Road, landfill, waste disposal – the new English landscape?
A man traverses the fields with a half-cocked shotgun over his arm. As the wind begins to rise, I stay out of sight and stop for some lunch in a little apple orchard. Sheltered by a sturdy hedgerow, I sit down carefully on my waterproof map cover. I eat the heel from a loaf of corn bread, squashed from four days in a rucksack, and hacked-off hunks of cheddar. I’ve been walking for hours. I couldn’t imagine anything more delicious.
Suddenly the wind changes direction and I’m buffeted from the side. Cheese flies everywhere and lands in lumps on the damp grass. As I rise to leave, I disturb a large brown buzzard, who rises and sails away, stately, to another port.
The landscape, as I walk, is changing again. In attempting to walk the proposed route of HS2, the UK’s controversial high-speed train line set to run 119 miles between London and Birmingham, I’ve walked from a changing city, through changing suburbs and the Chiltern Hills. But it is on the fourth day that I find myself lost in what is arguably the most interesting landscape of them all. Disused railway lines and landfill, circling kites and waste disposal: together, they force a rethink of landscape aesthetics. Should visions of the landscape, in art as in literature, simply oppose large-scale infrastructure or industrial projects such as power stations, incinerators or HS2? Or might there be a way of incorporating them into a new kind of landscape vision?
Soon even the signs will become part of the landscape.
In 2013, Ken Worpole published a book entitled The New English Landscape. It’s a slim, beautiful volume – the result of ten years exploring the landscapes of East Anglia, combined with extensive reading and thinking. Supplemented with photographs by Jason Orton, Worpole’s wide-ranging essay touches on some of the key issues in the nature literature of the last seventy-five years. It charts a shift in the centre of gravity of English nature writing: from the wild sublime of the Lake District, as conceived by the Romantic poets, to the tranquil idyll of the upper Thames. He cites Simon Schama’s observation that the area most associated with Englishness during the Edwardian era was along the river from Hammersmith to Oxford. Peter Ackroyd makes a similar observation in Thames: Sacred River. Since World War II, however, so-called nature writing has begun to focus on Essex and East Anglia. Where artists like John Nash and Eric Ravilious led the way in the 1930s, writers like J. A. Baker and W. G. Sebald followed in the 1950s and beyond. ‘British topographical writing has been dominated in recent times by the landscapes of East Anglia,’ writes Worpole.
Worpole believes that the east functions as an effective synecdoche for the rest of the country. He argues that Essex has been utilised ‘as laboratory and site of experiment for changes in land use subsequently seen across much of the rest of the UK’. From swampland to industrialised agriculture and urban sprawl: the result is that the literature of the area is also becoming (or is already) the literature of England. In many ways it’s hard to disagree. These days, literary-minded Londoners go not to read poetry on Oxford punts, but to walk amid the flats of the Essex estuary.
2014’s much celebrated H is for Hawk is a case in point. Helen Macdonald’s memoir is a tale of grief following the death of her father, and of the relationship between the author and a goshawk which she names Mabel. The book opens with Macdonald in Breckland, to the north of Cambridge where she works. It is characteristic of contemporary nature writing’s interest in the hybrid landscapes of the east: Breckland, writes Macdonald, ‘feels dangerous, half-buried, damaged. I love it because of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest.’ She goes on to clarify what she means by ‘wild’: ‘It’s not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness.’ She refers not to the Lake District of the Romantic poets, but to Essex and East Anglia.
A digger, a rubbish tip, and two tiny kittens.
For such writers, landscape aesthetics are inextricably linked with ethics. What ought to be valued in a landscape is based on how – and how much – human impact is felt within it. In addition, the privileging of certain landscapes over others is never simply descriptive; it is an act of selection that is both personal and political. ‘The requirement to interpret and re-evaluate contemporary landscapes – especially those which resist traditional categories of taste – is therefore vital,’ argues Worpole. New approaches are required to move beyond the carefully framed pretence of purity espoused in nature magazines, and instead embrace the warts and all of the English landscape today: abandoned industrial sites, military fortifications, landfill.
