Sunday book review – Landskipping by Anna Pavord


Reviewed by Ian Carter

Landskipping is a very individual and reflective account of the British countryside and how it, and our appreciation of it, has evolved over time. It is loosely divided into three parts, covering the history of landscape painting and landscape tourism, the all-pervasive influence of farming, and the importance of a sense of place in our lives today. The central thread running through the book is the question of what is it about landscapes that makes us value and appreciate them. As becomes clear, these things change with time and can be hard to pin down.

For the most part, the book reads as a celebration of landscapes and their history. The countryside is clearly very important to the author, something she traces back to her childhood and time spent exploring the hills around her home in the Welsh borders. Mostly she focusses on how things look, but the animals and plants living within the landscape are often referenced – she has a particular thing for Rooks which get half a chapter all to themselves. She writes with authority (but a light touch) about the politics of the countryside and how this has influenced major changes over time. The history of common land and the Enclosure Acts, for example, are described at length.

A single chapter deals with modern farming (and other present-day human activities) and its influence on landscapes and the wildlife they support. I thought this might be the most interesting part of the book but it ended up being the only part that disappointed. The huge losses of biodiversity of recent decades are not ignored completely but are certainly glossed over. She notes that site protection and countryside stewardship schemes are a ‘piecemeal approach’ to conservation and not the way forward. But she provides no real alternative other than highlighting the essential role of farmers as landscape stewards. She cites the example of the Lake District with its sheep-chiselled views pulling in millions of visitors every year; one senses that any kind of re-wildling would, in her eyes, be an affront to the history of this particular landscape.

Other complex issues are raised almost as an afterthought. Windfarms get eight lines, three of which are given over to an Owen Paterson quote and three more to concerns over increased cement production in order to build the supporting concrete platforms. The chapter ends with a plea for ‘real’ landscapes rather than the ‘deodorised, sanitised’ offerings of nature conservation bodies with their boardwalks, handrails and information boards. I sympathise to some extent but, again, she merely raises the subject before quickly moving on. She doesn’t say how things could be done differently.

Rather unfairly perhaps, I’ve focused on the one chapter that I wanted to like most but ended up liking least. That aside, this is an excellent book and one I enjoyed reading. It has a gentle pace, despite the amount of information packed into it, and it is beautifully written throughout. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys being out in the countryside and sometimes thinks about why it looks as it does. I’d recommend it less strongly to those seeking inspiration for how to manage the countryside for the better in the years ahead.

Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places by Anna Pavord is published by Bloomsbury.


Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

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 and it’s now out in paperback.



8 Replies to “Sunday book review – Landskipping by Anna Pavord”

  1. ‘real’ landscapes rather than the ‘deodorised, sanitised’ offerings – bit unfair to blame conservation bodies – they are only meeting the modern demand for access for all. Just think how nice the moors would be with strolling paths across them instead of stumbling over all that bog and heather!
    That sanitized landscape is wild enough for many judging by the backwoods kit they ware to stroll in what in effect is a park.

    1. “they are only meeting the modern demand for access for all”

      This is just a non sequitur. Look at how sucessful places like Knepp Csstle and The New Forest are; in fact, not only successful, but ‘re-wilding’ at a low cost brought those areas from marginal to extremely profitable, both in terms of finance AND biodiversity. How do you know people ‘demand’ the type of areas you describe? People don’t know any different, and that’s one of the big problems here, especially when farmer’s unions practice brinkmanship and scare tactics in regards to any attempts to re wild areas. The ‘sanitized’ landscapes you talk about hold less wildlife than your back garden.

  2. Wither rewilding of the Lake District indeed. The sheep keep it nice and tidy and visible.
    Kurt Janse of the Tourism alliance talking on the radio having said that the landscape was less attractive with industrialized farming then went on to say that unsupported farms on marginal land would go out of business and the fields would go fallow and be less attractive. No wonder Anna offered no ideas of where to go. Have you Mark or anyone?

    1. “The sheep keep it nice and tidy and visible”

      Noy only do I have a problem with the massive lack of biodiversity caused by overgrazing of the fells, but I also think it’s aesthetically moribund. Like I said earlier, if you want ‘ideas’ as your loaded question asks, go and check out Knepp Castle or The New Forest, or Arne; both areas which have been transformed in to blossoming, attractive habitats. Your argument is a non starter, because this isn’t a binary problem; the fells won’t all be covered in trees, it will be more of a mosaic Landscape, offering both biodiversity and beauty, as well as crucially being left to nature.

  3. By the way the last swallow is feeding one surviving chick in the garage. Keep your fingers crossed for it.

  4. Hardly a week seems to go by without a fascinating account of our landscape history – and, in every case, that is where it stops – we have a history, but apparently no future. I suppose that pretty well sums up Brexit Britain.

    When we do talk about the future it’s all about places like the Lake District – the farming religion has conditioned environmentalists so effectively that they believe they can only do things in remote places on poor soils.

    The reality is quite different. What farmers are really thinking is gradually emerging from behind the façade – and that is concern about future incomes – supported by the incredible number of farmers who are so committed to feeding the nation that their real desire is to get planning for housebuilding.

    One of the 5 key reccomendations of The Natural Capital Committee is 250,000 hectares of Community Woodland (for which read green, ecologically functioning land) around our towns and cities. they estimate economic benefit of £500m per annum. Places for people override – but don’t threaten – food production. That is just over 2% of our land area in England – less than noise in the system. That sort of scale solves the problem of sanitised wilderness – we can – and should – have landscape on the scale of the New Forest around our biggest cities. The foundations are already there – the NCC has gathered ‘real life’ economics, and the more experience we have the better it looks – with new exciting and valuable new landscapes developing on damaged land in the (not very) greenbelt of the Thames Gateway and the coalfields of the north west, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. New habitats from the Avalon Marshes to Knepp Castle have exceeded all expectations for restoring biodiversity with projects that (in this context) are really very small scale – that 250,000 hectares must surely include at least another 10,000 hectares of reed bed, for example.

    There is a future – there just needs to be more understanding of how bound up current thinking is in a (false) status quo – and to recognise that the foundations are there to see and build up from.

  5. “Hardly a week seems to go by …”

    or in this case nearly 18 months since this book was published when although I’m sure the date of the Gert Referendum was known the outcome wasn’t. Maybe gardener AP doesn’t have anything to offer about the future gardening of the the countryside or maybe she just wanted to avoid making predictions, which is always difficult when they are about the future

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