After London: dreaming Wild England

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I was born in a small town not far from the New Forest. Now and again in the evenings, as a family, we would go and watch the deer from a viewing platform. It was like theatre, and we were in the dress circle, looking with binoculars at a sun-dappled herd lazing under a canopy of oak trees, or an antlered monarch stood on ceremony. There was also the Rufus Stone – a memorial to King William II, slain in 1100 while hunting.

Deerhead

A deer’s head made from plastic, circa 1970, made in France (oddly). There are four cow bells which go with it and a plastic beater for chiming. This was in our 1970s house until a bad taste purge sometime in 1981 in which it was replaced. I’ve since rescued it: for one thing, nothing died to make it, and he has a certain presence (as long as the bells stay in the attic).

I loved stories of Robin Hood, dreamed of living and waking among trees, and later devoured the wild landscapes covered in Roger Lancelyn Green’s stories of King Arthur. Winchester, home of Edward I’s recreated round table, seemed magical, and one summer I watched my brother’s girlfriend in a play at the Great Hall. It was inspired by Richard Jefferies’ book After London: Wild England, in which the country is ‘returned to nature’ by a great flood. In the final scene she took a white mouse from a small box, which ran over her hands as she spoke… the last living creature?

Wild England

On reading After London: Wild England, William Morris made these dark comments: “I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of civilisations: which I know now is doomed to destruction, probably before very long – what a joy it is to think of! And how it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world and real feelings and passions taking the place of our wretched hypocrises”.

Earlier, I had inherited Enid Blyton’s Country Walks with Uncle Merry from my brothers (I doubt Uncle Merry would pass many checks these days). One day a supply teacher entranced our class of six-year-olds with Edith Holden’s Country Diary. (Nothing was as fascinating as the beetle who had crawled into the pages and been reproduced in the facsimile.)

I took anything by BB (Denys Watkins Pitchford), author of Brendon Chase and Bill Badger. Otters were my favourite animal – Philip Wayre’s The River People was rarely left in the local library. As an eight-year-old member of his Otter Trust my heart stopped at the line in the newsletter: ‘It’s time to renew your subscription – don’t let the otters go hungry!’

In 1980, en route from the New Forest to Devon, through Tolpuddle and Dorchester, you could still imagine Thomas Hardy’s heart fluttering past the cottages, the window-frames layered with paint from his lifetime.

Whatever our experience of nature and landscape, it becomes part of us. It’s not something we might acknowledge until there are some years behind us. The realisation comes through a growing susceptibility to pain at seeing it fade and become unfamiliar. And it’s different for each generation; what is still beautiful to a 20-year-old today might be wrecked in the eyes of someone who knew it decades ago.

Some passing things might be rescued in the only way our age seems capable of doing – over-analysing, creating niches to attract like minds and consolidate exactly what it is we want to perpetuate: unaltered landscapes, timeworn buildings, to preserve an ancient thread over centuries and keep in check our ability to modify and obliterate within a few minutes.

Eldridge Hardy

A beer mat from 1980.

But we cannot picture ‘the countryside’ as existing outside the trends of our century. I’m typing this in a cottage with walls eighteen inches thick. You would barely hear a dog bark from next door, and yet I can hear incessant bombing from an Xbox, and when they’re not obliterating war-torn cities, it’s Formula 1 racing. There will be a huge hyper-real screen, the key point of interaction for the now and future, unless you disconnect, edit your life and put a shepherd in your garden like Marie Antoinette. I can, however, walk out on the moor and see the sheep, see the ponies, think of how many were recorded as neglected and emaciated earlier this year. It’s not so unlike urban life.

Since the Industrial Revolution our national consciousness has bred art and writing attempting to capture the essence of the countryside. Generally we’re told that this vision exists only in our imagination. It’s not long since there was derision in many quarters that the Olympics ceremony should draw on our ‘green and pleasant land’: how old-fashioned, how twee, how backward.

But perceptions are remoulded as the years pass.

Over the last decade a particular appreciation of the natural world has grown up: the fashionable face of nature-loving. Cooler record stores stock books from Caught by the River, music festivals are entwined with food and literary festivals… it is traditional non-corporate life as we might imagine it, restyled in a way palatable to lifestyle media. Fashion became obsessed with images of a stark, skeletal nature – animal heads, something dark in the forest. Chuck out your Beatrix Potter, to paraphrase Ikea.

