Until I plotted a book on England’s best views I had not realised how much people cared. Ask them to nominate a favourite church or house or even town and they will casually suggest a few. Ask for a view and you delve deep. A view is personal, intimate. It is not a landscape but the experience of a landscape. Many suggested places where they had fallen in love or found consolation. A number said simply, ‘The view from the end of my garden.’ Rejecting such a choice for ‘England’s best views’ could be a personal slight.
That may be why Hazlitt advised his readers always to walk the countryside alone to avoid distraction, though he hurriedly added they should ‘afterwards dine in company’. Lord Clark was of a different opinion. He wrote, ‘With the exception of love, there is nothing else by which people of all kinds are more united than by their pleasure in a good view.’ I am told more Britons pass their time looking at views than visit museums, stately homes or football matches. This embraces not just famous ‘beauty spots’. The countryside as a whole ranked with the royal family, Shakespeare and the NHS in recent Olympics polls of what people most admired about England.
Which makes even more baffling the modern politician’s lack of feel for the countryside. I doubt if Ed Miliband would recognise a blade of grass. He told his conference of something called a town’s ‘right to expand’ into the country, a right I can find in no political philosophy. David Cameron and George Osborne are no different. I enjoyed Private Eye’s spoof of them and their friends travelling to Manchester the other week by train and gazing bemused out of the window. Why were all these hills and fields and trees just lying about doing nothing, when they could be subsidised wind farms, Tesco warehouses and toytown estates?
I have no time for the idea that ‘every view is subjective’ — we would have no national parks if that were true — but I acknowledge that appreciation can be shot through with modest bias. I am asked how I could include the Ribblehead rail viaduct as one of the great views of England, yet not the wind-turbine arrays of Romney Marsh or Bodmin Moor. The answer is not hard. The viaduct, surely the grandest relic of the railway age and in the wildest stretch of England is less obtrusive than any turbine. It respects contour and lies in the valley bottom not the top. It is made of local grey stone and breaks no skyline. Turbines are invariably white, waving giants drawing the eye away from their surroundings. I am not insensitive to a turbine’s beauty, but the beauty of any structure must embrace its setting. I like cooling towers and even like the London Shard in an appropriate place (like Dubai). But appropriate means what it says. On Romney Marsh two dozen huge turbines now turn just a few hundred yards from the walls of the ancient town of Rye, dominating the view over the marsh. It is devastating, and all to make some local landowner a millionaire at public expense. Centuries of gently evolving landscape lie wrecked. I complained to a coalition minister and he could not see what I was talking about. These people would blow up the National Gallery if they got the chance.
Choosing rural views was comparatively easy, choosing urban ones was harder. The dear old London skyline is now a ruin of a view, thanks to the ‘edifice complex’ of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, though the new spectacle from Blackheath over Wren’s Greenwich to the skyline of Canary Wharf is undeniably exhilarating. Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds yield little joy. Bristol has Clifton bridge and Newcastle the exquisite upwards curve of Grey Street, as fine as anything in Edinburgh or Bath. My favourite remains Durham cathedral and castle towering over Framwellgate Bridge, still as it did for Girtin and Turner. As for Liverpool, even its battering from its local council cannot destroy the dignity of the Three Graces on the waterfront, the most exciting landfall in England.
Any book on beauty is target for the cry of ‘Why haven’t you mentioned…?’ usually from the politically correct. Here the right-wingers are as bad as the left. The impeccable Charles Moore complains that I have omitted Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, as I have his Little Gidding church. But I did not regard hunting or Anglo-Catholicism as criteria for scenic beauty. Other will doubtless complain that I omitted Tolpuddle, Greenham Common and Mary Seacole.
The Lake District, of which Moore also disapproves, was more of a problem. Ruskin was right. The more I went there the more I was convinced that this is one of the loveliest landscapes in Europe, even in its famously bad weather. Each view is exquisite, wild, majestic and yet gentle and intimate. It is little-known to southerners. Perhaps the countryside needs a new Joseph Budworth. An early ‘discoverer’ of Buttermere in 1792, he decided not to bore his readers with scenery but told of the daughter of the local landlord. ‘Her hair is thick and long… her face oval with full eyes and lips as red as vermillion, her cheeks more of the lily than the rose.’ When this travelogue first appeared the result was a stampede of romantics over the hill from Keswick, with dire consequences for the poor girl. She ended as heroine of Melvyn Bragg’s The Maid of Buttermere. They don’t write guidebooks like that these days.