Macdonald follows a similar path. She loves Breckland because, she writes: ‘It’s rich with the sense of an alternative countryside history; not just the grand, leisured dreams of landed estates, but a history of industry, forestry, disaster, commerce and work.’ Worpole, too, emphasises the importance of work: ‘Working landscapes create their own aesthetics,’ he writes. In The Roots of Modern Environmentalism, David Pepper argues, following Karl Marx, that man’s relationship with nature is defined by labour. It is labour through which we transform nature into something useful, and through which we also transform ourselves. This understanding of the importance of labour underpins Pepper’s critique of the picturesque, which ‘excluded not only agricultural workers but also the ploughed field and in general the works of man, which were considered distasteful. In this way the patrons of such art were not reminded of the more baleful aspects of the production from which their wealth came.’ The ethic of the new landscape aesthetic is built upon this knowledge – that to exclude human labour is to reinforce existing structures of power and exploitation. This will become clear to me over the course of the afternoon.
As recently as 1750 the population of the UK was just 11 million, of whom the vast majority (80%) lived in rural areas. But the nineteenth century was one of rapid change, and by 1900, the population had nearly quadrupled – to 42 million. By this time, following a period of intense industrialisation and urbanisation, under a third lived in the countryside. Today, the population is over 64 million. Of which 82% now live in urban areas. Soon, the countryside will be empty.
Perhaps that is why the landscapes which currently predominate in contemporary art are so often devoid of people. Orton’s photographs in The New English Landscape, for example, depict bleakly beautiful East Anglian landscapes – empty and grey under grey skies. Here, the earth is scoured by the tracks of a JCB; there, a greenhouse crumbles before our eyes. A fence collapses. The watery lands stretch out flat into the distance. Arguably, the dominant image in a certain sphere of contemporary art today is that of Modernist architecture in ruins and overgrown. Instead of human life, such works display a preoccupation with the traces of life: especially architecture. Like Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ or Richard Jefferies’ After London, few things epitomise the futility of human aspirations like architectural grandeur overrun by weeds.
To exclude human labour is to reinforce existing structures of power and exploitation.
Worpole is right to say that there has been a significant shift away from the quest for sublime purity that underpinned Romanticism and Modernism; he is right to argue that it is an aesthetic that nonetheless continues in the photography of walking magazines and television programmes about the countryside. He is also right to observe that the aesthetic of ‘the new English landscape’ is a largely empty one. Like the tourist attempting to exclude unsightly crowds from their photographs, much is left out of contemporary art and nature writing. Of course, exclusion is an inevitable part of any act of creation, but we can often learn a lot from what gets left out. This struck me especially while reading Robert Macfarlane’s Wild Places. What lingered was what was not talked about – the friends waiting patiently in a boat as the author spent the night alone on an island; the long drives in between these wild, magical places. For many of today’s artists and writers, the ethical obligation behind their work it is to reconnect humanity with the environment we inhabit – to explore, multiply, complicate the boundaries. Macfarlane professes to do the same, but his journeys are sometimes notable only as an absence. Is he at risk not only of failing to bridge the gap between humans and the environment, but also of instituting over and over the monumentality of a singular division?
Where Macfarlane went in search of the pure, wild experience, and eventually admitted to its impossibility, many other writers and artists have taken that conclusion as a starting point. There is no pristine purity; rather, man’s presence is felt by his absence – the traces left when industry has moved on. ‘The absent has a geography too,’ writes Worpole with characteristic elegance. ‘The challenge for artists and others is how to represent it. The challenge for politicians, planners and developers is how to respect it.’ But what exactly does it mean to have such an ethical obligation to absence? If absence may be seen to refer both to the past and to the future, might this provide a starting point for a thinking that is both conservative and radical? Or by privileging absence over presence are we at risk of fostering misanthropy?
Not a single person doing anything more than walking into the distance.
I stop for a drink of water and look once more through the photographs on my camera. Fields and hedgerows, dew and sunset: all of them are empty. There is not a single person doing anything more than walking into the distance. Footpaths, signposts, litter, churches: humans only exist in what they leave behind.
