Thursday, 4 December 2014

Where is the (human) life of the fields?

After a two month lay-off due to a ruptured Achilles tendon I am glad to be back out roaming again. A day of late autumnal brilliance led me to a favourite place, the hidden combes below the hamlet of Cold Ashton: a becalmed swathe of deep England happy in its steeply contoured obscurity. I’ve been afoot here for a decade, at least twice a year. Absorbing the solitary serenity it occurred to me that I could hardly recall ever meeting or even seeing another human being on these numerous wanderings, once away from the road. To be in a long settled and wrought landscape, a stone’s throw from Bath and Bristol, in a densely populated country and have the place to yourself – acres of splendid isolation - is a curious thing. There is much to gain from wandering alone – time to think, away from the clamouring noise of everyday life – but this got me wondering existential thoughts about the very idea of my lone occupation of such places.

How we, the neo-landless masses, interact with landscapes outside of the narrowly prescribed to and fro of our immediate living, working, leisure and travel environments is something to ponder whilst out on an unshackled walk: even the most lowly cottager of pre-urban society would most likely covet our home comforts but be at a loss to understand how little of the land around us we actually have a stake in through common rights and custom. Such thoughts bring land ownership and legal rights of access into sharp relief, as well as the artificial lines that are often drawn between the rural and the urban. These themes are at the heart of two recent media articles: Prince Charles' comments in Country Life berating the loss of connection between urban dwellers and rural life (apparently unencumbered by the irony of a beneficiary of enormous inherited wealth and estates admonishing the descendants of those driven off the land by poverty or coercion for their lack of understanding of the countryside); and Simon Jenkins' article on threats to the rural landscape as he comes to the end of his term as Chair of the National Trust. In their different ways both seek to reinforce the view that the countryside needs more 'protection' from development and change. This is in many ways an admirable sentiment, as is Jenkins' view, mirroring a current campaign by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, that the pressures on the housing market should be primarily met by developing brownfield and derelict sites in urban areas. 

However, in seeking to preserve the rural landscape in idealised form there is a danger that it becomes an ossified version of itself; notwithstanding the fact that efforts to defend and conserve landscapes in this way, through designation, campaigning, management schemes and so on, necessarily have to focus on those deemed to be of most value, thereby leaving swathes of less heralded countryside at the mercy of intensified agri-business and mission creep urban infrastructure. The binary problem of a concentrated but spreading urban population, culturally adrift from its high status (and high cost) rural hinterland can only be exacerbated if this is our only response to developers and businesses who see the countryside in terms of pound signs. 

Curiously, one of the more optimistic sounding conservation movements of the moment, rewilding, may only add to this problem if followed to its logical extremes (and the rhetoric of some of its advocates seems to be worryingly fundamentalist in tone, with vague exhortations to 'control' human population and immigration). There is certainly significant scope for returning parts of the landscape to a more self-willed natural state - thereby enabling flora and fauna to reestablish a less anthropocene dominated ecological balance. Though rewilding surely has its place, it should be remembered that, in Asa Briggs words "...nature and culture - the latter a word derived from the land - are inextricably entangled in Britain as a whole" and if human engagement with the environment was even more highly concentrated in the urban (and suburban) realm to enable the wild to reassert itself elsewhere then the landscape - and our relationship with it - would be all the poorer.

As the images from my recent walk shown here illustrate, much of the rural landscape is remarkably depopulated, like a Hardy-esque scene 'swept by a spectral hand'. This is at odds with the received wisdom of a crowded, densely populated island where it is no longer possible to find space or tranquillity. In fact in pre-modern societies, though the total population was much smaller than today (cities of any significant size having yet to develop) it was more evenly dispersed, with hundreds of residents in even the most remote parish or township; the shouting and unruly swains, shepherds, woodsmen, maids and gypsies of John Clare's poetry-social commentary. Even in Richard Jefferies time, the late nineteenth century, as he traces the course of a spring-born brook through 'the life of the fields' in Wild Life in a Southern County the wildlife and natural history that he observes are in the context of a highly peopled environment - in field, wood, farmstead, hamlet and village. This pattern of settlement, allied to the fact that the majority of the population were engaged in working the land in some way, meant that today's rural backwaters were much busier places. To give an example, on my three mile route along the hushed valleys around Cold Ashton there can be seen grassed over terraced strip lynchets indicating medieval land under the plough, the ruins of a mill and its silted up pond, woodland intensively managed as coppice until recent times, an abandoned farmstead and numerous tracks and holloways that are now verdant footpaths or overgrown but would have been well used thoroughfares. This pattern could be replicated on a similar short walk in pretty much any part of the British Isles (and would in fact be magnified in many upland areas, often haunted by the memories of even more dramatic abandonment and desertion from prehistoric times through to the early modern period). 

