Sunday book review – The Fight for Beauty by Fiona Reynolds

The Fight For Beauty_9781780748757

I opened this book with some trepidation because I wanted to like it and wasn’t sure that I would: I needn’t have worried. This book gives a thorough and somewhat engaging account of the protection of landscape beauty in the UK and is written by someone who has played a major and positive part in the progress that has been made over the last 30 years.

Dame Fiona Reynolds worked in the Campaign for National Parks and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England before a spell in the Cabinet Office of the Blair government, and became Director General of the National Trust in 2001 – a post she occupied for 11 years during which the organisation shook off some of its stuffiness and massively increased its membership to the envy of all other countryside and environmental NGOs. Running the National Trust would normally be seen as a pinnacle of achievement but Fiona is now Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

The author’s background and expertise is displayed to good effect in chapters that recount the rise of landscape appreciation and the National Trust, the evolution of National Parks (including an account of the Kinder Scout mass trespass), the planning system, nature conservation, farming, forestry, the coast etc. Fiona has personally played a major part in these matters through her employment roles but also through cropping up on numerous committees to look at things such as public ownership of forestry and the future of farming.  This book gives insights into how things happened and why they happened and there are relatively few people who could write of such things with such knowledge and personal involvement.

I find the book strong on historical account and personal insight but weak on analysis. Perhaps not surprisingly there is no definition of beauty in these pages – we get into the account assuming that there is such a thing as beauty and that we all more or less share that same view. This is to some extent true, but to a large extent false.  I remember, decades ago, being a voluntary warden in my school summer holidays at the glorious RSPB nature reserve at Arne and looking across the lowland heathland towards Corfe Castle and thinking what a wonderful view and how privileged I was to be there when, at that very moment of feeling warm and fuzzy about rural beauty, another visitor spoke the words ‘What a terrible wasteland this is. It ought to be put to some good use.’ and the moment was lost. And we all (or maybe not all of us) have had the experience of looking at the Lake District and being told how beautiful it is and thinking quietly to oneself, ‘Yes, but it’s so ecologically knackered! It’s geology without the biology.’. Or is that just me?

No two people find the same film stars beautiful, the same music beautiful, or the same paintings beautiful so perhaps it is unsurprising that we might not find the same landscapes beautiful.  But this book doesn’t, rather understandably, deal very much with that issue. It’s a tricky one because it means that all that work to protect beauty might be protecting only one version of beauty and perhaps the wrong type of beauty, if such a thing can exist.  This issue will have been familiar to Fiona when the National Trust bought properties and she recounts her hurt at a critical newspaper headline when the NT bought a bunch of Birmingham back-to-back houses.

And then there is the matter of nature. To what extent is a place beautiful if it has lost much of its wildlife – like the Lake District? Does a sweeping landscape with inspiring peaks still count as beautiful if standing in it there is little birdsong and no summer hum of insects? If visitors to much of the British uplands were told, perhaps by the National Trust. ‘Yes it looks pretty but it’s an ecological desert, you know’ would we act in the same way in future?  Wildlife gets plenty of mentions in this book, but often bundled up with lots of other things as though if you sort out protecting the landscape, work with local people, talk to the stakeholders then all that nature stuff will surely be OK – all we know suggests not.  There is little of this tension in this book. No matter – the book will probably bring these thoughts to the fore in many readers’ minds as it did in mine.

And if one isn’t completely sure of what type of beauty one is trying to protect then it’s difficult to know whether one wants or loathes rewilding. This hot topic is largely skirted in the book too. Will beauty, whatever it is, be enhanced by keeping things as they are or perhaps by changing them radically? Another tricky issue.

