I live in the part of England that polite society calls the Home Counties. Quite where this term originates I have no idea but what it seems to suggest is that this southeastern area epitomises traditional English-ness. Quite how an area of such diversity might achieve this is unclear for, within the Home Counties, we find dense conurbations, suburbs, lowland, coastal and downland landscapes, in fact, with the exception of moorland and upland, most English landscapes are represented at least in microcosm: a sampler of England. The Home Counties can sometimes be seen to be bland, conservative, unchallenging and safe and, to some extent, this has become my view on a macro scale. There are exceptions, of course: the diversity of coastline being an obvious example, no to mention extraordinary places like Dungeness (perhaps the most untypical of areas) but, in the main, southeast England is a relatively unspectacular and heavily developed place with a deeply London-centric outlook.
I live in the Home Counties not far north of London: a part that has seen huge change in the postwar years with increasing urbanisation and consequent dilution of local rural identity. What were once self-contained communities have often lost local resources such as schools, shops, pubs and public transport and, in many cases, this has reduced them to little more than mildly bucolic dormitories for commuters to larger towns and, especially, to London. However, much of the rural landscape remains largely intact: the prairie-like fields of East Anglia simply don’t work in our rolling countryside so individual fields, though larger than their antecedents, remain of human scale. Woodlands are generally well conserved and for once, the mixed blessings of planning control have helped (for now at least) to preserve an attractive and interesting countryside. What this countryside lacks in spectacle or scale, it makes up for in detail. Even human activity, by the way in which it inscribes shapes into the land, contributes positively to this wealth of interest. A couple of years ago, I spent a fascinating day simply documenting the sweeping curves, lines and myriad other shapes left over from the harvesting process. So, on a micro scale, shapes within the landscape – whether natural or man-made – have remained a firm interest ever since.
I live in a village that has much the same level of population documented by the Domesday Book. What was once a small and isolated rural community is now effectively a suburb separated from the nearest town by a couple of miles of farmland: on the surface, much has changed. Look a little deeper, however, and the landscape is relatively little different. Industries such as chalk mining have come and gone leaving few obvious traces. There is a tendency, it seems, for things to revert to a natural condition that is specific to the area – a kind of localised homeostasis that appears dedicated to preserving the area in a kind of default state. It almost seems as if there is a finite limit to how much change we can make and, for this limitation, I’m truly glad. The small scale, the detail that I find so fascinating, endures through human ebb and flow. Change is, however, a part of this process too and this must inescapably result in some losses. Part of my work (and that of many others) is to help preserve at least the memory of those things that are either transitory or that are destined permanently and finally to depart from our environment.
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