Does this matter? Is it simply an inevitable consequence of processes steadily advancing ever since the first furnaces of the Industrial Revolution were stoked? 

I think, to misuse Rachel Carson's famous phrase, these silent fields do matter. At the conclusion of his treatise on the relationship between the rural and the urban in English literature, The Country & the City, Raymond Williams shines a light on the powerful pressures exerted by capitalism leading to "a simultaneous crisis of overcrowded cities and a depopulating countryside". This remains the nub of the problem; how it can be challenged is the conundrum. Of course I am not advocating a developer's charter to concrete over the countryside, far from it. But perhaps if the concept of 'localism' is to be more than hollow sloganeering then it could be a bulwark to provide room for people, including those from the town looking to renew their links with the land but lacking the City salary or pension to purchase a hobby farm, to re-establish a foothold in the furlong, the coppice, the hillside trod. This means enabling people to build livelihoods, homes and communities in a rural setting, from the bottom up; sometimes this might make, for instance, the Cotswolds look a little scruffier (and upset the coach-bound countryside voyeurs), sometimes it might not work or be unsightly, but what's the alternative? Disconnected populations corralled into brownfield site ghettos whilst the wolf roams a returning wildwood unhindered, in earshot yet far away; and farm managers tend their spreadsheets, a robotic workforce tilling the land. 

If we are to move beyond the long-running position of stasis in the relationship between the wider population and the physical environment in which they live, if G.K. Chesterton's "people of England, that have never spoken yet" (as proxy for people everywhere) are to be awoken from their deep coma of complacency, fatalism and inertia and move beyond reductive visions of the country versus the city, then we could make a start by telling our social history like it really was: the landscape as much a setting for radical transformations as apolitical continuity and conservative evolution. The real story of why and how people left the land, how common land rights and responsibilities operated (and their limitations), how enclosure revolutionised the landscape and "in taking the commons away from the poor, made them strangers in their own land" (as outlined in E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common), and so forth. This is not about looking backwards - yearning for a golden age that never existed. To quote Thompson again "We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities".

So, can I glimpse a possible future in which I would be able to wander these valleys and pass by numerous small communities, their endeavours part of the daily rhythm of a landscape in which they had a stake, freed from wage slave dislocation from their surroundings? Would these green images be enhanced by peopled colour? Wonder at the beauty to be found in the countryside untempered by the melancholy thought that I am merely observing the relics of human activity and there is no one here to enjoy it but me. Perhaps this sounds a little too like Thomas More's Utopian Republic; the idealised pastoral socialism of William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere. Well I'm a dreamer, and maybe that's no bad thing. What thoughts a walk in quiet country can provoke.


Briggs, A. 1987. A Social History of England. Penguin.

Clare, J, 1990. Selected Poems. Penguin.

Hardy, T, 1998. Nobody Comes in Everyman's Poetry: Thomas Hardy. Everyman.

Jefferies, R, 2011. Wild Life in a Southern Country. Little Toller.

More, T, 2003. Utopia. Penguin.

Morris, W, 1993. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. Penguin.

Thompson, EP, 1993. Customs in Common. Penguin.

Williams, R, 2011. The Country & the City. Spokesman.


  1. Great stuff, really enjoy this blog Eddie, keep it up....

  2. Ace piece Eddie. What would this peopled landscape look like? What would everyone be doing? What would need to change? Machine breaking? More public/communal ownership? Very thought-provoking.

    1. Good question. Lots of small settlements, producing their own food and products, less intensively than agri-business and in communal ownership; not as a Luddite retreat from society but giving those who want it an alternative to service-sector low wage slavery, homelessness and welfare dependency. We should be harnessing science and technology to make a better world for the many and for the planet not meeting the pointless needs of late stage turbo charged capitalism. Its strange how such sentiments are dismissed as radical and airy fairy idealism when they are really just common sense.

