It is August 1805, two friends have risen early, on a cold Cumbrian morning, to climb Striding edge to Helvellyn. The previous night, they are recognised in the inn, but they have fun pretending not to be who they are. They are well-educated, have travelled abroad, and have lived in great capital cities. But their roots are in Cumbria and the Borders, and they have chosen to devote their lives to analysing and celebrating our landscape. They will continue in this vocation until the day they die.

The older man – who has a bad limp, and moves very slowly along the ridge – sees history in everything. He has read, and it seems remembered, all that has been written about the Borders, from medieval land registers to French mercenary gossip. He has devoted years, interviewing shepherds and housewives, to gather the most comprehensive collection of oral history, and ballads, conceivable. There is not a hill, or a local family, within thirty miles of his home, about which he cannot tell you a story. When he looks down towards Martindale, he will remember the Kendal archers, in green, who ambushed the Scottish raiders, six centuries earlier. And he takes particular pleasure in the King of Patterdale, an elderly man, with a drunk wife, who seems to be the last impoverished descendant of an ancient chief.

The younger man – a very strong walker – draws his delight from the human emotions evoked by the land itself. As he climbs, he can conceptualise every valley and ridge of the Lake District, as though he were a raven circling above Skiddaw. But what interests him most is the way the landscape strikes the human eye and soul. He can recall the different passions, evoked by each of a dozen lakes, at every season, from every point of the compass, from daybreak, to moonlight. And he loves the hill-farmers: he has observed the details of their architecture, their stockmanship, and their response to the weather, to poverty, and to death. The focus of these two men on the landscape will make them among the most famous men in Europe, and their home country of Cumbria and the Borders into the most famous landscape of its time. These men are, of course, Walter Scott and William Wordsworth.

But the twentieth century took a less poetical view of our landscape. Within a few decades of Wordsworth’s death, valley after valley around us was being expropriated for the purposes of the government. Mardale was flooded to create reservoirs, leaving the barns, and steeples, far beneath the water. Tynedale was cleared for millions of Alaskan trees, intended for use as army trench-props. Military airfields sprung up from Silloth to Carlisle. The base of Bewcastle was circled with tape warning of ‘ionised radiation’, enclosing a rocket-testing site. Seven miles of munitions factories, and thirty thousand workers, were transplanted to Annan and Gretna. Nuclear power-stations were erected with too little care for the radioactive waste; and in Otterburn, the houses of hill-farmers became artillery targets.

Our twenty-first century approach to our landscape is less easy to describe. It is a virus concealed in the darkness of strategic plans, and unfamiliar concepts. It spreads through a thousand slivers of legislation, directives, and subsidies. But it is equally destructive. Today, the needs of fern-leaf moss, of birds, of carbon targets, of limestone soil, or water-purification in Manchester, are used to justify clearing sheep and farmers from the hills. “Geomorphological surveys” convince officials not to dredge or control rivers, allowing the water to flow across pasture and down village lanes (and save the state money). Mires, which the medieval monks worked over generations to drain, are reflooded to meet European targets on “sites of special scientific interest”. New tax laws reward landlords for taking farms back from tenants, and selling their houses as second homes. Subsidies intensify all these trends. And the small hill-farmers are vanishing week in, week out, without noise, just as surely as if they were being expropriated for reservoirs, uranium, and rocket-ranges.

All these modern schemes – whether aimed at creating great reservoirs, or preserving the tiny, pink fluff of the sphagnum moss – pay little attention to historical communities. They value narrow numerical targets – this many Mega-watts to be generated per hour, this many tonnes of dynamite to be mixed, so many sheep to be reduced, such a percentage of sites to reach “a favourable condition”. These are plans, indifferent to history, and impatient of the exception. They are driven by officials in distant offices who know little, and care less for the particular, peculiar energies of a long-established community. All treat us almost like a blank space on a map.

The older vision of those two men on Helvellyn, two hundred years ago, was better. They were as immersed in the details of geology, botany, and zoology, as a contemporary environmentalist; and they were often involved in battling government policies. But their priorities lay not in government assets, or nature for its own sake, but in the particular history of living communities. They loved the hills, not only for their beauty, but as fields of action, as reminders of human myths, and human heroism. They valued nature because it made better men. And seated, on a bleached limestone boulder, today, watching rough hill-sheep shouldering the snow from the base of a dry-stone wall, I feel they were right. When the rigid schemes of government are forgotten in ministry archives, their more human vision of our landscape is the one which must, and will, endure.


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