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.