The English landscape over time - review by Susan Owens

Susan Owens

Those Dark, Satanic Hills

The English landscape over time


Going for a walk is no longer the simple thing it once was. First there were the distance restrictions and the police drones; then, with relaxation of the rules, came nettle rash as we rushed to the same favourite sites, squeezing to the sides of narrow lanes – sorry! – in attempts to keep the required distance from each other – thank you!

The relish with which we made for beaches, hills and dales as soon as the most stringent restrictions were lifted suggests a widespread craving for contact with the natural world not met by a brief turn around the local park. Could immersing our pent-up and anxious selves in the countryside be the only way of absorbing the spiritual nourishment of which we are starved? That is the idea at the heart of much nature-writing, the legacy of Rousseau, of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Few writers put it as simply and profoundly as Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain. ‘I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain,’ she writes. ‘It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own.’ In Waterlog, Roger Deakin ponders the apparent metamorphosis that happens when one immerses oneself in a lake or a stream: ‘You are in nature, part and parcel of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land.’ Connection with nature makes us wise; it heals us; it makes us whole.

It hasn’t always been this way. Take the Derbyshire Peak District, the site of the recent incident in which the police, using a drone to make a short film with the aim of shaming couples walking their dogs, inadvertently advertised the spectacular beauty – as we now see it – of the landscape. In 1681, Charles Cotton, self-styled ‘old fashion’d Squire’ and fishing friend of Izaak Walton, wrote a poem about it, ‘The Wonders of the Peake’. Though backhandedly affectionate, it is certainly no panegyric: one stretch of his native country, he tells us, is

so deform’d, the Traveller
Would swear those parts Natures pudenda were:
Like Warts and Wens hills on the one side swell,
To all but Natives inaccessible;
Th’other a blue scrofulous scum defiles,
Flowing from th’ earths impostumated boyles

Put that in your tourist brochure.

But despite its hideous aspect, the Peak District could offer a clutch of natural ‘wonders’ among its caves and watercourses, and Cotton has fun with them, crawling along a slippery precipice in Poole’s Cavern, marvelling at the ebbing and flowing well at Tideswell and describing with relish a particular cave that ‘yields a scent/Can only fume from Satan’s fundament’. Ah yes, that would be the Devil’s Arse. The diarist Celia Fiennes is mildly diverted by the famous ‘wonders’ she encounters during her journey through the Peak District in 1697, but mostly she is exasperated by the inconvenience of the landscape, complaining near Chesterfield that ‘all Derbyshire is full of steep hills … which makes travelling tedious, and the miles long, you see neither hedge nor tree but only low drye stone walls round some ground, else its only hills and dales as thick as you can imagine’. The only thing she can find in the Peak District’s favour is its suitability for mining.

When Daniel Defoe visited the area – a trip described in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–7) – the wonders of the Peak District gave this staunch man of the Enlightenment the opportunity for a good deal of eye-rolling over the credulous gawping they inspired: ‘travel with me through this houling wilderness in your imagination,’ he bids us, ‘and you shall soon find all that is wonderful about it.’ Defoe was filled with contempt for the tawdry ‘wonders’ with which this bleak landscape had been gussied up. There were, though, places that filled him with genuine dread. On the way to Lancaster, he was appalled to find himself trapped between steep hills on one side that ‘had a kind of inhospitable terror in them’ and the sea on the other – ‘desolate and wild, for it was a sea devoid of ships’. Near Kendal he travelled through a landscape he could only describe as ‘terrible’ and ‘frightful’. Captain Burt, a surveyor working in the Highlands of Scotland at around the same time, spoke for many when he described mountains as ‘monstrous excrescencies’, ‘rude and offensive … to the sight’, things of ‘frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom’.

And yet this widespread horror – even disgust – was soon to flip over to something like its opposite. If you wanted to point to a moment at which it began to be possible to feel exhilarated by the beauty and drama of mountains, you could do worse than look at the letters written by the young Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray in 1739, just out of Cambridge, describing their route across the Alps towards Italy. Walpole was entranced. ‘Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa,’ he exclaimed. At first, Gray was ambivalent: ‘Mont Cenis, I confess, carries the permission mountains have of being frightful rather too far.’ By the 1760s, however, he was advocating annual trips to the Scottish Highlands – ‘the mountains are extatic’. Those who had not seen them, he declared, had imaginations ‘made up of nothing but bowling-greens, flowering shrubs, horse-ponds, Fleet-ditches, shell-grottoes, & Chiné-rails’.

