Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Dark Mountain Project



New web site for the Dark Mountain Project, 'a  network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for troubled times. We promote and curate writing, art, music and culture rooted in place, time and nature'.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

New National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): A sustainable landscape?

Obligatory photo of bucolic countryside required when discussing planning


So, after much recent media debate, the Department for Communities and Local Government has finally announced the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England, designed to simplify the existing complex planning regulations into a 50 (well 72!) page document.

 Key questions include:
  • Is there a presumption in favour of 'sustainable development' and, if so, does it provide clarity on what this means? Or is it potentially a developers charter?
  • What safeguards are there for heritage and the natural environment? 
  • Does it deliver on the Government's promise to put local communities at the heart of the system? 
  • Does it provide a coherent landscape strategy, that includes non-designated areas?

Twitter is a good starting point for comment on the NPPF.

Initial reaction seems to be that there has been a quite a lot of redrafting, with the much trailed bullish and controversial 'default yes' to development dropped in favour of the more measured 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' (the plan all along or a U-turn?).

The focus is on swift approval for sustainable development where it accords with the relevant local authority development plan or where a local plan is absent (which apparently is about 50% of authorities, so this could be a significant issue if these authorities dont get moving). However, there is an exclusion from this presumption for designated areas (eg Green Belt, National Parks, AONB's, SSSI's etc.) or where 'any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the NPPF taken as a whole' (one for the lawyers to chew over!).

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A Map for England?


Interesting development from the Royal Town Planning Institute: a proposal for a Map for England to identify the spatial impact of Government policies and encourage a joined-up approach to planning, infrastructure and services. Seems a good idea in principle, although the blurb is very much focused on growth and investment, housing, industry and business with no mention of heritage, ecology or landscape.They are looking to stimulate a debate in this area and for feedback on the idea.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever

Mountain stream, Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales
To continue the theme of the last post, water has a centrality not just to landform morphology but also to our relationship with the landscape.

Streams, brooks, rivers, ponds, lakes and the sea are a living, dynamic presence amongst the inanimate soil and rock of the land.

When in an upland valley my vision is always drawn upwards to the fluting gullies carrying the becks and streams down from the boggy high ground to the parent watercourse below. Following such fledglings is an elemental thrill - hand on rock and moss, boots in water - upwards to the source, or downwards to find a way off a mist-shrouded hill; the murmuring water a reassuring companion. Scouting out a spot to stop for lunch on a days walking on the fell is always predicated on finding a watery idyll to hunker down beside. 

Some of the clearest entries in my own landscape memory bank are water-based: a waterlog in effect, with apologies to Roger Deakin. Endless childhood hours playing around a disused sheep-dip on Finham Brook; shudderingly cold skinny-dipping in a mountain lake after a long, hot days ridge-walking taking in Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest peak; canoeing on the river Wye; crawling behind a waterfall in Venezuela; and two days spent absorbing the visual and aural grandeur of Iguazu Falls. And whilst I have experienced the visceral thrills and spills of coasteering on a couple of occasions, my own personal highlight has been gorge-walking in the Neath Valley, South Wales: following the course of a fast-flowing river up a narrow gorge, scaling boulders, traversing rapids, crawling into tunnels forced through rock by water, and a fully clothed plunge into a waterfall pool as a finale. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Patience (After Sebald)

A bit behind the curve on this; thanks to 'Anonymous' for pointing me in the direction of Patience (After Sebald), a documentary about WG Sebald, the writer of Rings of Saturn (a book that lives up to its mightly reputation). Its directed by Grant Gee, also responsible for Joy Division; so given this and the subject matter I will be seeking it out.


Friday, 16 March 2012

Sound mapping


Interesting post about 'sound mapping' on the Some Landscapes blog; an indication that some of the more intriguing landscape discourse is taking place outside of established disciplines and structures, in the urban-focused psychogeographical sphere.

For anyone who has not looked at Some Landscapes, I would really recommend it as a forum for investigating the interface between landscape and the arts. For those of us who have travelled from a more conventional spatial-temporal perspective, broadening horizons (why is it that so many phrases and cliches are landscape-related?) can only enrich our understanding.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

A comedy of landscapes

As I cycled up the 1 in God knows what of Nugent Hill this morning my mind turned to lighter thoughts: how funny is landscape?

And I don't mean those mildly amusing walking books with titles such as Two men and a bog or rural comedy postcards, usually featuring sheep or rain, or both.

