The Cultural Landscape
“When I was young....I felt in my bones that the landscape itself was speaking to me, in a language I did not understand and I had to find out how to read it.”
Professor W.G. Hoskins
Photo of Smardale Bridge by Val Corbett
Wild though the Cumbrian fells and mountains may seem they are not, as is often claimed, a true wilderness. The landscape in Cumbria is a cultural landscape; the product of layers of human and natural history intertwined as it is throughout the British Isles.
There is almost nowhere in the UK that hasn’t felt the relentless impact of human beings to a point where the original wilderness and its associated wildlife now survive only in little pockets and tracts of marginal land. Likewise the earliest human settlements were long ago subsumed by medieval field systems and these in turn obliterated by parliamentary enclosures.
Sadly, in the last hundred years, a cultural equilibrium where farming was once in harmony with nature has been lost - devastated by modern mechanized and chemically reliant agricultural practice.
Physical remnants of those past layers of our landscape heritage still survive in much of Cumbria where there are fewer people. Wild flowers still grow along ancient enclosed tracks, footpaths and bridleways, disused railways and in traditional hay meadows. The same wild birds that sang in the original wildwoods, when Britain was occupied by the Romans, still sing in residues of old woodland and private gardens and the remains of early human habitation can still be found buried under grass covered mounds, banks, ditches and terraces.
The rural landscape is a living patchwork of fields and rough pasture, arable and horticultural crops, woodland, moorland, heath and marsh, all intersected with innumerable tracks, footpaths, hedges, walls, rivers and streams like the decorative stitching in an ancient embroidered, storytelling quilt.
The landscape speaks to us, if we just take the time to understand its language. Increasingly, it is telling us that our cultural affiliation with nature is in crisis. The wildlife dimension is being dissipated at an unprecedented rate and there is an urgent need for action to halt the destruction and restore wilderness eco systems before it is too late.