As the light begins to fade on the fourth afternoon I am alone. On the map, Calvert Green in northern Buckinghamshire jars against the patterns of the surrounding countryside. No lazy orange contours meandering leisurely across a plain white background. No church with a spire. No pub. Here is only a large expanse of irregular black-and-white dots and splodges. It is the Ordnance Survey symbol for landfill. According to them, that is all I need to know of this area. Or perhaps it is all that can be known: these kinds of waste-landscapes change so quickly that mapping them is pointless. As soon as the ink is down on paper, the lines in the landscape have moved on.
The interior may be a mystery, but the borders are clearly delineated. The site takes the form of two oblongs tilted anticlockwise through forty-five degrees or so. The larger is to the north, the smaller to the south: both constrained on one side by the presence of a railway line. Ruler-straight, it divides green fields and evocatively named woods (Sheephouse and Decoypond) from the sandy expanse of silt and scar. Meeting the railway line at just off the perpendicular is a track running from the north-west down south and east, with the same dead-straight linearity that denotes the authority of map over land.
A working landscape, with its own distinct aesthetic.
Today, the vista is changing fast, but it remains just as strange: a working landscape, as Worpole says, with its own distinct aesthetic. Three of the old clay pits have been flooded: two are now vast lakes used for angling and kayaking, and one is a nature reserve for wildfowl. Another is a landfill site. Man has plundered what he can from Calvert and now he is pumping back his rubbish. They’ve been filling it, I’m told, since the early 1980s: a layer of rubbish, then a layer of clay, a layer of rubbish, then a layer of clay. Now they’re building a £275 million incinerator to burn what will no longer be buried, and HS2 Ltd have plans for a depot just north of the village. Despite vociferous opposition from local residents, the incinerator was approved by the council in 2012 after what the Bucks Herald described as a ‘marathon’ council meeting. Unfortunately, my map is from 2011, which means it predates the incinerator. But it’s not until after the walk that I realise this. In the meantime, the pace of industrial change here causes me some serious navigational problems.
I skirt the crest of the hill just south of Finmere Woods on my way north-west from Quainton and congratulate myself on my map-reading today. I’m making steady progress, and I’m on track to make it to Calvert and set up my tent well before night. It’s the by-now-familiar post-lunch high. Pride, in this instance, comes before rainfall.
Gently it descends at first. Gradually, as my mind begins to wander, it occurs to me that I might in fact be lost. With no mountain summit to climb (navigation is easier when the only way is up) I seem to have drifted off course. Or at least I think I have. In the near distance the skeleton form of industry rises into the sky: it’s the new incinerator. It’s not on my map and I’m starting to worry. The incinerator’s industrial verticality is a sudden and disconcerting presence in the gently rolling landscape. I instantly begin to doubt the accuracy of my navigation. But it makes for some great photos.
The incinerator’s industrial verticality is a sudden and disconcerting presence in the gently rolling landscape.
Not only is it huge and hideous, but also somehow thrilling. Like careful parents, a pair of orange cranes tends to their growing young: metal grids and concrete cladding growing from among green fields. One day soon it will fill its nest, and the cranes will go elsewhere and build again afresh. Once it is up and running, the incinerator – or ‘energy from waste facility’, as it is known – will produce twenty-two megawatts of electricity, enough to power up to 36,000 homes. The contract is worth £275 million and, according to the council, it will save local taxpayers over £150 million over the thirty-year life of the contract. Those who oppose such schemes are invariably labelled as NIMBYs. But nobody wants the techno-sublime in their backyard.
The incinerator’s rising bulk makes a useful navigational marker for the walker who has temporarily mislaid his bearings. At least it does for a time. The rain drives downwards – the surrounding countryside is a washed out wall of slate grey. As I approach from the south-east I expect to come to a footpath, running alongside the disused railway. But I cross over and no such path presents itself. Instead, here is a road – brand new, it seems, unmarked and unfinished. Perhaps I’m not exactly where I thought I was. I decide to follow it north-west as it heads, raw-edged, towards the incinerator’s hollow hull.