In the 2010 preface to David Pinner’s Ritual, the book which inspired the 1971 pagan film classic The Wicker Man, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley writes:

“It is easy to take nature for granted in the 21st century, to see it as tamed by an increasingly urbanised world. We grow plants in pots and perch them on sills, herbs thrive on our balconies, parks and gardens are open air nail bars of plucked hedges and manicured rose bushes. But a trip to the countryside can soon remind you who’s boss, and of how small you are in the scheme of things, as soon as your jumper gets caught by a thorn or your bare leg grazes a thistle. The further west of London you go, the more this seems to be the case. It isn’t that the countryside there is any wilder than in other parts of Britain, just less known, and it becomes less and less familiar until its otherness dwarfs you. People don’t take nature for granted here. Here be monsters… behind the photogenic wildlife skirting the unseen bogs of the New Forest; ultimately, on Dartmoor.”

Whether this rings true depends on your circumstance, but it captures a moment, a place where the new godhead is Robert Macfarlane, who took the authenticity of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas et al and washed away sentiment.

Caught by the River

One of Stanley Donwood’s beautiful ‘holloway’ illustrations which appear in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book.

This is all far from a knitted, unfashionable image of walking holidays in the countryside. But at the turn of this century, the nearest the lifestyle media might come to indulging such pursuits was a photo of Alison Steadman as Candice-Marie in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May.

Of course, that quiet, ancient thread was always there and had never faded: the small publisher reissuing work by BB; people like Jack Hargreaves (as a child, he was a regular at 7pm most evenings on Southern TV – an elderly chap in a garden shed intoning about country pursuits with all the manner of a leisurely mull over beer in his village pub); the bench thoughtfully positioned in the unfashionably-termed ‘beauty spots’ on some unsung track – Frank loved this view and this seat was put here by his wife; the plethora of ornaments featuring wild animals in immaculately-crafted detail, endless prints of badgers, foxes or kingfishers in faux-gilt frames; Watership Down; Alan Titchmarsh enthusing about something or other… the solid dark green livery of the National Trust, set in stone and as yet uninterpreted; unflattering waterproofs before a testosterone-fuelled industry kicked in, now entreating us to ‘take all nature can throw at you and throw it back’.

Our new century is growing up but are we still living by illusions? Is our search for wild nature, the individual and the independent any different to the 1930s retreat to Olde England in the face of modernity? We like to think so. Perhaps we’re just the same as any age, hankering after Utopia, but won’t admit it.

Let’s be cynical for a while.

You can no longer drive through England and pass rows of cottages that would be familiar to their generations of owners, sun-faded with wrinkled render, mossy roofs and watery window panes. Well, you can, now and again, but it will be so beautifully preserved and Farrow-and-Ball’d that it’s a stage set without a cast. Yet the metal-embossed road sign at the cross-roads is at ease and true, a little rusted. Stand in the village square and choose your century. Not so long ago, it seemed we would always be able to come here and reconnect.

Tempted by practical comforts, low maintenance and rewards for environmental friendliness (or beaten by blanket-bombing marketing) the buildings in our villages and towns have been given make-overs with flawless float-glass double-glazing, immaculate shadowless render and plastic doors holding just an echo of beaded moulding to remind us what a timber door looked like. Shop signs are sheets of plastic screwed to the wall with the freedom of any font, any colour and any clipart the software allows. The signpost at the crossroads has Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s carefully-constructed Transport font condensed and squashed to fit the space on the standardised reflective board. This is life lived with care for immediate practical needs, even survival. These villages will not age gently and fade into the landscape anymore, or admit eccentricities, but they are no less authentic than the badger in his sett.

Exmoor

It’s OK, they’re part of a stuffed display, but this is confusing for dogs.

Preserved cottages are more often empty, the 19th century hovel a 21st century luxury from coffee table books. In off-track villages they’re part of the idyll, reassuring visitors that somewhere things are running in computer safe-mode, waiting for a some-day-soon.

They are stage sets, and outside showtime life is still reduced to the comforting essentials: no shop, no pub, no jobs, refuelling with coal or damp wood on the hour to keep a radiator working, no salt or grit for frozen roads, no privacy.

Decimated, the last of generations remain knowing they cannot make a living from the land like their fathers and mothers and yet struggle on. It’s in their skin and has been there since birth, every nuance of weather, every flutter of wing. Those dependent on the countryside know it as the rabbit knows the fox or the sparrow knows the hawk. This is becoming nature, where survival is king.

