In England, garden and countryside are part of a single strong idea. The land is seen as a whole, where man and nature should work together in a practical balance that crosses the garden fence. In the current crisis of the countryside it is important to remember that long tradition of easy-going integration, and not to flop from one extreme solution to another, like a stranded fish. Countryside is a complex concept. It is as much a psychological and cultural state as an equation of economic and scientific factors.
The rhythm of English culture since the Enlightenment – from Pope to Wordsworth to Goldsworthy – has placed Man and Nature in a happy, muddled harmony. Voltaire was profoundly affected by Alexander Pope’s new garden in Twickenham, where the garden deliberately looked out to the Thames and the Richmond Hills, seeing the whole sequence as man in nature. Landscape became the metaphor and the medium for redefining the relationship with the land, as well as the world. The English Landscape Movement was as much a new philosophy as a new aesthetic. Gone was the introverted ideal of a Paradise Garden of contained geometrical perfection, protected from the wilderness beyond. In its place came an idea of man as part of nature; man involved and delighting in a productive countryside. Hierarchical, baroque separation was replaced by an integrated, classical Arcadia.
These weren’t original ideas. They were a revival of Italian Renaissance precepts, in turn a revival of the humanist principals of the Augustan poets and the Greeks before them. Virgil and Cicero believed that working the land helped you to think straight. Getting out of the city and sweating in the fields gave you a chance to clear your mind and freshen up your morals. In this humanist landscape, food and animals were as important as temples and summer houses. English gardens looked out rather than inwards. Kent’s ha-ha did more than expand the view; it helped to redefine the relationship with the land. The animated prospect is key. The people and animals inhabiting the wider landscape became an integral part of the garden view. Man working in and with nature was a vision of philosophical as well as aesthetic beauty. The relationship between man, the garden and the productive landscape at Villa la Pietra in Florence, where the olive groves flow through to the Villa, inspired the creators of many great 20th century gardens. At Hidcote, Sissinghurst and Hinton Ampner, whose owners visited Villa La Pietra, enjoyment of the gardens is bound up with their place in the surrounding working countryside. Horace Walpole delighted in his animated prospect from Strawberry Hill along the Thames to Twickenham – his ‘seaport in miniature’ – where acknowledgement and appreciation of the surrounding working world was fundamental to his enjoyment of the scene. Man being productive on the land was a key to the whole notion. At Rousham, the view out to the countryside beyond the property is an integral part of the garden; a shared visual democracy of landownership appreciated by Addison.
It is useful to contrast England with North America. In terms of its self-identity, North America has city, agribusiness and wilderness. There is no real concept of countryside. In England, by contrast, there is town and countryside, but no real wilderness. Some of our most valuable habitats, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, are entirely reliant on man-management. The tidal meadows at Syon, for example, are dependent on cattle grazing; and Richmond Park relies on deer for its management and rich ecology. If man were to abandon these areas, the land would gradually be colonised by scrub and woodland and lose its internationally recognised bio-diversity.
We have a chance to turn back now, or at least to turn forward. It is as important to understand how we relate to the urban as much as the rural environment. The Royal Park network, the green streets and spaces in cities, are part of that continuous concept. They are socially inclusive. People from all over the world, from any culture, know how to use a park and green space.
Growing food is also a fundamental. To plant and eat your own vegetables is a great way to relate to the land. Looking at examples in San Francisco, it became clear that from the youngest to the oldest, the ability to grow something was central to an understanding of one’s place in the world. One woman said; ‘my allotment doesn’t cost me very much, but it saves a phenomenal amount in psychiatrist’s fees’. At Borough Market, the 12th century market right in the heart of the densest part of the capital by London Bridge, the farmers’ markets and vegetable markets are thriving. They are helping to stimulate the regeneration of the whole area. Locally grown food, local markets and small farm units are the key to the health of the people and the land.
What we do with gardens, how we choose to exercise our notion of the animated prospect, our fantasies and whims, and how we relate to the earth is wonderfully varied; we shouldn’t be prescriptive about it. City and suburban gardens are as relevant as country estates or village plots. Part of the failure of tower blocks has been the separation from the land beneath. One of the most exciting things going on in garden thinking at the moment, which relates directly back to the countryside, is how you can redefine housing to create gardens and communal spaces using roofs, balconies and street-level plots to incorporate dense living with green living.
Urban and rural spaces need to work together. Green space is an integral part of English towns. It helps to reduce the need to flee at weekends. Conservation is not just about preserving and storing what has happened in the past; it is about how we take the whole of the land forward into the future and how we manage it. We need to look at the way that we use energy, the way we save it. We need to look at where we build our houses and make them work with the landscape. We need to think again about what a garden is. It isn’t just within the garden fence, it is beyond.
Who can make it happen? All of us. We have to help the government understand the diverse complexity of the solutions; they are lost in quick fixes. At one level allotments and small holdings are already leading the way. On a grander scale some private landowners are taking interesting steps. The Duchy of Cornwall sets an impressive example of organic and holistic farming and land management. And on a private estate at Heveningham, a young family have implemented Capability Brown’s unexecuted plans 200 years after his death. Hundreds of hectares of arable land have been returned to grazed pasture, 2 kilometres of lakes have been dug, the woodlands have been brought back into health and over 50 further hectares have been planted. At Painshill Park a private charity has brought food production and sensible management of the land into public access, understanding and enjoyment. These examples show some of the solutions that government can encourage as an alternative to either subsidising volume food production or eliminating agriculture in Britain altogether.
Foot and Mouth is an ongoing tragedy. One minor consolation, however, is that the debate about the countryside has finally been brought inescapably to government attention; how we take this debate forward now is critical. Do we rely on Common Agricultural Policy subsidies and a regimented tourist vision of the countryside? Or do we loosen up and allow the scale, the complexity, the eccentricity of the landscape to reassert itself and reconnect with the cities, gardens and the people who live in them.
Who leads the debate? The National Trust, probably more than any other body, has the ability to take the rounded view. It is the largest non-government landowner in the UK with 270,000 hectares of land; it has 2.8 million members and major influence on the cultural landscape, the coastline, and National Parks. The Trust is beginning to seize that opportunity. With exemplar projects it can show how gardens can relate to their surrounding countryside – for example how Stowe can be grazed by sheep again; and how Ham House can replant its avenues, to enhance public access and bio-diversity. The National Trust has the resources to show the way forward, to set the pattern, by example, by lobbying and by being involved in the debate. The government is listening.
We now, each of us, need to give government the message in as simple a way as possible; what is important to us in terms of food quality, landscape character and ecological diversity. It is time to stop complaining about subsidies and start promoting investment in the countryside. By helping the government and the European Union to see the whole picture, we can use this moment of crisis to encourage an agriculture which manages the land in a way that makes long term sense and, in turn, gives inspiration to look afresh at our gardens and public spaces. And finally we need to find ways to reach the next generation and allow them the possibility of getting dirt under their fingernails from the very start.
It is a most exciting time for gardens and countryside. England took a step at the beginning of the 18th century that fundamentally changed the way man relates to nature. That step has prepared us for the leap we need to take in the 21st century.