Nature 2017 June

Celebrating the making of the English landscape

I was recently watching a documentary on the life of one of our most cherished English painters. John Constable was born in East Bergholt, Suffolk in 1776; the same year as the American Revolution. Constable and his contemporary JMW Turner are known as the ‘fathers of English landscape painting’. Whereas Turner sought to capture a dramatic impression of events, Constable’s paintings typically provided an accurate depiction of rural scenes, mainly in Suffolk but also Hampstead, then a village outside London, and Salisbury.

We might today consider his compositions of rural scenes and life as ‘idyllic’ and his works are often described by art historians ‘quintessentially English’. In the first period of Constable’s career, whilst living in Suffolk, his focus was to paint pastoral landscapes, often incorporating stretches of water where agricultural labourers were at work. Until recently not much had been written about his works capturing the first signs of the industrialisation of the countryside.

In Suffolk by the late 1700s as many places elsewhere, including the Chilterns, entrepreneurs and industrialists were connecting cities by canals that traversed the countryside. In the case of one of Constable’s most famous compositions Dedham Lock and Mill, the eponymous lock had been constructed less than 100 years earlier and effectively canalised the River Stour. It was one of the first such projects in England. The mill, which lies beyond the lock, is a sophisticated example of 18th century engineering. So whilst this tranquil scene might look ageless it had in fact changed significantly in the previous 100 years. Most remarkable though is that a further 200 years on it has changed far less. In part this is down to the National Trust preserving the lock and mill and conserving the river and landscape.

In many respects the same story holds good for this part of the Chilterns. Take Cholesbury Camp for example. Here the ancient hillfort once (2,500 years ago) looked out northwards onto a largely open landscape all the way to the point where the Chilterns drop down to Aylesbury Vale and to the south of the Camp it was open in places almost as far as the eye could see! Of course this was no natural landscape but one progressively cleared of trees and scrub, over several hundred years, due to rapidly developing subsistence-based agriculture. Farmsteads were generally small. An exception to this agrarian economy would be the iron smelting, making the Camp the centre of a trading network. Farms were originally demarcated by just banks and ditches. Some of these boundaries were the origin of the later hedgerows and hollow ways which remain today. Farms had both livestock and arable crops ploughed with the power of oxen and horses.

Dogs were domesticated for shepherding, hunting and protection. Domesticated cats arrived during this period, possibly used for vermin control. Chickens and wildfowl were valuable for eggs rather than eating. The dry valleys were heavily-wooded where domesticated pigs were let out in the autumn. As for wild animals, along with the mammals we are familiar with today (but no rabbits yet) packs of wolves roamed the plains. Bears and lynx vied with grey wolves for alpha mammal status and wild boar dangerously inhabited the woodlands.

Skip forward to the Romans and Cholesbury Camp had been abandoned in favour of the Vale of Aylesbury or the Tring Gap. Farmland became overgrown by scrub and later returned to mixed woodland. Man’s influence on the landscape had been largely hidden or even reversed, leaving a dangerous wilderness to be entered at your peril.

By the time William the Conqueror visited Berkhamsted farming had returned to these hills but was controlled by the wealthy farm estates in Aylesbury Vale. The most dangerous wild mammals had been largely driven out by hunting, though being away from the homestead at night would still not be a pleasant experience. Rabbits had only arrived in the 12th century (not by the Romans as often claimed) and their warrens were highly valued by manor estate owners.

By the 17th century permanent village communities, though isolated for want of roads and transport, had become self-sufficient in farming. The most cherished features of our present-day hilltop village landscape: the oldest houses, woodlands, commons, hedged fields, bridleways, footpaths and lanes owe much to this period. It would just need the cars, metalled roads and the electricity wires to disappear and have some livestock added to revert back to a pastoral landscape.

As Constable had done in his day, adding a cow or two adds much to enhancing the atmosphere of a rural idyll. During this period the beech woodlands we enjoy were first planted and managed. Timber was increasingly the most valuable commodity. Trading with tool and furniture makers in the towns was developing and noises and smells were provided by bodgers and charcoal burners living seasonally in the woods. With the large carnivorous mammals long gone, smaller mammals such as badgers, foxes, rabbits and hares could exploit new habitats and improved food supplies associated with the activities of settlers brought animals and humans into closer contact and sometimes conflict.

Prior to the establishment of Cholesbury village a small hamlet might have existed inside the hillfort. Later on these first houses were demolished or abandoned and the hillfort was given over to livestock and vegetables. The magnificent stand of beech trees which demarcate the ramparts today and add much to the present-day landscape were not there until the first part of the 19th century when the Butcher family, bankers in Tring who owned the land, planted the present double avenue of beech trees.

Around the turn of the 20th century three more mammals make an appearance in these parts and have had a largely negative impact on the woodland ecology. The grey squirrel was introduced from the United States by the Victorians and had a devastating effect on the populations of their red-furred cousins. Glis glis (edible dormice) spread across the Chilterns from 1905 when they were released from Walter Rothschild’s estate at Tring. Meanwhile muntjac deer came when they escaped from Woburn Abbey in 1925.

Towards the end of his life John Constable wrote to his friend and biographer Charles Leslie: “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up”. A sentiment I think is just as applicable for us in the Chiltern hilltop villages of the 21st century as it was for Constable in Suffolk of the 18th century. We should applaud John Constable for being the first to celebrate the making of the English landscape.