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The New English Landscape

Posted on 23 January 2014

Main image © Jason Orton

By Ken Worpole

People’s attachment to place remains amazingly strong. Whether living in industrial South Wales, the Black Country, London’s East End or the Lake District, people invariably grow roots and become loyal to the familiar and emotionally significant.

But notions of what makes a beautiful landscape change over the generations. In mainland Britain the aftermath of the Second World War brought about a profound geographical shift in what had been regarded as the quintessential “English” landscape. Previously the West Country, along with the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales, provided the stock images of English life and culture. This was typified by small villages nestling within the folds of undulating uplands and gentle river valleys.

Since the war there has been a marked shift to the eastern region, particularly among artists and writers now attracted to the East Anglian coastline, Essex and the post-industrial Thames Estuary. This is a somewhat harsher territory, bleaker in its marshlands, estuaries and redundant docklands, but today regarded as somewhat heroic in its historic role as ‘the bulwark shore’ against invasion. Where artists go, journalists and commentators shortly follow. The mixture of the pastoral, industrial, maritime, pocketed with dereliction and redundant fortifications, now seems to possess previously unappreciated qualities.

There has also been a strong architectural and planning interest in landscapes which have developed unbidden in areas of urban and industrial development. Having been associated with Groundwork for more than 20 years, I know that this is where it has been most active  in reclamation and community renewal. In Britain today, most people live in these post-industrial, urbanised settings.

Such pockets of land – whether the result of slum clearance, industrial decline, or poor housing and land management – represent a major challenge for those who take landscape seriously. The picturesque won’t do, neither will instant gardens or TV-style makeovers.

There is an urgent need to think of the long term, of wildlife conservation, of active management and a
 sense of ownership, of food-growing potential, and of a renewed relationship of people to the natural world (which is not always pretty or without the rough wildness a lot of bland contemporary urban landscaping seeks to displace). Life outdoors is not a walk in a Tesco car park, nor is it a picnic bench in a motorway services picnic area.

A tremendous debt is owed to Richard Mabey for his championing of the “unofficial countryside.” Nevertheless, it remains an uphill struggle to convince people to be relaxed about common land, or to think creatively about how to stitch it back into the fabric of everyday life.

All this makes the study of landscape aesthetics of great importance, more so since the European Landscape Convention (also known as the Florence Convention) was endorsed by the UK government in 2006. By adopting the convention Britain has pledged to “recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.”

The photographer Jason Orton and I have been concerned with this issue for some years, and in a new book, The New English Landscape, have attempted to describe the major shifts in thinking about landscape meaning.

Taking the European Landscape Convention as a starting point, we chart the troubled journey from the English picturesque via industrial dereliction to a newer sense of what artist Maggi Hambling has called modern nature, a hybrid of left-over land, wildlife conservation, wildflower meadows, human habitation and artfully created landscapes.

Perhaps there is no secret formula that successfully blends all these in one over-arching 21st century landscaping strategy. In any case, every project should be totally site-specific, tailored to – and with – the community it serves. Nevertheless, after decades of one-size-fits-all approaches and eradication of all historical traces – especially in former mining areas – an appreciation of the importance of working with the grain of the land and its history is back.

The New English Landscape by Jason Orton & Ken Worpole is published by Field Station, London. To order a copy go to:

Ken Worpole is Emeritus Professor in the Cities Institute at London Metropolitan University and the author of many books and studies of architecture, landscape and public policy. He has worked with Groundwork on a number of projects.