A countryside theme can be found in a few conventional television comedies. The Fast Show in particular had several, sometimes quite poignant, sketches in this vein - 'The Rambling Hiker', 'Johnny Nice Painter' and 'Ted and Ralph':


New 'Landscapes'


Returing to the theme of a previous post, the latest issue of Landscapes has just come through my letterbox; always a stimulating read. Graham Fairclough's editorial articulates the journal's balance between continued coverage of its landscape history and archaeology bed-rock, whilst also reflecting wider horizons and inter-disciplinary collaboration in landscape study; emphasising that "...the idea of landscape, the historical understanding of landscape, and a sensibility to landscape change through time, is surely going to be central to political debate well beyond the heritage domain." 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Landscape in Europe


Its great to hear about perspectives on landscape from outside Britain and I am grateful to Guillermo Reher for providing the following information.

Following the successful Landscape Archaeology Conference at Amsterdam's Vrije Universiteit in January 2010 a second conference will be held in Berlin in June at which the proceedings of LAC2010 will be presented. Though it is titled "landscape archaeology", a rich panorama of approaches will be in evidence. 

Another event, the Le:Notre conference in Antalya in April, also looks at wider landscape-related themes from a landscape architecture perspectives.

These events reflect the growing importance of inter-disciplinary landscape study in European research, illustrated by the European Science Foundation's policy briefing on Landscape in a Changing World produced by experts from different fields througout Europe.



New local history blog

An interesting new blog on local history has just been set up by the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. 


Landscape management for our times?


The list of government bodies, NGO's and charities that have a remit to conserve and enhance our natural, historic and cultural landscape and environment is impressively long:
English Heritage, Natural England, the Environment Agency, Countryside Council for Wales, CADW, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, the Forestry Commission, National Park Authorities, the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB...

This well-established infrastructure of landscape management is, in many ways, very reassuring; and, due to devolution and the inertness of the Coalition Government's risible 'quango-busting' exercise largely intact in these times of 'austerity', give or take the odd wobble over selling off forests.

There is also an enormous well-spring of expertise and experience wrapped up in these bureaucratic structures and a clear record of achievement and progressiveness over the last sixty years or so: our landscape is in a better place than it would be if this safety net had not been active during a period which will be remembered in history as one, founded on hope and idealism, but dominated by rapacious capitalism and consumerism.

And yet...

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A bigger picture

Ernest Howard: 'A typical dry valley in the Yorkshire Wolds, in this case Horse Dale – it’s just waiting for David Hockney to set up his easel and paint.'

As Hockney-mania takes hold at the Royal Academy of Art's A Bigger Picture exhibition of David Hockney's images of the East Yorkshire countryside (and a degree of critical backlash), a great picture of the source landscape in today's Observer magazine (Your pictures; this week's theme: Bend).

Misty morning in the Severn Vale

Misty fields in the Severn Vale

A short walk before a pub lunch this morning in the expectation of more Spring sunshine. Instead a layer of early morning mist was still stubbornly hugging the low-lying fields bordering the Severn Estuary as midday approached; the eeriness emphasised by the regular low honk of an unseen ship's horn on the estuary seeping through the fog. The strangeness reminds me of the nearby Whale Wharf, so-named after a whale was stranded on the shore in the late nineteenth century, became a brief tourist attraction and was then towed to Bristol to be turned into fertiliser.   

Landscape in particular 2: Bolton Abbey estate

Field barns in Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales

Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale is one of the most visited places in the Yorkshire Dales; on a summer weekend it can seem as if half the population of Leeds and Bradford have taken possession. 

I had visited many times during my childhood, with two sets of grand-parents living down the road, and have a family connection as my grandfather was born on a nearby farm (Deerstones - did our practically-minded forebears have any understanding of the poetry of their place naming?).

Through serendipity I took part in a field survey of historic barns on the Bolton Abbey estate as part of an English Heritage placement during my Masters in Landscape Archaeology.  

This included a blissful week or so spent travelling around the sprawling estate, which takes in most of the tenanted farms in the surrounding area, photographing the many and varied barns and generally observing and interpreting the historic landscape. A day spent poring over the maps and plans in the Estate's archive appealed to another side of my love of landscape.

The work provided a thought-provoking insight into the challenges and opportunities involved in managing historic buildings and landscapes. And made me question some of my assumptions and prejudices about the the roles of landowners, National Park authorities and others in this area.

It also provided another reminder that it doesn't take much to get off the beaten track in even the most popular 'honey pots'; an inquisitive nature, desire to wander and some understanding of the features that make up a landscape, are all that are really needed. 

Saturday, 10 March 2012

News from Nowhere

William Morris

News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890) is one of my 'on the go' books that I dip in and out of. The combination of the first signs of early Spring and hearing yet another politician banging on about austerity for the umpteenth time leads me back to one of its central tenants: a shift from a system based on capitalism and spurious ideas of trickle down wealth creation to an egalitarian pastoral society of common ownership.

