The British countryside is dying - but do we want to save it?

For a century, Britain's relationship with nature has been a complex one – but with the advent of regular extreme-weather events, it has become utterly muddied. Now we don't know where we stand, says the author and farmer Brian Morton

Brian Morton
Thursday 04 February 2016 21:09
Hell and high water: a Somerset farmer surveys the damage flooding has done to his land and livelihood
Hell and high water: a Somerset farmer surveys the damage flooding has done to his land and livelihood

If the definition of a crofter is someone who farms but also does something else, then we probably fit the spec fairly closely. For the past few years, my wife and I have inhabited a small former monastery in the south-west of Scotland – only a mile or so, in fact, from where Saint Columba came ashore in AD563 and began the process of evangelisation and colonisation that led to the creation of first Dalriada and then Scotland as distinct nations. We are about 70 per cent self-sufficient in fuel, thanks to an abandoned Christmas tree plantation on our land and abundant scavengable timber on the hill around; we're about 50 per cent (to date) self-sufficient in food. We are surrounded by miles and miles of bugger all. Changing weather, which is the small-print, equivalent of large-type "climate change", coupled with hundreds of acres of felled hillside has turned the glen we inhabit into a vicious run-off for an already generous rainfall. Friends worry about us. Those in the south who see our corner of the map disappear under Ghostbusters blobs of forecast rain and who see flooding footage on the evening news regularly call to see if we have been washed away. Their logic appears to be that if it is wet in Tooting, conditions must be biblical in the north.

We inhabit ultima Thule, a land so far beyond Starbucks as to be almost unimaginable, and the word they like to use is "wilderness", which is something of a giveaway. Their first thought isn't for our goods and chattels. They don't worry that we'll be sluiced of property and possessions – if not life – like the recently looted villages of Cumbria.

The real situation is very different and somewhat worse than they imagine, its woes compounded of weather change, simple economics, political myopia and, at a deeper level, a basic shift in our foundational myths.

The proof of a wider change of consciousness about the landscape is the current spate of "wilderness" broadcasting, live lambing and companionable walking tours. Country life has been anagrammatised as Countryfile with its upbeat agenda and bravely borne setbacks. And yet, for all this, we are losing our sense of the countryside as replenishing and nurturing. Instead, it is turning in the national unconscious into a place that gives only grudgingly and bitterly.

Britain has no real wilderness, and hasn't had for centuries. Apart from the high tops and a few uninhabitable islands, there are almost no places in the British Isles that do not bear the mark of human hands. We may enjoy the pastoral or the bucolic view, but we have to be aware that these are metaphors that already imply human intervention and control, a centuries-long husbanding of the landscape.

And yet, we may now be losing even this guiding metaphor. I've just been reading – and this may seem a jump – Stacy Schiff's new book on the 1692 Salem witch trials. What comes out of that account most vividly is not The Crucible-y stuff but the suffocating sense of a community that existed with genuine wilderness at its back, populated by wild beasts, Indians and the occasional maverick Frenchman with a musket; the countryside was a dangerous place that seeped into the soul and conjured up devils. How's it relevant? Because, I suspect, that is the direction in which we are heading.

Worcestershire fields are flooded, as the Severn breaks its banks again

We didn't always admire a "view"; the British too tended to imagine the countryside as dangerously unstructured and aggressive. This was the doing of (mostly) southern or metropolitan intellectuals who had the leisure and resources to inspect their own reactions to landscape rather than having to wrestle a subsistence from it.

The poet William Cowper once pulled down the blinds on his coach because he couldn't bear the violence of the Lake District landscape. Cowper was only a generation older than Wordsworth, who managed to find majesty and a strong moral lesson in the Lakes and, critically, among their human inhabitants. Now, they are, in every sense, a resort.

My sense, as a countryman of sorts, is that we are now losing any sense of the country as origin, only to pursue it as a kind of consolation. Our problems with the landscape are not "environmental" or "ecological" so much as philosophical. And in the absence of a deeper understanding of what the countryside represents, we face a net loss. What hastens to fill it is a shelf-full of books about climbing, about wilderness walks, about lost tracks and lost languages, all of it expressive of a nostalgia for something that perhaps never existed other than as a literary and artistic metaphor.

Our own visitors fall into two types. There are those who frankly admit they couldn't put up – long term – with the mud and water-carrying, the lack of street lights, shops, amenities and company. And there are those, the more irritating variety, who declare that this is the life, the good life, a way of living innocent of knife crime, drugs and the sheer ghastliness of High Holborn at rush hour.

It seems churlish to insist that an idyll is very hard work indeed, involving the chainsaw and the drum of glyphosate, the weekly trek up the hill to clear leaves and needles – spruce, not hypodermic – from the spring, the depredations of mink and fox. There are days when, like Cowper, we pull the blinds and play Kind of Blue at high volume, wishing to be somewhere else.

Water falls: the stream beneath the author’s house

But then again, there are days like these when perceptions play the other way round. When wild weather hits and BBC reporters take to dinghies for live feeds – that's when the solicitous calls from friends in towns and cities start. Which is when we have to explain that, when our house was built, no one was reckless or venal enough to put down foundations on a flood plain or on the low bank of a river that inundates. We live 30ft from (and above) a small river – we call it a burn, just to make it feel small – that since October has been the consistency of roiling hot chocolate and which roars past us at 30 miles an hour and with the sound of a lorry in too high a gear.

