Rainham Marshes (2010)
When someone talks about the creation of a ‘new nature’ expect a fight. Yet it is happening all the time, since human activity has been re-shaping the natural world for millennia. Nevertheless, the pace of change has been accelerating, and for many observers now appears out of – if not beyond – control. Oliver Rackham wrote in his excellent ‘History of the Countryside’ that ‘Much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognizable to Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognized by Emperor Claudius.’ Coming closer to home he also noted that the pattern of development in south-east Essex today ‘has all been inserted into a grid laid out nearly two thousand years ago.’ When landscape architect Peter Beard marked out the footpath systems for the new RSPB site at Rainham Marshes, on the Thames, close to London, he told me he was following the lines of ancient brushwood tracks, traces of which date back to the Bronze Age.
The claim that we are in the process of creating a new nature is made by environmental historian, Paul Warde, in a collection of essays, Local Places, Global Processes, just published by Oxbow Books. Warde is one of a number of artists, academics and environmentalists gathered together for a series of workshops held at three large nature conservation projects in England, the papers, reports and findings of which are now in print. The projects evaluated were: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, the Quantock Hills (England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and Kielder Water and Forest in Northumberland, an almost entirely twentieth-century man-made environment of reservoirs and commercial forestry.
This is probably a book for a specialist readership, particularly those involved in nature conservation and landscape character assessment (though there is by now a tourist industry audience keen to develop new niche markets in ‘green leisure’). Issues of what is beautiful, what is sustainable, what is authentic and what is truly ‘wild’ are repeatedly discussed, often in subtle and rewarding ways. T.C.Smout’s short essay, ‘Birds and Squirrels as History’, is especially enjoyable and original, in tracing the rise and fall of different avian species in relation to social and economic changes in the environment. Equally clear-eyed and to the point is Paul Warde’s chapter, ‘Names and Places’, alerting us to the impoverishment of environmental awareness resulting from the loss of attention to the proper names of things and their provenance – an issue on which Robert Macfarlane has been much exercised in recent times, and rightly so.
The contributors make up a broad church, working along a continuum of interest in landscape matters, ranging from the art-historical, the aesthetic, the conservationist, the managerial, to those working in landscape design, as well as people interested in deep ecology and re-wilding. This is welcome. Although I much enjoyed Richard Mabey’s recent dismantling of the reputation of Capability Brown in the New Statesman, echoing and developing Mabey’s long-standing scepticism about nature conservation in general, and landscape architecture in particular, there is also much to be admired in the work of those who are trying to bridge the gaps, and work across the borders.
Neither is it too late to change your mind. Marianna Dudley tells the story of how the ageing Wordsworth – of whom it is commonly believed that he became an irredeemable and intransigent Tory – was told that his dinner party host one evening was the man responsible for building a wall across a local footpath. On learning this the poet shouted, ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again. I am a Tory, but scratch me on the back deep enough and you will find the Whig in me yet.’ That is fighting talk.
Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton
Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County
10-11 September 2016
Ken will be joining a panel at the Radical Essex weekend on Saturday 10 September at Silver End to discuss Landscape, Identity & The London Spill. Other speakers include Matthew Butcher, Tim Burrows, Gillian Darley, Charles Holland and Rachel Lichtenstein. For the full programme of the weekend’s talks and visits go to: www.fpg.org.uk