Uncovering our ordinary history

Author Francis Pryor at home in Sutton St James. Photo: SG170511-13MD To order, please ring 01775 765433 or visit www.photostoday.co.uk
Author Francis Pryor at home in Sutton St James. Photo: SG170511-13MD To order, please ring 01775 765433 or visit www.photostoday.co.uk
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WHEN Francis Pryor sees “some lout” chuck a drinks bottle out of a car window as he drives along a fen road, he consoles himself that they are providing archaeologists of the future with what might be valuable information.

It is the ordinary lives of people who lived centuries ago that interests Francis, author, Time Team specialist, sheep farmer and the archaeologist who ‘discovered’ Flag Fen. And something as innocuous as a bottle might inform archaeologists about the way we lived in the 21st century, even if it is just that some of us were litter louts!

However, it was that level of inquiry that led Francis, who lives with wife Maisie in Sutton St James, to walk along dykes after they had been cleared in the autumn of 1982, searching for anything that had been unearthed from its deep burial under the peat.

“I went out on a November day and found a piece of wood in mud, pulled out of the dyke,” he recalls. “It had been sharpened with a narrow bladed axe, which left a distinctive trace I recognised as a Bronze Age axe.”

It was the success of his popular book about Flag Fen that he wrote for English Heritage in 1992 that got him started on his writing career, and he currently has two books that have just been launched. One is The Birth of Modern Britain, the last in the Britain series of four books, and this one covers the period from the end of the Middle Ages, which he takes as 1550, to the present day. Francis says this series looks at history “from the bottom up”, starting with the lives of ordinary people and how that affected the world, as opposed to conventional history books that begin with the contribution of great men and women. For example, where historians might talk about the great battles of the Civil War, Francis looks at ordinary life. “Life didn’t stop during the five years of the Civil War,” he says. “People built churches and houses.”

The other book, The Making of the British Landscape, has been five years in the writing, and covers, among other subjects, the drainage of the Fens.

Francis says: “The Fens are an incredibly important landscape in Britain. Our landscape has changed so much from its natural form, more than any other in Britain, and at the same time it was incredibly prosperous, which is why around The Wash you have the finest churches in Britain.”

The Making of the British Landscape (£14.99 in paperback) and The Birth of Modern Britain (£25 in hardback) are available from Bookmark in Spalding.