Whose country is it anyway?
The British countryside is about to go through a once-in-a-generation change. In this three-part series I look at the future for this green and pleasant land. PART ONE: the politics of pastoral
David Hockney’s The Road Across the Wolds: the effect of the Enclosure Acts in full colour
This is a big year for travel in the British Isles. Record numbers of visitors will take staycations. There's an epidemic of walking and outdoor recreation. But the very land beneath our feet is shifting as EU farm subsidies end and ‘rewilding’ looks to become a powerful movement.
In Part One of my look at the British countryside, we’ll look at the political decisions that have shaped this (mostly) green and (largely) pleasant land.
In Geography lessons, we learn that there are (mainly) two types of maps. One is political. It shows countries and borders. The other is physical and shows valleys, depressions, mountains and contours.
In truth, the physical maps are political too. There are very few wild places left on the inhabited planet. Everywhere else, people, urged on by the need to feed themselves, make money and own territory, create and recreate the landscape.
Let me show you how as we take an imaginary flight north over Great Britain from Heathrow Airport.
As we reach our cruise, we see that characteristic patchwork quilt of fields and hedges and boundaries that characterises much of the English countryside. It’s quite a modern landscape, created by the Enclosure movement of the 18th century.
New technology and new thinking led landowners to devote smaller parcels of land to individual crops or livestock. It was massively more efficient. It also meant that the strips of land farmed by individual peasants and the ‘common’, areas no-one owned, began to disappear. With their rural livelihood gone, the villagers flocked to the new industrial towns.
If we happened to fly over the area of Leicestershire where I grew up, we’d see Burbage Common: woods and sparse grass and the remains of an old golf course. It’s the kind of land that was badly neglected, argued over and which nearly disappeared from Britain entirely. It wasn’t until an act of 2000 that a ‘right to roam’ over this so-called common land was permitted.
Burbage Common: all paths lead to roam
We’ll look more closely at Right to Roam in Part 2. For now, let’s continue our flight over Birmingham and Manchester, the great conurbations created in that time and built by that ex-rural labour.
We continue to fly north, over the Scottish border, across the great faultline of Loch Lomond and into the Highlands. Here is a vast, natural wilderness of heather, mountainside and loch.
Only it isn’t a wilderness.
The map of the Highlands of Scotland is even more contemporary than those enclosed fields and industrial cities further south. People have been uprooting and burning the old forest here since the Dark Ages and longer: by 1350, only 4% of the old tree cover remained, according to some estimates. But in the 19th century, the land was properly cleared in favour of grazing and shooting. A new symbiosis began. The hunters wanted the tree cover gone. The deer they hunted ate the saplings before they could grow. When people got in the way with their inconvenient crofts, the kind of small-scale farming that the English had long got rid of, they too were cleared, to the barren Scottish beaches and to faraway new coasts, in America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
The Highlands: modern and manmade
Finally, let our plane loop around and follow the East Coast back south. As we sail over the flatlands of East Anglia and Essex, we see the landscape change again. Now, instead of those pockets of green and brown, there are giant expanses of green, yellow and ochre. This is the latest change to Britain's physical/political map: mega-farms and gigantic fields of barley wheat and beef pasture. They were created in part by the European Union’s system of subsidies, in part by the voracious demands of supermarkets, in part by corporate consolidation.
Essex: the only way is mega
Now, in 2021, the map could be about to change again. We have left the European Union. Environmentalists see it as a chance to reset the balance between nature and humans, profit and sustainability. And the Government seems to agree.
And in Scotland especially, an even more daring experiment is already under way, to bring the trees back and ‘rewild’ that ancient landscape.
And there’s something else. Thanks to COVID, more and more Britons are taking to the woods and the fields in search of fresh air, exercise and mental stimulus. I can see it for myself, every day, in the fields and valleys of the Chiltern Hills, where I live. I can also begin to see another change in the geography caused by politics and money: the felling of ancient woodland and deep gashes in the land made to accommodate the new HS2 railway.
Loyalties and land
Boris is driving the tractor. Credit: Financial Times
There’s a lot of other news around. In normal years, the agricultural debate would be big news, regularly. Instead, you have to ferret around quite hard to find much coverage.
But the latest Environment Bill is on its way to the Lords, promising ‘targets, plans and policies for improving the natural environment’.
