From the moment I arrived in Bakewell, Derbyshire, as a carpet-bagger politician nearly a quarter of a century ago, I knew I’d never leave. The attractions of the county and its sweet green hills and dales only grew. And in the end, though I had meant the Peaks to be just rungs on my ladder to the peaks of politics, politics turned out to be just a rung on my ladder to the Peaks. Here I stayed and here, I hope, I always will.
So what comes next is difficult to write: so difficult that I’ve never written it before. But here goes…
I don’t like dry-stone walls.
There. I’ve said it. I don’t actually like the very thing so many tourists and residents love best and associate most with our glorious Peak District National Park. Dry-stone walls are in all the postcards: part of the brand. But given my way I’d bulldoze the lot.
In admitting this I feel rather like that polar bear cub in the joke (its punchline too vulgar to print), who didn’t like the cold. Or Noël Coward’s Nina, from Argentina, who hated dancing…
She declined to Begin The Beguine when they besought her to, And with language profane and obscene she cursed the man who taught her to. She cursed Cole Porter too.
At once I scramble to rescue my friendship with the brilliant dry-stone waller who has built for my partner and me the outstanding new gritstone wall that lines one side of our little lane and keeps the llamas in. Mr Cooper’s wall is a work of art. I cannot fault it. Nor do I wish to hurt the feelings of my two Catalan friends, also wallers, who have so expertly rebuilt the gritstone wall that separates the llamas’ field from the wood above it. Pepi and Roger’s wall is a masterpiece of patient calculation on steep and uneven ground, and how they got the stone up there I’ll never know. Dry-stone walling is a skill for which I have nothing but respect — almost awe. Dry-stone wallers are marvellous people. I appreciate their artistry and skill.
It’s just that I prefer parkland. I love the open sweep of the hills and plains of the continent where I was born, Africa. I love the wide and undelimited expanse of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles. I love it when you rumble over the cattle grid and onto the Chatsworth estate near where we live — and all at once there are no partitions, no straight lines cutting through the valley, but only pasture rolling from the verge of your highway to the skyline, and the Derbyshire Derwent meandering through, and solitary, shady trees with generous canopies scattered randomly across the landscape until you reach the open moor above. I like it when, in England or Africa, you can pull off the road, get out of your car and feel that the country beginning at your feet goes on from you to infinity.
No ditches. No wire. No brick. No hedges. No walls. Nothing planned with a ruler. Nothing that says Keep Out or Stay In; or Yours, His or Mine. ‘Something there is,’ wrote the American poet Robert Frost, ‘that does not love a wall.’ It’s the only line of Frost’s I can remember, but it went deep with me.
Even more than in the Yorkshire Dales, the higher farmed parts of the Peak District have often and anciently been partitioned into small fields, and modern livestock farming often keeps to these divisions. Take what we call the ‘top country’ above Bakewell. Look out over this land and you see what looks like a vast toast-rack constructed in grey limestone: hundreds of long, narrow little fields: parallel lines pleasing, I accept, to a certain kind of mind, but not mine.
I detest power cables, pylons and every kind of overhead wire, marching like armies, forcing their rigidities onto the curves and asymmetries of the view they plunder. I find wind turbines far less visually aggressive than the iron gashes of the National Grid. As they slice the air and the horizon, stone walls echo the harsh discipline: containing, excluding, compartmentalising.
It has become a cliché to remark that the English countryside is a wholly artificial and man-made landscape; and that unkempt, un-mown, un-demarcated and untamed, it would fast lose its familiar shape and texture and turn ours into quite a different country: the very opposite of the twee stage-set that the Olympic opening ceremony in London later this summer will aim to celebrate. And I’m sure the island the Romans found was a ghastly straggle of briar, marsh, nettle and bramble, choked with undergrowth so thick that it would in most places have been difficult to stand clear and get a view of anything but hawthorn. I’d dislike that too.
So I’m absolutely not proposing that we revert to nature. I accept that the countryside is at least (though not only) man’s garden, and we can order it as we please; and should.
It’s just that I’d prefer a different template: a vista more generous and relaxed, a park; not tight with regimentation. I don’t like trees planted in lines and I don’t like landscape divided by lines. The word ‘prairie’ is used disparagingly of big agriculture in Britain. But I like prairies.
I’ll keep up my walls, though, because it’s what you do if you’re community-minded in Derbyshire. And I’ll carry on rooting out the ragwort as responsible landowners must … but — oh ragwort! That most poisonous but beautiful of weeds: ‘Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves/ I love to see thee come and litter gold,’ wrote John Clare.
Impossible, I know, a landscape with no walls, scattered with glinting ragwort. But I can dream can’t I?