Recently, on a glorious spring day, I drove across the edge of Rannoch Moor and down Glencoe. The sun was shining and the mountain scenery was inspiring.  As you pass by some lochs you might notice, I wonder how many do, the strong growth of trees on the islands in those water bodies and the almost complete absence of trees in the rest of the landscape. This land is heavily grazed by cattle in the distant past, sheep and deer nowadays.  How should we feel about the beauty of this landscape?  If we reduced the grazing pressure then in 50 years the road would be enclosed by many more trees and scrub and the view would be…more or less beautiful?  Further down the road in Glencoe the scenery was impressive but the hills are gaunt and bare. Here and there you catch a glimpse of a half-forested hillside – a straight line of a forestry plantation cuts across the hill. That sight shows that the natural (whatever that is) tree line would dictate that all these mountains would be largely tree-covered but they are not. We are looking at the skeleton of the landscape, and it has a harsh beauty, but it is a landscape stripped of life, and knowing that can we find it truly beautiful?  Does this landscape need covering up with some more forests? Would that enhance or detract from its beauty?

The subtitle of the book, ‘Our path to a better future’ is a bit hopeful, I think. The author, as have others, asks us to embrace the concept of beauty as being necessary and essential for human happiness and that we should pay it more attention. And so we should. How is that going to happen I wonder when economic greed seems to rule the world and we don’t, quite, have an agreement on what beauty is or how deep it should be? Fiona accentuates the positive in her book and the sub-title could have been ‘It could have been so much worse’ or ‘The path from a better past’.

But the future is always up for grabs.  Those of us who care will have to fight to keep beauty in the world, and I find it interesting that Fiona chose the word ‘Fighting’ for her book as I did for mine (Fighting for Birds) but it’s entirely appropriate as Fiona is a fighter, and that comes across here. She and I have been fighting for slightly different things through our lives but the overlap has usually been big and sometimes been complete.  We are basically on the same side though, as you can perhaps tell, I feel that Fiona’s real appreciation of nature is less well developed than my own.

I did enjoy this book very much indeed.  The accounts of past events are clear and interesting and I learned a lot. It also made me think, and that’s always good in a book. I strongly recommend it as a very good read.

There are some awful black and white photographs in the book – try and tell me what is on p80 without reading the caption. This isn’t very clever in a book about beauty and landscapes.  Fiona’s writing is very clear, the photographs scattered through the text are very obscure and many look like they were taken in fog.  The colour photographs in the centre are much better, though some are too small and have too large captions – fewer larger images would have been better, more beautiful!


The Fight for Beauty: our path to a better future by Fiona Reynolds is published by Oneworld.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

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16 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Fight for Beauty by Fiona Reynolds”

  1. as a former director of the NT perhaps she should say something about the peak district and it's DGS, lack of birds of prey and generally ravaged uplands. An public statements in that regard?

  2. ‘Geology without the biology’. That’s a great tag to describe the depleted landscapes of the Lake District.

    Does Reynolds write about farm subsidies and suggest that they could be diverted into ‘ecosystem services?’

    Does she ponder the attractiveness of lower land prices that would occur as a result?
    Does she dream about less grazing pressure, more natural regeneration, more soil creation, more biodiversity, more crop diversity, more rural industry, more jobs, more affordable housing, more community cohesion and more continuity of settlement from one generation to the next? It would be beautiful if she did.
    What a fantasy: the democratisation, the ‘de-second-home-isation’ and the ‘biomocratisation’ of our land.
    Roughly translated that means: The Fight for Fairness and ‘our path for the future’ of the countryside.
    There is already some evidence out there to suggest that this is not just another impossible pipe-dream. Graham Harvey in his book, The Killing of the Countryside (1997) describes a ‘substantial fall in land prices’ when the New Zealand government got rid of farm subsidies in 1984. Moreover, there was no predicted rural collapse. On the contrary, ‘young aspiring farmers were at last able to work the land’ with a ‘reduction in monoculture acreage’ and an ‘increase in biodiversity.’(p.182).
    And this more recent link appears to back him up:

    1. MM,I think you will find that New Zealand has almost the complete monoculture of any country and they brag that subsidy withdrawal has meant quite a boost in intensive agriculture leading to much more productivity gain each year than before.
      Just about completely the opposite to what UK conservationists say they want from UK farmers.

      1. Thanks, but that’s not what I’ve found from my very brief readings on the subject. But if you are correct and have up-to-date knowledge, I would be grateful for any references. The NZ example needs much greater airing and debate.

