The Fens and the Quantocks
By Paul Warde
Some of this piece is adapted from comments provided to the AHRC-funded ‘Climate histories’ network on 21 January 2011.
Our interest in the Fens (and more precisely Wicken Fen) and the Quantocks is in itself following a well-trodden path in thinking about nature and the environment; the demarcation of special spaces, islands even, of peculiar value. The Quantocks have, of course, their statutory designation as an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB). ‘The Fens’ are a region long marked out, an identity worn by locals and attributed by outsiders; and equally, an area much more studied than many other landscapes of the south-east. It is an easy, but nonetheless important observation, that most National Parks and the great majority of AONBs are elevated places. The Fens’ peculiarity is, of course, their utter lack of elevation. But our interest in both reflects an association of ‘natural beauty’ or even ‘environmental places’ with the exotic: perhaps an exoticism that is cosy and familiar, but one that differs from the more normal, everyday landscapes – as experienced by the majority of the population. Chris Smout reminded us at Hawsley Manor that all ‘man-made’ landscapes are also natural landscapes, and we might agree that there is even less of the ‘pristine human’ than ‘pristine nature’. Similarly, our current, cultural ideas of ‘special’ nature are strongly steered by topography. This is maybe hardly a surprise the basic fact is part of a national process of how localities are understood. The lay of the land matters. There is, doubtless, an element of biophysical experience too. On top of the Quantocks the air feels different; the way the wind blasts us, and the lower atmospheric pressure cools us and gives a strange sense of having passed into another realm. The temper of the place, the stories about the land, are always also set by the airs. Not only the ‘big skies’ of the Fens; it is not only an ocular experience, but tangible, one that gets under our skin, as we were reminded by Clare.
If the Quantocks are defined for us above all by land and air, when we think of the Fens we think of water, a wetland. The value of Wicken Fen is as a relict (although in large part restored) wetland landscape and much of the protection of the site has been driven by ecological considerations. Many may find the Fen beautiful, but this has not loomed large in its protection. Neither is the Wicken Vision justified by an appeal to beauty. In most of the Fens, the water now passes through canalised rivers and lodes, channelled and pumped by engineering projects, the dried out fields exposed to the wind and lying considerably below landscape features such as roads, houses, and ironically enough, the areas of wetland that we now have to maintain by pumping water into them. Visually, the Fens are no longer a watery landscape; they are not even noticeably wet. So why do we persist in thinking of them as a ‘Waterland’, to quote the famous novel of Graham Swift? This makes me think of the durability of narratives that are able to pass beyond topographical experience and shrug off profound transformation. They are ‘sticky’, a habit of thought that saw the Fens characterised as the home of lawless and backward folk in a gloomy habitat by John Norden in 1607, and more famously Dugdale in the 1660s.Their stereotypes are still bandied around today. Yet Fen history is one of major discontinuity, not just in the land, but economic fortune, stretching back to the Bronze Age. Transformations did not only come with drainage since the 17th century. In medieval times the Fens were a prosperous region, providing some of the highest incomes per acre in the country. We can see how the story of a place becomes disassociated from the actuality, or more precisely, becomes an element in an unyielding mental topography. We can argue whether the Fens are or have been socially and economically ‘backward’. It is harder to plausibly argue that this is still because they are wetlands, yet somehow an environmental stereotype remains wedded to a social one. Narratives reify a particular environmental ‘moment’, or perhaps more often outsiders’ perceptions of an environment, and make it the timeless symbol of the region. The Quantocks are now beautiful: will anyone ever try and deny them their beauty? The beauty of the Fens or Somerset Levels can be argued for, but they have never had their beautiful ‘moment’, and their beauty can be as easily denied.