      Anyway, 'up the peaceful transition to a fairer, happier and more sustainable future' would be my catchy slogan. History tells us that epochs and ages, 'isms' and political systems rise and fall and there's no reason why we cannot strive for a utopian rather than a distopian future (unless of course we decide to go back to a monochrome version of 1954 with Mr Farage and his motley crew!

  3. can I recommend if you travel abroad that you visit the part of Romania called Maramures?because there you will find a well populated countryside full of paths (several to every small field) quiet (very few engines used) full of flowers, birds, butterflies, and where local people are the first port of call if you need something making, Fascinating. or try reading "along the Enchanted way" by William Blacker for a sense of it

    1. Sounds an interesting place. I've never been but have a feel for the (pre-war) Rumanian countryside by reading of Patrick Leigh-Fermor's travels there. My only question would be whether this is a society or way of life that's in decline or is it one of vibrant and sustainable renewal? I hope the latter.

  4. Interesting ideas. If you've not already read it, worth having a look at Feral by George Monbiot. In particular the chapters "Sheepwrecked" and, especially, "The Hushings" which looks at this issue as it's playing out in rural Wales, including a very illuminating discussion/debate between Monbiot and an wise-beyond-his-years sheep farmer. Monbiot seems to be feeling his way towards a broader definition of what working the land might involve, i.e. beyond intensive monoculture farming (whether it be arable in the lowlands and sheep ranching in the uplands). He is keen to correct the view that 'rewilding' is the same as 'land abandonment', and argues that rewilded land could offer more and better prospects for local employment and local economies than marginal farm land currently does.

    1. Thanks Jack.

      I have read Feral and enjoyed it up to a point, though I did write a critique of it for the Landscapes journal My problem with George and the Rewilders is that they seem to lack any real understanding of the complex cultural elements in landscape, the layered beauty and interest (as well as the destruction and degredation) that human interaction with the natural world has produced. I too found the sheep farmer interviewed in the book to be a compelling witness and I was not at all convinced by Monbiot's weak and vague references to replacing the traditions of upland hill farming with servicing eco-tourism. To my mind rewilding rhetoric has an evangelical undercurrent that is far too binary (nature good, humanity bad) and this needs challenging if the very real benefits that a move away from an intensive agri-business approach are to be realised. Talk of wolves and lynx is all very exciting but I want to see human society (we are not going to go away) living in closer harmony with the natural world and for this we need far more of us to be living and working out in the landscape, with the echoes of our ancestors all around.

    2. I agree with you that there needs to be more consideration paid to alternative land uses than extensive sheep ranching. And that such consideration should look at the economic and employment, social and cultural and environmental implications. What is beyond dispute is that sheep ranching performs quite poorly on all those criteria. It is economically loss-making and heavily dependent on CAP subsidies. Most upland sheep farming households only stay afloat because they do other profitable, non-agricultural work as well. Ranching employs very few people. It does a lot of environmental harm locally (lack of biodiversity), regionally (increased flood risk) and globally (lack of atmospheric carbon sequestration).

      What other uses could the land be put to that would perform better? It strikes me that there are many, and all of them have roots in culture and traditions of the land. And it needn’t all be eco-tourism, though there’s nothing wrong with that per se. I am thinking of old woodland crafts, charcoal making, beekeeping, candle-making, cheese-making, medicinal plants, mushrooms, dyeing and weaving (I assume we won’t entirely rid the country of sheep). That’s just a list off the top of my head I’ve no doubt there’s more. It does strike me as strange that in the current revival of small scale ‘cottage industries’ like brewing, baking, pickling and so on, most of it is happening in towns and cities not in the countryside. I suppose distance to market is a big part of it but maybe alternative, more beneficent land uses and economic activity is being crowded out by state-sponsored sheep ranching?

      Though a strident voice, I didn’t read Monbiot as advancing the extremist rewilding binary of humans bad / nature good. It’s a common and lazy riposte to accuse someone of being an outside who doesn’t understand country ways. At the heart of Monbiot’s argument is finding a way that human society can live in closer harmony with the natural world. The trouble is, when a landscape becomes a monoculture, the possibilities for people to live and work there are diminished. Incidentally, where does ‘landscape’ stop, and towns, suburbs, and cities begin? Isn’t it all landscape? And if not, doesn’t that betray the same townie romanticism for which Monbiot is criticised?