        1. MM,I am no great shakes on providing evidence being really basic on PC,However I am relying on evidence brought back by young farmers on funded experience years in New Zealand plus two of my children spending twelve years working in N Z.
          My thoughts are that in N Z conditions their farmers are incredibly efficient but in general whereas U K farmers have to house cattle for six months of the year with all the associated costs of providing food for them,the cost of housing for them and all the extra labour then the climate in NZ means they have none of these costs.
          That is one example and one undisputed fact.
          To get super efficient they almost always seem to go for what they term share farming where farmer provides the land and other person provides cows and labour leading inevitably to very large numbers in each herd and so a monoculture of grass basically Ryegrass for cows and sheep.
          Something that conservationists in the UK seem to be appalled if farmers in UK even go partly down that route.

          1. Thanks Dennis.
            Yes, there appears to be great efficiency, like your friends say, but here's a 2012 quote frome the Huffington Post:
            "More efficient agricultural production in New Zealand has also spurred better environmental management. Cutting farm subsidies, for example, has reduced the previous overuse of fertilizer. And cutting subsidies has broadened farm operations to encompass activities such as rural tourism that bring management of the rural environment to the fore."


            I'm still searching for better information. I hope your 'one example' is the exception rather than the rule.

        2. MM,this link if it works shows how ridiculous NZ subsidies were pre 1984.

          6,000 tons of sheep rendered into fertiliser.

  3. good review Mark.

    That's the trouble with words. They can mean different things to different people, and their meaning can change with time.

    I was recently ridiculed (on these very pages) for suggesting that an argument over the meaning of a word, was a semantic argument. To a degree the ridiculer was right, many arguments (especially in debates around nature) revolve around the meanings of words - I was just stating the obvious. But I think it still serves a useful purpose to point this out from time to time.

    What do we mean by Beauty, or indeed Nature? I'm not going to ride to the rescue of Dame Reynolds, she of all people doesn't need it. She assumes we all know what we mean when we talk about Beauty, especially Natural Beauty. But this a culturally loaded assumption. It may explain why so few people from Black and Minority Ethnic Communities visit the countryside or go to nature reserves. This issue is being explored in a conference in Bristol next week if any readers are interested.

    I would also suggest (tentatively) that Nature is an equally contested word, especially when we start talking about what sort of nature should be here in the UK, as the rewilding debate is showing; and this question runs through other controversial topics, from the place of nature in intensive farming, to housing development, to grouse shooting to hunting to the badger cull debate.

    Some suggest nature is a social construct and has no objective reality; I must admit I struggle with this idea, but I can see - as you have pointed out in relation to beauty, that there are many different viewpoints on what nature is and how humans relate to the rest of non-human nature. You write as though you have a very clear idea of what nature is, and Fiona writes as if she has a very clear idea of natural beauty.

    You can both be right!

    1. I hear that so often - there's no such thing as 'nature', it's just a 'social construct', as if the planet is devoid of life other than what's in our minds' eye. What a load of nonsense! There is non human-life on Earth. Trust me!

    2. Thanks for that important link re ethnicity and the countryside.

  4. I agree that beauty is problematic as a criterion for conservation and landscape planning. First, places can appear superficially beautiful even if there is an underlying ugliness. To my eye, the Lake District and Glencoe are undeniably beautiful even knowing, as I do, that they are landscapes shorn of much of the wildlife that should be populating them. It is also true that I can see and appreciate beauty in urban and industrial landscapes and other scenes that are more or less inimical to nature or even to human well-being (for example some astonishingly beautiful photographs have been produced in war zones, slums and other objectively horrifying situations).
    On the other hand, it is clear that some scenes that I find wonderfully beautiful are actually ugly to other people; mudflats glistening in the sun at low tide, with multitudes of shorebirds swirling over them, are a glorious sight to me (and, I believe, most readers of this blog) but apparently are seen as dreary wastes by some sections of the population and this allows developers to persuade the planners that it's ok to impound them to create "pretty" boating lagoons.
    It is important therefore that we encourage more people to see and appreciate the beauty in nature in all its glorious, close-up detail. Not just the mountains and valleys but the full sweep of wildlife that should inhabit them from the birds and mammals at the top of the food chain all the way down to the myriads of invertebrates, fungi and plants at the bottom. And when policies for the protection of the landscape are discussed we must ensure that the concept of 'beauty' that we are endeavouring to protect is not jut skin deep.

