography, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 247-74.

CLOUT H., 2007a, ‘Henry Clifford Darby, 1909-1992’, Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies, 26, p. 79-97.

CLOUT H., 2007b, Richard Munton: geographer and rural geographer, in CLOUT H. (ed.), Contemporary Rural Geographies, London, Routledge, p. 189-205.

CLOUT H. (ed.), 2007c, Contemporary Rural Geographies: land, property and resources in Britain: essays in honour of Richard Munton, London, Routledge.

JOHNSON J.H., 1967, Urban Geography, Oxford, Pergamon.

PAHL R.E., 1965, Urbs in Rure, London, London School of Economics.

WOODS M., 2005, Rural Geography: processes, responses and experiences in rural restructuring, London, Sage.

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Hugh Clout, « Thoughts on the evolution of rural geography in the British Isles », Géocarrefour, Vol. 83/4 | 2008, 279-284.

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Hugh Clout, « Thoughts on the evolution of rural geography in the British Isles », Géocarrefour [En ligne], Vol. 83/4 | 2008, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2011, consulté le 28 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Hugh Clout

Department of Geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AP,

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