England’s Green & Pleasant Wilderness

BY GRAHAM CUNNINGHAM

One of the consequences of getting older is that things ain’t what they used to be. This is something often said of the English countryside – amongst many other things of course. You will regularly hear tutting about suburban sprawl, new road schemes, wind turbines, agri-business farms, poly-tunnels and endless fields of rapeseed. You are on pretty safe ground in the pub or at a party lamenting any of the above and can count yourself as being on the side of the rural environment. To be a state-of-the-art countryside good guy though you also need to be a believer in Biodiversity.

Another consequence of getting older is the realisation that there can be a downside to everything. Could that even include Biodiversity? I was put in mind of this the other day by a comment of a friend about the Government’s ‘Agri-environment Schemes’ which “provide funding to farmers… to farm in a way that supports biodiversity and enhances the landscape”. One result of this, according to him, is that farmers allow hedgerows to become too dense – and with too many trees – such that there are less and less gaps in them where you can get a view of the landscape and of distant vistas. It may ‘support biodiversity’ he says but it certainly does not ‘enhance the landscape’. This would be heresy to today’s environmentalists but I say he makes a good point. Whether it’s walking, cycling or driving, there are few things as delightful to the eye as gap views over the rolling hills and valleys of England’s green and pleasant land. Even a partial loss of this should give the agri-environmentalists pause.

My own beef with agri-environmentalising the countryside is the rampant spread of ivy which is increasingly clogging up and damaging our lovely native deciduous trees and which – according to enviro-experts – you are not supposed to cut back. Instead of graceful tree canopies with branches subdividing into ever more delicate shapes, what you are, these days, increasingly likely to see is a sort of Jackson Pollock abstract – mad, dark splodges of dense evergreen ivy seemingly lobbed at the trees, relegating the branches to a mere spidery backdrop. I wouldn’t mind there being less trees (in the hedgerows) as long as the ones left could be kept free of ivy and so retain their picturesque – almost uniquely English – charm.

There was a Gardeners’ Question Time about this on Radio 4 a while back. I managed to find it again on the Web and here is an extract:

“I have question,” says a politely spoken listener, “Am I alone in being worried by the vast numbers of trees being killed by ivy infestation? Nobody seems to be cutting the stuff to keep it in check these days”.

“Well, Matt?” says Eric the GQT chairperson, “You’ve often leapt to the defence of ivy in the past?”

“I have indeed,” says regular panellist Matt who goes on to advise that ivy doesn’t actually kill trees, not “as such”. He concedes that when the ivy gets right up into the canopy it might look unsightly to “certain people” and can be “inclined to do damage” from the windsail effect, but overall “the gains are much greater”.

At which cue the other expert panellists are brought in. A breathless paean to ivy’s arthrodic gains then ensues among Matt, Pippa, Christine and Eric.

“A fantastic food source for all sorts of insects,” says Christine.

“Yeh,” says Matt in expert-panellist transport of delight, “Yeh, wasps and flies and all sorts of interesting…bluebottles, even”.

“There you are, ‘Mr Fear’”, rounds off chairperson Eric with a pleasant ex-cathedra: “the benefits (of ivy) far outweigh its ill effects.”

These biodiversity-obsessed experts seemed completely unable to grasp the point actually being made, which is, in essence, an aesthetic one. It is about beauty and ugliness. Those of us who cherish England’s traditional green and pleasant landscape are up against a growing constituency for whom any real appreciation of its essential picturesque character been supplanted by a kind of angst-filled, quasi-moral abstraction called ‘The Environment’. There is no logical reason anyway to suppose that biodiversity is incompatible with a bit of manicuring of the countryside that was normal in former times when many people still worked the land.

Doubtless some good things have come from recent concern for biodiversity but the downside has been this rather Rousseauesque conception of countryside as a kind of wilderness – a state of natural grace fallen victim to the ravages of mankind. Absent from this new conception is any understanding that much of England’s green and pleasant land is actually the legacy of its former landed estates and of the countryside idyll of the Victorians and Edwardians – who understood that the purely ‘natural’ can be enhanced with landscaping, elegant walls and railings, finger-post signs and other forms of ornamentation. This was a vision of England still evident in railway and Green Line bus posters in the 1930s and 40s.

A confession: my wife and I have, over the years, watched quite a lot of Miss Marple on the telly. Midsomer Murders even. In fact we joke that the picturesque village where we live is Midsomer…without the murders…at least not yet. A large part of the attraction of this stuff – one that makes you put up with the absurd storylines – is the escape it offers to this quintessentially English rural idyll. And it is an idyll that is not to be sneered at or sacrificed to Biodiversity.

Of course our national landscape has been subject to huge demographic and economic changes since those times and we have no choice but to yield to them. But what need not change is the aesthetic sensibility that reached its apogee in the artistry of Capability Brown and Gertrude Jekyll. Yes, these historical  icons are still cherished but an internet search in 2019 will find no echoes of their sense of the possibility of such a thing as a beneficial intervention in the rural landscape; merely a tut-tutting about those more obviously unwelcome interventions mentioned previously.

You could say: But isn’t this all a bit academic anyway now that so few people actually work the land? Yes but if countryside guardians like Natural England and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England gave a lead in re-kindling an aesthetic dimension to our idea of the environment, this might be a spur to the growth of local voluntary groups dedicated to looking after hedgerow trees – similar to that which already happens, for example, with seasonal hedge-laying. Unless we regain our deep appreciation of what is special about our countryside; understand that it is not a wilderness but the product of centuries of husbanding by man – then to adapt Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous lines about Goldengrove unleaving – it may one day be that it is England we are grieving for.

Guest Writer Graham Cunningham is a writer of occasional essays for various conservative-leaning journals in the UK, USA and Australia; most recently these in The New Criterion, Quadrant and Salisbury Review. He is a retired architect.