Sunday book review – England’s 100 best views by Simon Jenkins.

EHBVI bought this book because I like views, I like Simon Jenkins’s writing, I admire and respect him as an intellect and I disagree with him quite a lot about some things (although I agree with him a lot about others). If this book had been written by another I would have been less interested in it.

It’s a good book, really a very good book. It’s attractive – how could it not be, it’s about views! It’s well-written – how could it not be, it’s by Simon Jenkins.  It’s thought-provoking – how could it not be, it’s by Simon Jenkins.

And the author set himself a ridiculously difficult task to pick 100 views from our beautiful England. He sets himself up for quibbles and arguments by restricting himself so much. And he’s almost spoiling for a fight when he selects just five views out of the 100 from the East Midlands of Northants, Rutland, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Notts and Derbyshire, and where all five come from the Peak District!

On the other hand, or perhaps on the same hand, he is pandering to my tastes when he selects 28 of the 100 from the five counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire (although why, we might ask, bring Wiltshire into it?).  Maybe that’s one reason the roads to Cornwall are jammed at holiday times whereas the A1 and M1 carry people, through Northants as quickly as possible (to the relief of the car passengers and the residents of Northants alike).

There are cityscapes (and townscapes) and countryscapes in this book – in a ratio of around 1:3. Room for more quibbles, I guess. And the book is a bit low on seascapes and coastscapes, to my mind – but this is all the stuff of interesting and entirely fruitless dispute.  Simon Jenkins has chosen 100 lovely and interesting views, and written about them well. What matters it if there are another 900 equally interesting that he could have chosen?

Jenkins does show an extreme upland bias – perhaps shown by most – the northwest is basically the Lake District and Liverpool when it comes to views – mostly the Lake District.  It’s interesting that in all those uplands, across northern England, not one of them is a close-up of the burned patches of a grouse moor. Indeed, it’s as if the cameraman had to work around all that burned heather to find some real views.

Beauty is in the eye, or more likely the brain and culture, of the beholder.  My eye, and brain, looks at some of Jenkins’s landscapes and sees totally knackered landscapes – ecological deserts, which include some of those much-loved Lake District views.  How much more attractive they would be to the naturalist, and the ecologically-cultured eye, if they weren’t grazed to smithereens and represent the worst type of green concrete.

When I look at Snape Maltings I almost hear the Redshanks calling. When I see Lulworth Cove I remember looking for Lulworth Skippers there – successfully! When I see Cape Cornwall I hear a Chough call.  But Jenkins does not have an eye, or a brain,  for wildlife in these views. There’s a bit of a discussion about how nowhere is completely ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ in this country of ours but it goes not much further than that. The Swift in the index is not Apus apus, nor even Jonathan, but Graham.  There are precious few, hardly any, mentions of the life that exists in these views despite the fact that many of us, but not it is clear, Jenkins, would not feel the same about the views if they did not encompass the wildlife that lives within them.

I recognise, viscerally and emotionally, a good half of these views and for me, each conjures up memories of smells, sounds and sights, and of wildlife, friends and days to remember.  I  can’t look at the views without reliving the experiences. Not much of that comes through to me in this book’s writing – but thankfully there are photographs that bring it all flooding back into my mind.

There aren’t quite enough photographs. Those that there are, are wonderful (almost without exception).  But some views get a mere old painting, which works far less well for me. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, almost within sight of which I was born, is undersold by the lack of a great image, as is Chatsworth, Richmond Hill and Dartmouth (how interesting it tends to be the cityscapes, apparently).

But the photographs will take your brain back to these places to relive whatever you lived there. That’s what these stunning views can do. And Jenkins’s writing will make you think about them. But it seems to me that he misses quite a lot of what makes these places truly beautiful and special. If you can’t hear a Redshank when you see a photograph of Snape Maltings then you don’t really know the place, understand the place or get the place.

The trouble is, we have taken the wildlife out of many of these views and you can’t tell that from the photographs. On the page, and on a big scale, they still look pretty – but many have lost much of their natural living beauty.  It surprises many to hear that the Lake District is ecologically knackered but much of it is – but it still look s pretty on the page even if there is less birdsong, and fewer buzzing insects and less smell of wildflowers when you arrive on the spot.

It’s a good book to look at, and a very good book to read – but the author has a blindspot for the natural world that makes these landscapes truly live for many of us.

England’s 100 best views by Simon Jenkins is published by Profile Books.

Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha: the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its relevance today is published by Bloomsbury.



19 Replies to “Sunday book review – England’s 100 best views by Simon Jenkins.”

  1. as Mr Leopold said: the trouble with an ecological education is that you live in a world of wounds. Unlike those who admire the green concrete.
    But even he learnt to stop shooting predators (wolves).

    1. m parry – he did. Quite a few Leopold quotes in my Passenger Pigeon book by the way. Think like a mountain…

  2. We are fortunate to have good views in all parts of the U K but personally the landscape north of Glasgow is probably as good as anywhere.

  3. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I recall a teacher cousin of mine based in the flat lands of Cambridgeshire talking about students returning from a Lake District trip.
    Q. Did you like the views. A. There weren’t any views.
    Clearly the mountains got in the way.