Yes, its written from a late nineteenth century perspective when idealistic socialism could still be seen as fresh and progressive; yes, its unashamedly and unfashionably Utopian; and, yes, it has jarring elements that make it very much 'of its time' (patronising attitude to women still very much in place) .

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Landscape in particular 1: Kenilworth castle

This is the first in a regular series of short-entries on places and landscapes that have long-standing resonance or meaning to me, or are new discoveries.


Kenilworth Castle (Photographer unknown)

Kenilworth castle in Warwickshire is a large, multi-period fortification with an important strategic role between the Norman and Elizabethan periods. Like many such castles it then suffered a long decline, was badly damaged in the Civil War and thus became a picturesque ruin before its modern incarnation as an English Heritage managed tourist attraction.

To me, my brother and our friends though, the castle, and the fields around it, became the playground we were lucky enough to have at the end of our road. The fact that it was an enormous ruin gave us even more scope for adventure: we had about a dozen ways to gain entry illegally, despite having free local resident entry passes, and summer evenings were the time that we would have it to ourselves to play football in, clamber over and generally 'own'; we found and explored a tunnel (actually a medieval sewer into the moat) that allowed a long crawl in the dark on hands and knees; and the lush meadows surrounding the castles that once formed the extensive moat ('the Mere') gave us even more scope for play.

At the time this all seemed very normal and it is only in retrospect that I have looked at aerial photographs and plans and seen how the places that we roamed across were all connected features in the wider historic landscape of the castle and its hinterland: that the raised ground at the far end of the Mere called 'the Pleasance' was created to house the temporary viewing platforms for the elaborate pageant put on for Queen Elizabeth I's visit; that the nearby field called 'Parliament Piece' was the site of a Parliament held by King Henry III in 1266.   

Monday, 5 March 2012

Urban v rural: a false dichotomy

The vast majority of the population in Britain live in cities and large towns and yet much debate on rural landscapes and communities seems to be based on two false propositions underlying this self-evident fact. Firstly, that city-dwelling and experiencing and valuing the countryside are somehow mutually exclusive: 'townies' and urbanites are removed from the land and only understand it as a remote and ill-understood other; at best a vague and aspirational place of retreat should the fast-pace, alienation and all-round brutalism of urban life get too much. Secondly,that rural living is intrinsically more natural, healthy and slower-paced with an all round higher quality of life for bringing up children, retiring to or finding inner peace ie its what we all want and need, if only there were space and resource for all 65 million of us.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Jerusalem: beyond the cliches

Scene from Jerusalem
Although I slightly hesitate to raise the subject of a play that I have not actually seen, it does seem as if the popularity of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem is a striking example of a mounting contemporary desire to find a new narrative on Englishness and national identity that steers a different course to the tired old dichotomy between backward-looking nationalism and liberal naval-gazing and self-loathing. 

Central to this subject in the play and in England - and it may well be the same elsewhere - is sense of place and landscape; particularly focused on rural imagery, though in an increasingly complex and interesting way. Laura Barton's article on the Guardian website  brings this out well. This seems rich and fertile ground for landscape-related discussion with real relevance and resonance, and will be returned to on this blog.


Friday, 2 March 2012

Finding a broader view

The theme of Landscapism is connecting disparate strands of landscape-related subject matter together. Happily there are examples (although not yet enough) of work that seeks to look at the bigger picture or bring together different perspectives or disciplines.

Two books that I think attempt to move into this territory particularly well are Matthew Johnson's Ideas of Landscape (2007) and Approaches to Landscape (1999) by Richard Muir. The former is an archaeologist and the latter a geographer, but both works survey and critique the varying approaches to the study of landscape both over time and in terms of the differing academic traditions of Britain, the United States and Europe. 


Landscapes is a bi-annual journal that, although its core subject matter is landscape history and archaeology, brings landscape-related writing and research of all kinds - and from around the world - together in a single, accessible publication. A fairly random selection of recent articles demonstrate the diversity of its content:
Horses, Elites and Long-distance Roads
Landscape with snow 
Brixton: Landscape of a Riot
Hohenschönhausen, Berlin РExplorations in Stasiland
Leith Hill, Surrey: Landscape, Locality and Nation in the Era of the Great War 
The English Pays: Approaches to Understanding and Characterising Landscapes and Places


Landings by Richard Skelton is a fascinating study into a particular localised landscape - in the West Pennines - that eschews the normal, often fairly pedestrian take on local history for a combination of poetry, prose and music that brings out a strong feeling for a landscape, past and present.