Camilla Swift

Four difficult women who fought to preserve the English countryside

Thanks to Octavia Hill, Beatrix Potter, Pauline Dower and the ‘arrogant fanatic’ Sylvia Sayer, England’s wilder spaces remain relatively unspoilt

Four difficult women who fought to preserve the English countryside
Portrait of Octavia Hill, after John Singer Sargent. [Getty Images]
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The Women Who Saved the English Countryside

Matthew Kelly

Yale, pp. 400, £20

One thing that Covid lockdown made us appreciate was the importance of being outdoors. When we were finally allowed into them, national and local parks became chockfull and many people rediscovered that being in the open had health benefits.

How timely, then, that Matthew Kelly has written an account of four redoubtable rural activists: Octavia Hill, Beatrix Potter, Sylvia Sayer and Pauline Dower. He describes them as ‘the women who saved the English countryside’ – which is perhaps a bit of a stretch, though it’s true that individually they fought tooth and nail to preserve vast tracts of it. Their lives spanned the past two centuries and they were all, as Theresa May would have it, ‘bloody difficult women’, each with a driving force and often a particular region that concerned them.

We are first introduced to Hill, the social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust. Her interest was chiefly in people, and her aim was to enable city workers to enjoy health-giving open spaces within easy reach of London. She wrote of securing access for ‘the ever-increasing population to some of these airy hillsides, commanding wide and beautiful views’.

The most famous of the quartet is undoubtedly Potter, though known more for her ‘little books’ about Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggywinkle than for the work she did, and investments she made, in preserving the unique grazing uplands of the Lake District. But according to Kelly’s thorough examination of these women’s efforts, the two least known appear to be the ones who fought their corner hardest.

As chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Association from 1951 to 1973, Sayer argued that Dartmoor was ‘the most severely threatened’ of the remaining uncultivated areas in the south of England, and her campaigning made her a constant thorn in the side of all those she believed endangered its wildness, including the military and the Forestry Commission. The local landowner, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, described the DPA as a ‘perpetual irritant’, adding that ‘we never get a moment’s rest from hearing about them’. This was Sayer’s aim: she was fully aware that she was disliked and considered an ‘arrogant fanatic’ for her refusal to play the ‘meek preservationist’ and didn’t give two hoots.

Dower, also a great fighter, was a founding member of the National Parks Commission in 1949 and became its deputy chair in 1958. She may not have gone in quite so all-guns-blazing as Sayer, but she enthusiastically defended the National Parks principles at public inquiries against any number of naysayers – many of them men. When the Commission was unceremoniously disbanded in 1968, its first secretary wrote to her that ‘no one could have done more for the National Parks than you’.

In his epilogue, Kelly wonders what these women would have thought the English countryside needs protection from today. He suggests ‘the developments associated with industrial modernity’. But many of the issues they raised still apply. Potter railed against the many visitors to the Lake District and the ‘increasing number of charabancs clogging up unimproved track’ – and only last month the MP Tim Farron asked Michael Gove to rethink the rules on car parking in the Lakes to ease congestion. In the Yorkshire Dales there is talk of banning motorists from the green lanes.

Potter also worried about balancing a working landscape with public access to the estates she bought for the National Trust: ‘Could a farmer be justified in locking a gate to protect livestock... and bar entry to new plantations?’ Again, such issues are alive today – as is the problem of fire. On Dartmoor, Sayer was concerned that an increase in visitors would heighten the risk of wildfire, while Potter noted that in one Lake District plantation there were ‘hundreds of cartloads of twiggy thinnings, most inflammable and most tempting to kettle-boilers’. Now kettle-boilers have been replaced by disposable barbecues, which many supermarkets and parks have banned for this reason.

But none of these women could have imagined just how nature would figure in discussions today – far beyond concerns about tourist figures and the welfare of those who live and work in the country. Kelly writes of how rewilding has become the mot du jour, and sings the praises of George Monbiot and his book Feral.

Is the answer somewhere in between? Sayer noted how on Dartmoor, locals ‘carried on quietly with the right and traditional usage of their land’, as speculators failed. Over centuries people have learnt how to live in England’s wilder spaces, developing techniques that work with their environment. Surely this is what’s needed: to protect and preserve our uplands for both people and nature while accepting that hill grazing has its place and that practices such as the cool burning of heather help to prevent wildfires; to plant the right trees in the right place, and create habitats that will encourage nature to thrive.

We can do that without destroying people’s livelihoods or communities while also keeping green spaces open to the public. Doesn’t that feel like a balance that these four women would have approved of?