Are the rest of us able to say we really know the countryside? Or are we indulging the luxury of being able to consider a longing for nature’s otherness, a reminder that we are part of something truly beyond humankind’s control, the pull of the primeval? We might infuse our responses with modernity, a scrabble for authenticity: ultimately, it’s a privilege to be able to do so. We are looking to ideals, a pursuit of beauty, the antidote to over-sophistication, a dream of Utopia, a return to Eden.

No matter whether we express this with a well-placed bench, a faded print or bestselling literature, it’s an illusion that belongs to us all.

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A romany sky and a house with roots

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Two album covers from the early 1970s, unconnected, although there’s a good contrast of the anchored home and the perceived freedom of an open road. Both bands are from the era of electric folk.

Mr Fox - The Gipsy

I don’t know the Mr Fox album. The band came from a background of Yorkshire folk music: the artwork suggests the stereotype of a dark satanic north. The gipsy is dressed in industrial landscape – mines, factories and terraces – with fewer trees and streams. Quite interesting when you look at the current fascination with folk that goes hand in hand with more rural dreams.

Trees - Jane Delawney

The Trees’ cover for The Garden of Jane Delawney is fascinating. Are these the roots of a home, or the over-riding latent strength of nature in our built environment? (The tree through the window reveals a facade…) Or do the art-nouveau swirls against a perfect doll’s house suggest an Edwardian childhood innocence? In this way it chimes with the turn-of-century imagery and design that often danced with the more contemporary visions of the late sixties and early seventies.

The design and artwork is by David Costa, impressive artistic control by a member of the band. The title track is mesmerising, a trip through Keats’s ‘verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways’…

The poet’s voice lingers on
His words hang in the air
The ground you walk upon
Might as well not be there
Might as well not be there

I’ll take you through my dreams
Out into the darkest morning
Past the blood-filled streams
Into the garden of Jane Delawney
Into her garden now…

Vintage TV – Survivors (1975)

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From the first fears at the onset of winter, and nature seeming to die before the eyes, we must have worried about ‘the end of the world as we know it’.

Keeping warm, dry and getting food on the table – and the achievement of that – filled lifetimes. It kept people close to nature, its kindnesses and its cruelties. The elderly generation might make us wonder at how little they expect from life, but they experienced wartime and rationing. There was no such thing as our present day lifestyle options. It was surviving, or it was not surviving.

As a culture we’re becoming more and more de-skilled as the years pass and we’re divorcing ourselves from not just the experience but even the awareness of the tools of survival. (I’d better say here that it goes as read that it is still the daily experience for too many.)

From 1975 to 1977 the BBC broadcast the now cult-status series Survivors, set in the aftermath of a virus which wipes out most of the population.

The hippy movement was fading with its particular type of reconnection with nature; it was also the time of John Seymour and self-sufficiency (and a thread that goes back to William Morris trying to extricate us from the worst of the industrial revolution and Richard Jefferies ploughing a similar furrow).

Alongside the popular image of the seventies is another in which scrubbed pine and oil lamps reappeared after decades of modernism. There was rough Denby stoneware on the table, an almost medieval aesthetic – not ethereal Pre-Raphaelite-isms but a sense of being practical enough to survive beyond power-cuts and oil shortages.

(I never lived in a house like this. It was G-plan and plastic salad drainers.)

Unlike the post-apocalyptic themes in contemporary film which opt for cattle-prod attempts to stir the senses, Survivors was a bleak, detailed exploration of what might happen if the power and technology we rely on disintegrated.

Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant in ‘Survivors’, with Ian McCulloch as Greg Preston

The people that remain return to the countryside, away from the disease and desolation of cities, and the scripts explore the immediate domestic realities – growing food, creating energy, living in small communities and establishing ethics.

The focus of the first series is Abby Grant, played by Carolyn Seymour with all the gravitas and spirit of Glenda Jackson. Abby turns out to be a leader, usually the preserve of the male hero in these situations. I imagine this pushed some boundaries at the time and was a bit too challenging for some – indeed, her character lasted for one series only.

In this scene sourced from Youtube, Abby is just realising she has survived the virus and that things are very different. I think it’s a great piece of TV and the setting of a picture-postcard English village only heightens the sense of desolation (echoing as it does films such as Went the Day Well?). With the vocalisation of her realisation at the end, it’s pitch-perfect.