I suspect that three things now protect the Quantocks; one is the hazy public consensus about their beauty; one is their designation as an AONB, because laws are not easily undone either (witness the political storm over the generally much less loved Forestry Commission and Nature Reserve land). But thirdly, their sheer mass, heaved into the everyday vision of people for miles around, the solidity of their identity, protects them as surely as a tight and determined phalanx of pike-men. You cannot protect just a bit of the Quantocks; you cannot preserve a relict segment of a hill. In the eye of beauty, that makes no sense. The Fens, on the other hand, will continue to be highly vulnerable to change, for good or ill; changes in farming and technology, to climate change, to erosion, to increasing population, also to restoration and Fen visions. This is because, I suggest, there is nothing in the perception of the modern Fens in the public eye that determines that a particular landscape on the Fen must be at a particular scale. Wicken Fen could be bigger. It could deliver ecological benefits to make it a great fen. But just as easily, as now, the use of neighbouring land could be radically different and shift with the whim of subsidy and property prices. For some the sedge Fens and carr woodlands are beautiful; only for very few people, the great plains of agri-business. But they do not have to be managed as a block.
I can imagine the designation of beauty being rolled out further over the land, as beauty becomes democratised, where every landscape is spoken for and given its due, a multi-naturalism to match our multiculturalist ethos. But for such a move to be reflected in policy would then require a profound shift in the ethos of conservation and planning covering the whole country, something that is not on the horizon yet. Perhaps the Landscape Character Assessment, and its disregard for administrative and any other traditional border, may yet shift us in that direction?
The propensity to change, the desire for conservation, the dynamics of historical processes – these are themes at the heart of the project ‘Local Places, Global Processes’. I suspect most of us involved are instinctive conservers, whilst shaking our heads (perhaps with a little condescension?) at people who believe in the ‘timeless’ quality of the landscape, who don’t understand how the top of the Quantocks is a the product of intense labour, and has shifted between various kinds of pasture and heath, temporary arable, scrub, bracken, and so forth. Belief in the ‘wild’, its positive associations, and the timeless qualities associated with it, are certainly largely emergent properties of post-Romantic thinking about nature. The association of the ‘wild’ with an uncultivated ‘other’ goes back much further, and today may actually be an idea under threat, as we discover the ‘wild places’ in derelict brown-field sites, and our snuggest urban gardens, as well as far-flung hilltops.
But what I found noticeable in listening to those who loved and managed the Quantocks were the qualities they spoke about as being part of the essence of the hills. The major explicit objection to wind turbines (and the greater acceptance of nuclear power stations) is because of their motion. Again and again we heard about tranquillity. Cars and the people they move in them were a problem because they were noisy, the history of which was vividly elaborated by Tim. For Jenny, our resident artist, her Quantock scenes were de-peopled, and we discussed various reasons why. I suspect one is that the scene becomes still. We know that people in a picture must be in motion and have travelled to and fro, and this somehow disrupts a vision of what the experience of the hills should be. Colour was important. The hills had ‘soft hues’, and could bear nothing too cocky or strident; and a major aspect of this seemed (to my ears) to be that sudden bursts of colour erupted, inappropriately, against a more measured pace of seasonal change. Given that all these qualities are so strongly valued it is not very surprising that they also evoke ‘timelessness’, because many of these things we are seeking are about a desire to suspend normal time – not to deny a place a history, but to treasure a moment in suspense. Since the nineteenth century green spaces have frequently been imagined as an escape from the pressures, bustle and noise of urban life. Hence the for many the desire for stillness, for ‘timelessness’, may not necessarily be a rejection of history, but again relates more closely to the ‘biophysical’ experience – or more charmingly, what we feel to be the poetry of place. An important part of natural beauty, in this vision, is this experience of time, and the possibility of repeating it, of a time in the round; the walk both the means to that experience, and a perambulation, beating the bounds of a place that holds time sacred. These were thoughts prompted by being on the Quantocks, and that strike me as a hill-walker. But I find these qualities in the wetlands too, and I would not be surprised to find them widely shared in all our especially ‘environmental’ places. Do we seek to conjure a more easeful time from nature because we have ceased to believe it possible in ‘things human’? If historians are so often connoisseurs of the way in which time just marches on, does it represent a particular challenge in how we usefully talk and write about such places?