The secrets of England’s past lie buried in the land

Historians are increasingly finding that the way to tell our bigger story is to home in on particula

"Localism, localism, localism", runs the new government motto. Thus far, coalition policy on localism has been remarkable mostly for its imposition of enormous cuts on local councils, but away from Whitehall something more creative and inspiring is going on. Local history is gathering momentum, reinventing itself and becoming a major national art capable of reinvigorating the vital relationship between the country at large and our particular places.

The small scale has seemed a big deal to me ever since a school biology lesson in which the class trooped off to a nearby field, equipped with squares of wire called quadrats. We had to throw our square randomly and then examine the bit of ground it framed. We counted the kinds of grass and tried to draw the flowers that we had never noticed under our feet. It was simple enough, and hardly original; ecologists, geographers and sociologists do it all the time. But I remember the sense of revelation: narrow down your view of the world for a moment and a whole new territory appears. Then try looking up again, and you find that the whole field is transformed.

This is the basic method adopted in a series of compelling recent micro-studies. James Attlee's book Isolarion (2007), the title invoking detailed 15th-century maps of specific areas, took a microscope to the Cowley Road in Oxford as a way of investigating multicultural Britain. The isolation technique has been productive for visual artists, too. The artists' collective Boyle Family, for example, specialises in taking random squares of ground and re-creating them in the gallery. So you might find yourself studying a bit of pavement, perhaps the edge of a drain hole or a patchy bit of tarmac. Look closely. This is the ground beneath our feet held up for inspection; these are objets trouvés from modern-day England.

Madeleine Bunting, in her haunting and supple book The Plot (2009), offered what she called "a bio­graphy of an English acre". Peering into corners and then looking out to the horizon, Bunting pieced together the life story of a small patch of ground in North Yorkshire. It was the place that her father, the sculptor John Bunting, had owned and loved, where he built a chapel stone by stone and spent many days alone in work and thought. Madeleine Bunting sought to discover its significance in her family history and, inseparably, the cross-winds of English history that have shaped it.

This Yorkshire plot may be remote, but there are traces here from many chapters of England's story. The changing course of English farming is inscribed in the well-trodden drovers' road. The small stone chapel is a young relation to the great Cistercian monasteries that once dominated the area, and in its walls are stones from an old alehouse from the days of wayside breweries. Bunting's plot is a microcosm, a sampling - an intense, humming meeting point for topography, tourism, natural history, aesthetics and religion. Gradually, compellingly, the land yields its secrets. This "English acre" is both unique and representative, and it is in that delicate, ever-shifting relationship that our national identity lies.

Bunting was drawn to one place and found in it a larger narrative. The historian Michael Wood knew he wanted to tell "the story of England" and found that it might best be done by investigating the life of one place. In a series of TV programmes of the same name, broadcast late last year, and an accompanying book, he followed "a village and its people through all of English history". It was a pleasant, Sunday-night-on-BBC2, Time Team-ish affair. It was also one of the most experimental, inclusive and ambitious popular history projects of recent times.

Wood's quadrat landed on a village in Leicestershire. Kibworth is an unremarkable-looking place on the A6, but scrape the surface, and you will find layers of entrancing detail. Here is the site of the Roman farm from where woollens were shipped off to the empire. Here is the "speech mound", at which representatives from Gartree hundred met to supply the information requested for the Domesday Book (more than 900 years before the 2011 census asked us many of the same things), and where local questions were debated from the 10th century to the 18th. One man remembers the ancient thorn that marked the spot.

It would be so easy to raise a knowing eyebrow at the romance and the patriotism, but the rhetoric of this enterprise is never empty. As Wood described the Anglo-Saxons in their mead hall, I wondered if perhaps we are not so different, as we sit around our televisions wanting stories of our predecessors and places we know. This is our version of oral culture.

At intervals in the series, volunteers from Kibworth recite aloud from historical documents: the reeve's logbook, or the inventory of a Tudor farmhouse, complete with blankets and porringers. The "school box" yields a miniature history of education. The silences are eloquent, as are the voices. Families that we have come to know go missing from the records abruptly at the time of the plagues. And the parish register for the years 1641-49 is empty, except for a note explaining that the civil war "put all into confusion" - a suitably English understatement.

This is a community history and its telling is a communal venture that arises from meaningful exchange between amateurs and professionals, novice genealogists, amazed schoolchildren, historians, archivists and archaeologists.

It is also a superb example of television making use of the research that goes on in universities: the whole project pays quiet tribute to the work of the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. Since the inauguration of the centre in 1948, when W G Hoskins, the modern master of local history, led research there, Leicester has been the focus for the study of place names, family names and parish records, and for the wider establishment of local history as a discipline in its own right.

As the series progressed, it became clear that Wood's choice of a Leicestershire village was not as random as he said, and that his ambition to narrate England from the point of view of Kibworth was not so whimsical or outlandish as it might appear initially. The speech mound, he says, is "the meeting point of the local and the national". He is defining his own project, too.

In tandem with the growth of local history as a discipline, intense debates have grown up about exactly what it is. How far can local histories be used as representative case studies in the effort to understand national questions? And should the quadrat be the size of an acre, a village, a county, or a range of hills? These are questions worth asking, because our sense of what constitutes the "local" keeps shifting, and because the future of locality is at stake.

As county boundaries change and England's administrative units multiply, the old county identities dissipate. What takes their place? These may be questions better posed in Kibworth than in general.

There is a long tradition of local writing in England, and a canon of distinguished local histories that deserves a higher profile in our minds and on our bookshelves. John Leland, William Camden, Richard Carew surveying Cornwall, Richard Gough in 1701 writing The History of Myddle, in which he takes us to meet the occupant of each pew in the parish church, Gilbert White recording the life of Selborne: they are the grandfathers of a genre that may become one of our most vibrant forms of expression.

Hoskins opened up new possibilities in 1957 with The Midland Peasant, in which he uses a single place - Wigston - to study the lives of rural workers across England before the Enclosures. It was in this tradition that Cicely Howell made a study of Kibworth from the Middle Ages to 1700, drawing on manorial rolls and the wealth of other records, written both on paper and in the landscape, to tell a micro story with macro implications.

“Can I discover the Plot for myself?" asks Bunting, setting off on her self-appointed task. "And if I can, then perhaps so can you, on your plot." It is a tempting thought. I am already making mental notes for the biography of the small plot on which I live, but which I do not own. And ownership is part of the point: anyone can take imaginative possession of an acre, and perhaps come to feel more connected to that much larger patch of ground - England - that we can never fully know. It's time to throw the quadrat again, before the next census comes round and asks us who we are. l

Alexandra Harris is the author of "Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper" (Thames & Hudson, £19.95)

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?