    Anyway my reason for commenting on this occasion is simply to ask what’s wrong with Wiltshire. A chalk and cheese county definitely but next time you visit Waitrose at Malmesbury have a detour onto the downlands. You are right, it isn’t just about views and this County has a lot of hidden wildlife, you just have to look for it (and you don’t have to look too hard for corn bunting either).

    1. Bob – just winding you up! I do love Wiltshire – and am getting to know it better and better. I somehow, don’t see it as West Country though – more ‘South Midlands’ or ‘Central England’ (winding you up again). We real West Country folk speak funny – not posh like Wiltshire.

  4. This is an interesting blog Mark.
    We learnta fascinating lesson about the wildlife/landscape relationship from our Elmley visitors a few years ago. This was at a time when a part of Elmley was managed by the RSPB as one of their well-publicised reserves. Hence most of our 12,000 annual visitors were birders.
    Together with Natural England, or it may have been English Nature in those days, we commissioned an eco-tourism consultant who surveyed about 400 Elmley visitors over a year long period.
    The final survey question asked of those visitors was “What is your take home, abiding memory of Elmley”. Surprisingly, despite Elmley being thought to be one of the best birding sites in the south-east, the majority gave the answer landscape rather than birds. We found this surprising but it was apparent that the big sky open marshland landscape exerts a powerful charm on those who, with perhaps £1000 of optics round their necks or over their shoulders, are thought of as just birders. Of course the birds are an essential component of the landscape, especially in the winter but it is evident that landscape has more effect than is generally realised.
    It was a lesson that in the anonymity or privacy of a survey, visitors gave a different answer to what they may say to their birding mates inside a hide. Food for thought perhaps.
    One last thought – do you remember the old Countryside Commission mantra about what most countryside visitors want – “A view, a loo and a brew”.

    1. Philip – thank you.

      We birders are never ‘just birders’ are we? Part of the delight of birdwatching, for me, and for many others, is that it takes you to great places – yes, like Elmley. I might go to the Lake District just for the view (although I probably wouldn’t) but I wouldn’t go to Elmley just for the view (lovely though it is). Once there, I would soak up the view and remember it. And when i saw a Lapwing on a later date it might take me, in my mind, back to Elmley as a lovely memorable experience. Birds and place are pretty intimately mixed in my memories.

      If Elmley lost all its birds overnight (I do hope it won’t, and I’m pretty sure it won’t) then its view would be unimpaired but it would now become a sad vista for me – one of loss rather than of richness (as it is now (although I haven’t visited for years)). i guess the history of the view, if you know it, colours how you see it. it does for me anyway. If I were looking at a beautiful house, then i would feel differently about it if I were told that the family living in it were murdered last year rather than that they won the Premium Bonds. Does that make any sense at all?

      With the Lake District, it looks a bit like a crime scene to me – quite a pretty one, but knackered ecologically. Can’t get that out of my head when I see the pictures.

  5. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, but the upland bias – shared, as you say, by many others – has always plagued those of us interested in estuaries and their conservation. I have never understood why so many people and organisations automatically think that upland areas, even when grazed to a lawn by too many sheep, are attractive and important whereas low-lying flat areas are not.

    But, despite your nice review of this book, I doubt that I could overcome my disdain for Jenkins’ anti-science prejudice to want to pay for anything that he writes.

    1. I would agree that estuaries deserve their place in the premier league of views. They are all different, of course, but I find it hard to understand how anyone can not find them beautiful with their appearance ever changing with tide and weather, swirls of shorebirds, flocks of wintering ducks and geese and the dendritic networks of creeks in the salt marsh. Sadly, for many developers and planners all they see is a boring expanse of mud that is just crying out to be dammed and turned into a marina or ‘reclaimed’ and turned into an airport.

      1. Jonathan – that seems to be your 400th comment here – thank you very much for your very thoughtful comments throughout. Yours are some of the comments I always enjoy.

  6. This is a good book on landscapes and very well-written. I do enjoy Simon Jenkins’s books and his volumes on churches and houses are well-thumbed bibles for me.

    However, I do find he is very naive when it comes to wildlife conservation.

  7. Thanks, Mark for your reply of this morning to my comment. I agree with you. My point is that the attraction of landscape (atavistic maybe) is more powerful than is generally realised.
    Re your comment that you haven’t visited Elmley for years, how do you fancy coming on Sunday, 10th May (or it may be the 17th) next year when we are holding an Open Day (talks and field visit) at Elmley for Hawk & Owl Trust members, and prospective members? Would you be interested? Should be good numbers of raptors (marsh harriers etc) and large numbers of breeding waders.

    1. Philip – it’s a long way away but that sounds lovely. I’ll pencil it in, thank you.

  8. That would be good Mark. Would be delighted to see you there. We might even get you to say a few words (do you do few?) during the day.
    FYI and others- Elmley is 10 minutes from Sittingbourne station which is less than an hour from St Pancras or Victoria. Or just 10 minutes off the M2.

  9. Amongst his featured views is the College Valley in Northumberland where both landscape and ecology are being improved by active management, replacement of conifers with broad leaves etc. A stunning place. Not featuring in his book is good too though has benefits too. The views in our part of Devon with the lanes, hedges, small fields and rolling hills are in fact the best in the UK ( in my totally objective view(!) ) but remain largely undiscovered. You can’t appreciate them in silence however. Birdsong is part of the experience.

    1. David – thank you. I note that you are totally objective. Any county with cream and cider has great views – Somerset for me (totally objectively).

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