The country isn't just dirty. It's noisy, too. And in this case, not just blustering but genuinely dangerous. A few year ago, a local farmer was swept off his footbridge and drowned by the current while filming the spate. It was a local tragedy, with a broader metaphorical dimension: the landscape turning rough; that he was filming it to show friends rather than rescuing a bullock; the subsequent rapid turnover of owners on that outwardly benign farm.

The familiar rural tropes are being flip-flopped. Instead of country living as idyll or escape, it has started to seem dangerous again, possibly even a bit nasty. The fresh rise of urban gardening, on roofs, in pocket-handkerchief back gardens and in public spaces, is partly a response to a recognition, perhaps not quite conscious yet, that something has gone dreadfully wrong with our notion of the country as philosophically and morally purer.

There's a neat little sexual frisson when the visiting Richard Hannay meets the cotter's young wife in Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty Nine Steps (and John Buchan, who wrote the novel a century ago, is a useful barometer for changing attitudes to natural wildness), but it's the Highland farmer himself who speaks the telling lines: man made the towns, God made the country. But it seems that he might have deserted it.

Such big cultural paradigms don't usually change overnight. I've spent much of the past month explaining to a home-schooled 11-year-old that the Industrial Revolution didn't start with the raising of a red flag but was a long and slow process. And yet it's possible to suggest that the short 20th century put paid to much of our understanding of the country as a natural home for a self-conscious species. (That is to say, from roughly 1914, the year Buchan's "shocker" was taking shape in his mind, to that strange decade between 1979 and 1989 when the fear of communism and nuclear disaster was replaced with fear of welfare socialism and, after Margaret Thatcher's United Nations speech on climate change, the near-certainty of environmental disaster.)

The 20th century's two world wars saw the British government exert unprecedented authority over rural life and rural dwellers. Nothing quite like the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act, first issued by King George V in 1914 and revived in 1939, had happened in Britain before, not even during the brutal rule of Cromwell's major-generals. Farmers and craftspeople were viewed with suspicion and subjected to a raft of legislation that centralised – some might even say Stalinised – rural life irreversibly. Most famously bonfires and binoculars were banned, but farmers, for example, helpless in the face of Westminster's demands, had the added interference of having to account for every ounce of grain consumed and every animal slaughtered. And the meddling wasn't reversed in the awkward peacetime that followed.

What Buchan had intuited early was the notion that the countryside was becoming the natural habitat of the hostile alien, the fifth columnist who didn't necessarily speak for the Kaiser or later for Hitler, but who definitely threatened the British way of life. His novel's establishing scene takes place in a London service flat, but the men who want to bend the world to their greedy will, and who are the anti-type to Hannay's decent but bored colonialist, all seem to lurk down country roads, on big rural estates and along the coastline. Beware the countryside. The most striking change in British politics came, however, during Thatcher's reign when a genuine country interest virtually disappeared. The former Liberal leader Jo Grimond, who represented a constituency as far away from Westminster as it is possible to get, used to say that the natural state of British politics (and this was before Scottish nationalism was much more than a fanatical gleam in the north) was an oscillation between two major parties – a centre-right and a centre-left – with a small Marxist labour party on the left and a dedicated "country" party on the right.

The author’s vegetable garden 30ft above the stream

At the start of 2016, one part of that equation looks like it might resolve – if the Labour Party splits into social-democratic and socialist wings – but what of the country interest? Who speaks for that? The rise of the Countryside Alliance, formed in 1997 in Kennington, south London, has always had an awkward profile. Too many children of pop stars, raised on manor farms and trout hatcheries bought with royalties and residuals. Too few genuinely mucky boots. One farmer friend looked askance at me when I asked if he was planning to march on the mother of parliaments. "I've got the f**king cows to milk, haven't I?"

The fact remains that the British Isles are one of the most radically depredated corners of Europe. And that's for all our hectic attempts to replace fossil fuels (our last deep colliery just closed but we're still dependent on imported coal); and to portray fracking as a below-the-surface activity that has no deleterious effect on the landscape above (which is questionable to say the least) The results of two centuries of asset-stripping, human clearance and over-rapid urbanisation are all around, and more visible the further north one travels. The countryside, both as fact and as idea, is seriously degraded, possibly beyond recovery. And the less of it there is, the less likely we are to know how we feel about it.

The poet Ted Hughes underwent a curious political transformation in his later life, from libertarian to Establishment figure. The Laureateship gave him access to Balmoral (for the fishing) and to the Duchy of Cornwall (for the promulgation of an often compelling defence of the "traditional" against rampant development). It also gave him access to the more intellectual members of Thatcher's cabinet.

Hughes was a man of contradictions in almost everything he did. Much of the earlier poetry is admirable, even classic, but the later work grew increasingly mannered, personal and as forced as his environmentalism. His passion for the country yielded some of his very best work, a good deal of it intended for children, but also some Nimby-ish campaigning on behalf of his precious trout streams. What he believed was that the country or "nature" was the planet's immune system.

Art, of course, and particularly poetry, was the human race's particular equivalent. Where there was a wound or a conflict, words and images rushed to the site of damage like white blood cells, fighting infection and forming a protective scab. But he was a sincere, passionate and knowledgeable countryman, and he knew that the battle was being lost.

The countryside is dying. The symptoms are economic and they are philosophical; the side-effects of treatment are ambiguous at best. Britain may finally be coming up against the crude Malthusian reality of squeezing 60 million people into just over 120,000 square miles while pretending that we've left lots of countryside to balance it out.

But the question is, if we're not even sure how we feel about the countryside, let alone whether we want to live in it or not, how can we guarantee that in another couple of hundred years' time there will still be enough of it left to feel anything about at all?

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