Gardening: Wild men hidden in a landscape

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The idea that Herefordshire should be the birthplace of a movement does not come particularly easy. This is in no sense a revolutionary county. Some of its leading figures did go so far as to be Royalist during the Civil War, the antithesis of a revolutionary cause but at least a romantic one. Apart from that, the place seems mostly to have kept its head down.

So it was something of a surprise to discover that the Picturesque was invented by two squires in the county: Uvedale Price, of Foxley, near Hereford, and Richard Payne Knight, of Downton, near Ludlow. I have previously mentioned the exhibition that celebrates these two men, and the show has just moved from its first venue at Hereford Library and Art Gallery, where it was a great success. It can now be seen at the University of Nottingham's Art Gallery, until early September.

At the end of the 18th century, Price and Payne Knight wrote, respectively, an Essay on the Picturesque and a long poem, The Landscape. They argued hard for the sort of interference in the natural world that is recognisable now as hands-on conservation management.

The exhibition shows that two men in a backward county were keen to have a strong element of the wild around their houses. They were concerned to see, as Payne Knight wrote, vistas that showed 'secret skill and counterfeit neglect'.

The result was a sort of contrived scruffiness in which old trees, copses and undergrowth were left and even accentuated. At Foxley, the Price family made natural-looking ponds in a secluded horseshoe- shaped valley at the heart of the estate. They built a Gothic folly around which they planted oaks, now in their prime.

Buzzards hunting over this country emphasise the only difference between us and the people who quietly worked it in the 18th century: we stress its quality as a habitat for wildlife. We take comfort in places like this, reassured that the natural can survive progress. Two hundred years ago, Price and Payne Knight probably felt much the same, but they also believed that a well-run estate, and its aesthetic appeal, might help people to relish essentially English compromises, rather than fall for the democratic tyranny that was replacing monarchical absolutism in France at the time. They thought 'Capability' Brown and his patrons too triumphalist. They would not have used such expressions, but they were emphasising the evolution of both scenery and constitutions over the revolutionary.

They were also creating pictures out of landscape. Payne Knight collected sketches by Claude Lorrain, and it was the idealised countryside of these scenes that he wanted to see blossoming in England. To that extent, it is wrong to overplay the naturalism in the enterprise. This was landscape as argument. Payne Knight was a born controversialist: he outraged England with his book, Priapus, an account of the role of the penis in Christian symbolism.

The Picturesque landscape at Downton is now somewhat overgrown, which, if anything, enhances its value as a prized nature reserve. Luckily for English Nature, which runs but does not own the place (and helped sponsor the exhibition), the local EN site manager is Tom Wall. When he arrived in the county, he little thought that his career in conservation would draw heavily on his degree in history. But so it proved when he realised that at Downton he would be in charge of a place which was intended, and has remained, a living text in the philosophy of aesthetics.

Oddly enough, when Mr Wall was a boy, his father brought him to walk (and, more enjoyably, to 'mess about') at Downton, when its history was barely known. It was just a lovely gorge of the river Teme, whose steep and wooded banks were faintly reminiscent of far better known scenes at Symonds Yat (similarly a place where 18th-century landscape architects explored the idea that cragginess could be lovely if viewed as 'sublime').

At about the same time, Mr Wall read The Secret of the Gorge by Malcolm Saville, a ripping children's yarn in the mode which delighted kids then and would now seem improbably mild, granted that it tells nothing of glue-sniffing, German rear-gunners or marital breakdown. It was set in Downton, and so contributes to Mr Wall's sense that the place goes rather deep with him.

One of the strangest aspects of Downton is that Payne Knight not only altered the landscape, mostly by opening up vistas in its dense woodland, but also went in for a kind of perceptual trickery which looks like a prefiguring of a modern theme park. On one walk, for instance, he built a sort of medieval grotto through which one must pass, and also put a wall between the approach path and the river. He lined this wall with yew trees. Thus, as one approaches the 'tunnel', one loses sight and sound of the river. As one walks through a little building, it is discovered to have a bend in it: so one walks into darkness, and then, suddenly, turns a corner and is ravished by an especially favoured view of the river, and the return of its sound. It is a little like a tunnel of love in a fair, or even a Disney ride: very mild in comparison, of course, but similar in the manipulation of the senses.

Mr Wall believes that Downton ought to be returned to something like its 18th-century appearance. The historian in him is not in conflict with the conservationist, he insists. The osprey we saw gliding over on the day we visited Downton would find the landscape just as rich either way. The greater difficulty is that the more the gorge is returned to the appearance it had when Payne Knight's guests investigated its messages, the more odd it will seem that nowadays it is not open to the public at all. No mystery or wickedness here: this is private land on which there are famous, but not public, footpaths. English Nature's lease was designed solely with conservation in mind. One day, perhaps, access will be granted, but for now, seeing these famous vistas is a privilege restricted to those who can persuade Mr Wall to take them on a walk.