Among the stalactites and stalagmites of Kent’s Cavern, the impressive cave system at Torbay in Devon, early hominids, Neanderthals and Stone Age men successively lived. The caves gave them shelter from south-west winds and opened to the light from the east. Earlier, bears had hibernated in the darker recesses of the caves. Now the caves are an inspiring visit for tourists and a challenge for artists; but, for most of their long human history, they reflected the struggle of man, like other creatures, to adapt successfully to the land and the opportunities and problems it posed. The long and complex history of the British Isles in part represents the interaction of man and a very varied natural environment. This environment is the proper focus at the outset because it greatly helped shape life in Britain and is still very important today. The British Isles are both part of Europe and yet, from the Mesolithic period in about 6500 BCE,1 separated from it by the sea, an important aspect of national history and identity. The British Isles have a very varied geology, topography, climate and natural vegetation. We should be careful about projecting the modern environment onto the past: climate and drainage, even the coastline and water levels, were different. Yet, in simple terms, the bulk of the west and north of Britain is higher and wetter, its soils poorer and its agriculture pastoral rather than arable: centred on animals, not crops. Much of Ireland is like west and north Britain, although there is less high land. However, there are many exceptions to this description of the British Isles as a result of a highly complex geological history and of great climatic variations.
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