    3. Excellent blog. The apparent depopulation of our countryside is something I often ponder whilst out and about amongst the hills, mountains and rivers. The homely writings of Fred Archer about the area around Bredon Hill throw into sharp relief the close contact of the human/ animal worked country and the tight bonds between communities, workmates, animals and the landscape they inhabited. How quickly a way of life that survived for thousands of years ceased to be at the turn of the last century and finally post WW1. The recent advent of globaisation, and the cheap food and goods this supplies alongside massive farm subsidies have taken a heavy toll on the countryside and it's current uses and abuses. I for one am not sure we're ever going to see a return to proper working countrside communities. Many hamlets and villages (esp. in the Cotswolds) seem to be nothing more than picturesque dorms for the better off, devoid of life on most weekdays, and lacking in even the basic necessities of a normal community (shops, schools, doctor's, local amenities etc...) . I'm not sure the current form cottage industries are that simialr to those that once flourished, and are really not making much of an impact on countryside prosperity as a whole, as the general audience for the consumables sold seem to be bought by the relatively affluent locals anyway. The local 'proles' still have to trek to the nearest Tesco or Spar to be able to afford to live out there. Plus the relative 'extra' expense of just living in the sticks is almost enough to send you scuttling to the nearest town or city anyway. The costs of country living, taken on average, is nearly 30 percent more than living in larger towns and cities, without the payoff of all the extra amenities on offer.

      As to getting more folk into the wild green, I feel the sedantary lifestyle and tech led pastimes of the masses have also sounded a death nell to mass town exoduses on high days and holidays as once happened. Peoples expectations of what warrants a good time have seen a siesmic shift in the last 20 or so years. If there isn't a sign post to an attraction or something recognised as generally meaningful, people as a rule, won't get out of their cars. My wife's friend once questioned us on where we disappeared to most weekends, when we explained we enjoyed a good hike, her question was "why?" She just didn't get it that a walk was an enjoyable pastime in itself, so it doesn't surprise me that the general populous isn't interested in the great outdoors or getting closer to nature. Let's also be honest, from a purely selfish viewpoint, if the countryside reverted to how it used to be, the relative peace, quiet and freedom we enjoy on an average amble wouldn't exist,

  5. I discovered your blog sometime last year - really absorbing and very readable posts, both stimulating and inspiring, for which thanks. I enjoyed it so much I've been working my way through it from the beginning but this means I'm not very current on commenting on this one! However, a few days after I read this post an old book came into the house called Wildlife of Britain, and I was struck by seeing almost the same question in the opening of the first chapter entitled The Country, as you ask here, so it seems worth a note.

    The book starts 'An American cowboy on his first visit to Britain sat amazed as he looked from the windows of his railway carriage on this journey from Plymouth to London. "But where are all the people?" he asked.' After some discussion about the paradoxes of the British - loving animals but hunting them with almost religious fervour; being an observant and sympathetic nation of natural history recorders but 'laconically accepting the extinction of one more member of our small but interesting island fauna' to 'ribbon development of our countryside' - he goes on to explain the shifts in population and attitude to living things where, in some positive cases 'we have a glimpse of a countryside that could be, not some vast game reserve from which the human animal alone is debarred, but what the biologist calls a habitat - a place where men and other living things share the same ground and attain to a way of living together in tolerance and amity'

    Although we don't get to hear if the cowboy's question was answered, the author does expound on the importance of ecology, wild-life sanctuaries, conserving habitats and the need to encourage residents' pride in their local wildlife; advocacy for National Parks, not just for wildlife but as 'national lungs'; the value of looking upon 'wildlife as sharing our own destiny… we, being human and capable of reflection, ought to sort out our relations one to another with the scientific research techniques becoming available'

    What I find extraordinary about this book is that was written in 1943 by F Fraser Darling, a, it's both exciting to learn there was someone around 70 years ago who was so forward thinking, and that we do now have National Parks, but disappointing that there's still much of his vision yet to come into being.
    Liz Milner

  6. Beautiful post, I think you are right about how the countryside can provoke thoughtfulness, it's something about having that clearer head and the greener landscape!


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