Farming and countryside is creeping up the agenda. Where will our loyalties lie as the rural economy faces its latest shake-up?
It’s become a truism that we live in an ever more polarised world, one where facts take second place to tribalism.
Well, let me start with a concession. I was, and remain, a committed European. But the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, formed to suit very different landscapes and vociferous farming lobbies, has been A Bad Thing for this country. And it follows that if this and subsequent governments get it right, then this is one area where ‘taking back control’ (the favoured, and for most part nonsensical, slogan of the Brexit lobby) might really come to mean something.
The CAP has changed and the EU is also talking a good game on diversity, subsidy and the environment. Whether that’s just words is no longer of much relevance to the UK.
But farming communities may have a shock coming. Here in the rural Chilterns and close to those mega-farms in East Anglia, the local population was solidly pro-Brexit. They may well find that the subsidies that have been succouring them since we joined the EU in the early 1970s are no longer so reliable and nutritious. Then they might find their loyalty to the Brexit cause stretched.
The Government has also set itself more ambitious targets to cut emissions than its erstwhile European partners. So keep an eye on next month’s budget. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has already described the rebate on the dirty ‘red diesel’ farmers use to run their machinery on as a ‘£2.4 billion tax break for pollution’. In 2020, he decided that tax break would, well, stay. What about 2021?
Ex-urbans: The new country dwellers
In the next part, we’ll look beyond the politics and into the hearts of the people who live in the British countryside.
I moved from London to rural Buckinghamshire in 2007. There has always been a trickle of people who wake up in the city one day and find themselves yearning for more space, inside and out, for a dog, for walks and clean air. I call us ‘Ex-urbans’. In this past locked-down year, the trickle has become a river as city dwellers came to terms with the fact that a daily commute to a city centre office may not, in fact, be an inescapable fact of life after all.
The rise of Exurbia has deep implications for the rural/urban divide, Britain’s very own, historic and long-running version of a Culture War. More of that next time.
Who will free the trapped mammals of London?
Songs that take you places
I wanted to choose a piece of British folk music to go with this post. This song, of Scottish origin, tells a familiar old story: a beautiful girl is betrothed against her will to a rich man when she is in love with another – in this case, the bonny an’ braw Annachie Gordon. He may be pretty, says Jeannie’s father, aye, but where are his lands?
The story plays out as these ballads tend to play out. It doesn’t end well for Jeannie and it doesn’t end well for Annachie; but the poor folk get to be immortalised in verse and song and if only in this one way, through death, they get to frustrate the will of the rich and the powerful.
Melodically, this is far more interesting than the plod-plod plod-plod-plod of many traditional ballads, with the second part of each verse begging for the vocal ‘attack’ of a confident singer.
Here is such a singer. When I was a teenager, my great friend Stephen Cave got me along to the Ampersand Folk Club, upstairs at the Queen’s Head in the Leicestershire village of Barwell. Nic Jones was always the biggest draw, and to this day, he is perhaps the singer and guitarist most loved and honoured by his folky peers. (Stephen listens to him avidly still, and recommends this documentary about Nic’s life).
Nic Jones’s hypnotic version of Annachie is one of the live music memories I’d take to a desert island, or anywhere, ahead of Eric Clapton, ahead of U2, ahead of many others. Bob Dylan has a line about people telling him he has the blood of the land in his voice (get you, Bob). Well, the voice of Nic Jones has the very sap of our land in his: mellifluous, sturdy as an oak, yet strangely fragile for all its masculine strength.
(And it wasn’t until Liam Gallagher came along that you’d see a finer pair – if indeed they are a pair – of eyebrows anywhere).
So get his version. As it’s not on your favourite downloading service, I’ve put the spooky version by The Unthanks on the Marklands playlist. Annachie has wooed a lot of female singers in his time too. Many versions are sweet, passionate, but forgettable. This one is raw as the Northumbrian wind.
Let’s end with my very favourite fact of 2021 so far
Sometimes you’re listening to the radio in the car and you just shout WOW at the windscreen. That’s what I did listening to the Radio 4 series NatureBang.
They have discovered that dogs and other animals do not wee or poo at random. They choose to do it facing south along the Earth’s magnetic field!
The way animals find paths and sense magnetism is a little-explored area of science. And as we are animals too, maybe we can find out how to locate the GPS buried deep in us?
Duchess (see last MARKLANDS) doesn’t need eyes (or me) to find her way