Walpole and Gray were ahead of their time in their appreciation of mountainous landscape. By the end of the 18th century, in a cultural climate that promoted sensibility and the pursuit of the sublime, revulsion had turned itself inside out and become wild enthusiasm. People flocked, in particular, to the Lake District, the sights of which were outlined in guidebooks; visitors would gather at well-worn ‘stations’ to experience recommended views. ‘Gold-headed Cane on a pikteresk Toor,’ observed Coleridge drily after his own arrival in Keswick in 1800. Two thirds of the year there was no one much about, but during the summer months the area teemed with tourists, to the extent that it became, he said, ‘the very place I would recommend to a novellist or farce writer’. And then there was Beau Brummell, who one day was pestered by a caller who had made a tour of the north of England into opining on his favourite picturesque spot. Turning to his valet, he drawled, ‘Which of the Lakes do I admire?’ ‘Windermere, Sir,’ came the reply. ‘Ah, yes – Windermere, so it is,’ Brummell declared.

* * *

So Britain’s wild places were tamed by tourists, by guidebook writers and by inns offering nice dinners and comfortable beds, and there were no landscapes left that struck fear into the heart: people were too busy burying their noses in Thomas West’s popular A Guide to the Lakes and prattling about perspectives, distances and Claude Lorrain to feel the horror and desolation so keenly felt by Defoe and his contemporaries. But like many fears apparently successfully suppressed, these feelings had merely taken a temporary dive underground and moved sideways. When they did emerge again, they were attached not to mountains but to flat, uncultivated land and marginal places.

Think of Great Expectations, published in book form in 1861. If it had been written forty years earlier, Magwitch would have lurked amid mountain peaks, like Mary Shelley’s creature. As it is, he haunts the flat ‘marsh country’ near Pip’s home – a Kentish landscape Charles Dickens knew from his childhood. When Pip pauses to look over his shoulder as he runs home after his first encounter with the convict, what he sees is a landscape that seems to have reduced itself in a destructive rage to the most basic of elements: ‘The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed.’ The landscape has become the bars of a cage.

Around the middle of the 19th century came a tipping point in the gradual movement of people away from the country and into towns. For the first time the majority lived in urban areas. Arable land, pasture, orchards, woods, millponds, rutted lanes, cottages and farmyards were no longer daily realities but had to be remembered, imagined and commemorated from a new urban vantage point. In the midst of this rupture, visual art and fiction parted company. Forget avant-garde painting for a moment; open any Royal Academy exhibition catalogue of the later 19th century, and prepare to be overwhelmed by the volume of Calm December Mornings, Summer Twilights and Cattle in Repose. It was nostalgia for a rural past, and it sold. A growing number of writers, however, began to contemplate the landscape rather in the manner of Lady Dedlock at the opening of Bleak House, from inside the house and in a mood of mounting dismay.

In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), the landscape does not merely accommodate potential killers – it is one itself. Near the house is a lonely bay where ‘shifting backwards and forwards at certain seasons of the year, lies the most horrible quicksand on the shores of Yorkshire’. This is the Shivering Sand, which looks, as the maid Rosanna Spearman exclaims, ‘as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it – all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!’ Ten years later, Thomas Hardy countered with something even worse, the ‘untameable, Ishmaelitish’ Egdon Heath, the bleak locale at the centre of The Return of the Native. On top of its general deadliness it has a whole repertoire of unpleasant habits, from making ghostly whispering sounds as the wind blows on the dried-out heath bells to throwing ‘oozing lumps of fleshy fungi’ and twisted furze roots in Eustacia’s path as she makes her last journey across it.

By the end of the century, the very ground under one’s feet could not be trusted. Theodore Watts-Dunton’s novel Aylwin (1898) – phenomenally successful in its day – has a plot that unfolds near dangerously unstable cliffs given to ‘sudden and gigantic landslips’. Its frequent collapses come with a conjuror’s flourish, most sensationally revealing – ta da! – the corpse of a man slung about with the jewels he was attempting to steal. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), the great Grimpen Mire, a patchwork of quicksand, seems to be alive with a supernatural force as it gobbles up wild ponies and villains and plucks malignantly at the heels of those unwise enough to walk there. Roger Deakin didn’t mean that when he wrote about being ‘in’ nature.

These horror-landscapes – marginal, flat, lonely places – may be topographically distinct from mountains; yet they have in common a resistance to cultivation. These sites dwelt in the city dweller’s imagination as the sinister flip side of the idyllic rural scene.

Does the slow pendulum always swing between states of enchantment and horror? The fact that the wilderness now has to be protected from us has undoubtedly shifted the balance of power, and our enforced separation this spring from the wilder landscapes of the UK – for those of us who don’t happen to live in them, that is – probably made us appreciate them all the more. But we have a new adversary in climate change, which is snatching control back out of our hands. In another hundred years, will we be as cavalier as before about launching ourselves at and into the landscape, or will we be glancing nervously over the tops of flowering shrubs from the safety of our bowling greens?

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