English landscape, as was

I’m reposting this because I’ve been thinking this summer a lot about English countryside, after being on a course for writing about place at Totleigh Barton in Devon, and also reading Paul Kingsnorth’s book Real England.

Originally posted on August 2008.

I’ve been thinking about the landscape today. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside, one of those children of the safer olden days who was let out from a young age, unaccompanied by adults, us riding bikes many miles from home. A few years later, my mum was desperately upset when a boy in her class (she was a teacher) was murdered by a man while he was out playing on his bike. If that had happened before our pre-teens her attitude to our freedom may have been different. This incident was one of several that reminded us, although we always knew it, that the rural idyll was not inviolable. Another incident was the death from cancer of a local farmworker caused by long hours spraying pesticides. Despite the fact that I grew up in the English county that is probably the most industrialised in its agriculture, with its vast fields and machines and its many souring incidents, I still have a deep nostalgia for the English landscape and a slight sense that it can possibly be recovered, as it was. I think this may be influenced by the fact that my family is very aware of artistic representations of the landscape as it was. As it was, meaning, before the Second War when farmers were encouraged and forced to double productivity.

I’ve just enjoyed watching Andrew Marr’s Britain from Above programme, which uses archive film, aerial images, contemporary data mapping and historic maps to present an overview of Britain as a system – past, present, future; economic, social, environmental. It’s fascinating, if rather Reithian in its style (Marr’s voice merges seamlessly with the clipped tones of the BBC Ancients in the archive clips). Tonight’s programme was about East Anglia, especially West Norfolk, where the fields are bigger and flatter than anywhere else. I felt rather dismayed at the neutral Reithian quality in Marr’s voice when he said that more new towns would cover the fields, and more industry, and with yet more industry would come more yet more new towns.

These nostalgic and perhaps romantic thoughts about landscape have been intensified by walking round Shoreham today, in search of the idyllic pastoral visions of Samuel Palmer. I wanted to know if those close, safe and mystical orchards and woods really existed as in his prints and paintings. Well, I don’t know if you can see any traces of it in my photos. Who knows, of course, if his paintings of Shoreham were in any sense realistic – of course, they probably weren’t. He never showed the hard work of the rural life. But, considering how close Shoreham is to London, it does represent an idyll of sorts. And when you add the layer of nostalgia that Palmer’s association brings, which alerts you to the gnarlier trees and the toytown cottages, it does seem to be patch of England as it was.


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