    1. Agree with for all your points. The mudflats example is especially useful when trying to understand differing perceptions regarding the countryside.

      And then there's the problem of trees and scrub -- how to argue for and against them in the same breath:
      A more wooded Lake District versus a treeless Flow Country; a regenerated Caledonian Forest versus pine-cleared lowland heaths; the planting of farm hedges versus scrub bashing on species-rich hill pastures; the ‘leave-it- alone’ self-sown wildernesses in old quarries versus landscaped open ground on other post-industrial sites. And so on.
      No wonder the general public find conservationists and ecologists confusing.

  5. It used to infuriate Forestry Commission landscape architects when people said 'of course, beauty is entirely subjective'. It was usually a late middle aged, opinionated councillor who then went on to prove that he shared arrange of widely accepted views on what is and isn't beautiful, usually revolving around the straight lines FC had left up the hillside !

    But it does get difficult looking out over the stark and splendid landscape of Coigach, for example, when you look down at your feet and see a bowling green mown shorter than my lawn by soon-to-starve Red Deer and remember to what extent this is not just a man made, but a near terminally damaged, landscape.

    And there lies the rub: never the twane shall meet - the landscape and beauty lobby are quite separate from the nature conservation lobby and the understanding between the two is more than limited. Brought home very early in my career, working in the North York Moors National Park where it was the FC's multi-purpose approach which eventually stirred the NP into taking some interest in the moorland birds which most of us would see as an iconic feature of the landscape - Golden Plover, Merlin, red grouse, but not, of course, Hen Harrier. Ironically, RSPB's involvement in the National Park Plan resulted in most of the core moorland being designated as SSSI and massively increasing the landscape protection - an opportunity that had passed the landscape lobby by.

    And speculating about what might have been, a couple of years ago I visited a 16th century NT manor house, surrounded by NT land, which was solid oilseed rape in flower. An appropriate setting ? I don't suppose it has even crossed anyones mind, any more than the idea might have occurred to the NT that some time between 1945 and today someone might have said 'hang on a second, is it actually appropriate for our farmland estate simply to intensify with the norms of the day as we all sit at yet another conference telling us exactly how our countryside is being degraded ? Some nod to ecology and wildlife might have hinted that just because the fields were all still green it didn't mean all was well. Had someone had that idea there is no doubt NT would be way ahead in terms of SSSI area on its land, rather than trailing behind MOD and FC. Maybe someone did, but NT more than most has always given the appearance of having very rigid norms, a problem spreading wider across a conservation sector which has grown up into a maturity of increasingly rigid boundaries.

    1. Does my memory serve me right back in the ,50-,60 s when the families offered houses in lieu of tax and the NT would accept them on behalf of the gov they wanted endowments with it to help cover the costs so the land has always been commercially farmed. I was recently surprised to see that Ickworth in Suffolk has 1,800 acres, Now is that managed to the highest tier of environmental subsidy even? by comparison the SWT only has 7,370 acres

  6. "And there lies the rub: never the twane shall meet - the landscape and beauty lobby are quite separate from the nature conservation lobby and the understanding between the two is more than limited"

    That pretty much sums the problem up. And the tendency is for the prettification/paddockisation lobby to be in the ascendant.

  7. You are right about the foresting of uplands, one road I know in the Pennines passes through a forestry plantation and all you can see is sky. Oh and the decorative planting along the edge. (including a few pretty Rhododendrons)
    On the other hand is beauty partly what you are used to, on the other side of the country from Arne at the RSPB at minsmere following the Grant requirements of Natural England beautiful Silver Birch woods are being cleared to recreate heath land.


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