Reflections on the ‘countryside’

This blog is called ‘Landscapes of the Normans’ and so far, there’s been very little about landscapes, though rather more about Normans. As other articles and projects are now done and away, I can finally get on with drawing together the disparate threads of the landscapes project, send in the book proposal and write it [1]. Recently, a modernist friend, Matthew Kelly, wrote a long post relating to his current research on the nature state, national parks, and rewilding asking ‘what is the countryside for?’ His answer was nine-fold and for me posed interesting questions about definitions, the longue durée, and historical responses to the problem of people living on this planet.

What follows is some gentle musings to return to while writing the landscapes book, rather than a sustained argument. I am a social and cultural medievalist who works on landscapes, rather than an environmental historian and while environmentally informed and conscious, I would not describe myself as an environmentalist. I can see the faults in modern farming, but do not regard farmers as the mother of all evils. Biodiversity is essential, but I have little patience with the evangelical end of the rewilding debate spearheaded by George Monbiot [2]. I am certainly no expert on policy, subsidies or legislation, not is this a critique of Matthew’s post.

The first question that came into my mind was ‘what is the countryside?’In a very simple sense it is, of course, the land in rural areas as opposed to urban ones. It conjures images of pastoral landscapes vs industrial ones. It sets up a dichotomy of country vs town. From a historical point of view this troubles me and I think we need to break it down. Walking through most upland areas is not to walk through a magically non-industrial land. Instead the walker will encounter the remains of mines, quarries, kilns, mills (of all kinds). These vestiges argue for considering countryside and non-countryside areas together and thinking much more about the relationship between the two. Historically, that connection has been there certainly from the Roman period onwards, both at a local level and a more trans-national one.

The countryside is also not an entity that exists outside of time and space. As Matthew’s work and that of many other people shows, it is managed in various ways. The debate surrounding land management, rewilding and access in Britain has often seemed somewhat ahistorical as if these were somehow all modern problems that require modern solutions. In my own area of medieval studies, there are countless examples of conflicts regarding landholding and resource management with the fish weirs clause of Magna Carta being perhaps the most famous. It was generally understood that groups or individuals could not damage their neighbours’ lands through flooding, diverting watercourses and so on with impunity. Recompense was necessary in cash, kind of the removal of the obstacle. The rights to pannage, grazing, collection of wood etc. were also all regulated through agreements and enforced in local courts. The work of Richard Hoffmann is essential in understanding the interactions between humans and the environment and how the role of institutions gradually changed in managing and safeguarding rights. Sustained engagement with a longer history is missing from much of the current debate with the exception of occasional references to the Cistercians with regard to water management.

Another thing that struck me about Matthew’s post was his section on mindfulness, particularly with regard to 30days Wild and other initiatives designed to promote wellbeing [3]. Medieval society was far more outdoors than now and the idea that individuals would spend all day indoors would be baffling. Certainly there were ideas of outside spaces being ones of leisure. Gardens within aristocratic households were a feast for the senses, while nobles also hunted for fun. Miracle stories abound with children playing (and things going very wrong). That other group for whom the countryside was a way of promoting thinking was of course professed religious. What is interesting here, particularly in the Benedictine tradition, is the question of stability to a place and the connection between individual and place within the terms of the community. Much is made of sustainability in modern debate, but very little on stability. This needs thinking about.

Connected to the idea that unhappiness is caused in part by alienation from nature the debate could perhaps be broadened out, particularly in relation to food security, something that doesn’t get talked about too often. Allotments are a precious resource and have become fashionable amongst the middle classes concerned about food production, rather, as in my grandfather’s day, a means of ensuring fresh fruit and vegetables for working-class families [4]. I’m lucky and have a garden in which I can grow things with varying degrees of success, but the trend in my area is to concrete or build over gardens, to cut down on outdoor areas and to cram as many people into as small a space as possible. It is more common on the continent for people to rent apartments in the big cities, but to have a plot of land elsewhere for leisure and growing food. Schools in this country are beginning to foster horticulture through school gardens as well as greater environmental awareness through the Forest Schools initiative. My own university has little allotments for different groups to maintain. Access to the countryside is debated a lot, but isn’t always possible (transport being key here), but the creation and care of school, community, church, and so on gardens within urban areas would so, so much for wellbeing.

I mentioned food security above. One thing that does trouble me, and perhaps this is connected to subsidies and policies, is seeing land given over to vast solar farms to generate electricity. I don’t know what effect this has on the immediate environment, but I remain unconvinced that this is a good use of land. It seems a way of salving corporate consciences. Why not, as elsewhere in Europe, build solar panels in carparks?

Finally, where can wild places be found? One of the books that I’ve read this year is Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts who argue for wilderness in what seems like unpromising places. I read large parts on it on train journeys through many of the edgelands described in the book and it struck a chord. The unmanged left-alone places are found in among the self-setting buddleia creating new ecosystems [4].


[1] I originally started the landscapes project in a different form in 2007. Why I still haven’t written the book is a boring tale.

[2] Monbiot’s ideal landscape would be impossible without a massive reduction in population. In the meantime, he ignores the fact that communities exist based around specific rural economies like farming. This Guardian piece from 2013 sums up some of the problems, even in the parallels are overblown in places.

[3] Mindfulness is one of those words, like resilience, that has gained a lot of currency in the past few years that seems divorced from its original meaning. Like resilience it is often used, to my cynical mind, by HR people as a way of pushing the blame and responsibility for bad working practices onto the individual.

[4] My grandfather continued to grow fruit, veg and flowers throughout his life until incapacitated through a series of strokes. The taste of fresh runner beans, gooseberry crumble or a dish of plums takes me straight back to a small sunny corner of southeast Wales.

[5] These areas can prove very frustrating if in proximity to one’s garden.


Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

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