I hear the rising whine of a dog pack in the distance. Slowly it advances towards me, no quicker than my own walking pace. Gradually, or perhaps all of a sudden, it dawns on me: these are not dogs, but the clanking whir of motorised machinery. Where in god’s name am I? I look again and again at my map. The rain eases to a spatter on the plastic casing. There is no road where I’m walking. I’m in the middle of the map; yet I’ve disappeared off it. And I think my boots are beginning to leak.
I decide to approach the incinerator itself: surely somebody can help me there? In a toothpick sentry box sits a man in a high-visibility jacket. He watches as I approach. I try to look lost and unthreatening. Why the need to act the truth? This is not a place designed for the casual visitor. He eyes me with suspicion. My gnarled old walking stick surely proclaims my innocence? Perhaps not.
I approach and say hello. The man is short and solid, with three small parallel lines of scarring under each eye. In a twanging Nigerian accent he cannot help me.
‘Where are we?’ I ask.
‘I do not know,’ he says.
‘Can you show me on this map?’
He takes the map and looks at it for some time. He turns it over, squints, and shakes his head.
‘I do not know where this is,’ he says, returning the map. I am utterly baffled.
I try at a nearby portacabin, where another man in high-visibility vest is of equal help. Lost in their own lives: how did these people even get here if they don’t know where here is? Perhaps they’re thinking the same about me. Or perhaps they don’t trust me. What secrets are hidden behind these branded walls? ‘Waste is our energy,’ proclaims one hoarding in jaunty-coloured lettering. Who reads these signs?
As I prepare to leave I spot a third man returning to his lorry.
‘Excuse me,’ I ask. ‘Do you know where we are?’
‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘We’re just east of the M40.’
‘Could you show me on my map?’ I ask. It takes a few minutes but this man succeeds. He’s English, although I can’t place his accent. There is a single earring through his left lobe. He knows where we are. The road I have been walking on is brand new, he says. I realised that.
‘That’s why it isn’t on the map,’ he explains. This had not occurred to me.
‘It goes all the way up to Calvert,’ he says reassuringly. ‘Just follow it along, and you’ll be fine.’
I thank him wholeheartedly as he gets up into his lorry. But something in my eyes must tell him something. I’m no explorer. Pity flashes across his face. ‘Do you want a lift, mate?’
‘Oh no, no, I’ll be fine,’ I reply. ‘Thanks again.’
As I turn to follow the road once more, he drives away. I feel a sudden pang of loss – that, I’m certain, was a missed opportunity. I haven’t gone more than ten yards when the Nigerian man rushes out of his sentry box. Finally, his suspicions are justified!
‘You cannot go this way,’ he says. ‘This is only for lorries. Too dangerous for you.’
My heart sinks: I’m sick of walking. Why did I refuse that lift?
The security guard tells me there is a footpath that leads up to Calvert. I will find it easily. Given that ten minutes ago he couldn’t even locate us on a map, I don’t entirely trust his judgement. But I have little choice.
I’m in the middle of the map; yet I’ve disappeared off it.
As I walk on and on, through fields and along hedgerows, it soon becomes apparent that I’m going the wrong way. My brief belief in my own navigational skills has collapsed. But nobody else has been much better. I seem to be circulating the incinerator from all angles. The rain has washed out the light. The sun is setting and I feel the gently unmistakable swell of panic rising slowly through my belly. I know where I am, but I’m completely fucking lost. I change tack, hoping to find a path that will get me back on track. But to no avail. Why are the footpaths so badly demarcated here? My photos from this afternoon show the incinerator from almost every conceivable angle. I’m going round in circles.
Eventually I decide to backtrack completely and start again. This time I see it: hidden in the bushes, a tiny track, hardly a track – a little line of trodden grass, nettle-grown and bramble-crossed. I gaze down upon the railway tracks which run alongside in the V-shaped valley below. To the left is the incinerator; to the right, a sign tells me it’s a nature reserve. The rain has cleared to reveal a sky of faded azure. The sun sets saffron behind the clanking of machinery and the two proud cranes. Up ahead, silhouetted kites screech and wheel above a landfill site. A cold and lonely housing development remains stillborn, built only for brochures and for profit. Beyond that, the pub beckons, then the chippy, then my tent.
This is the new English landscape, off the map, here, where nobody can find us. I’m warily confident that I’m walking the right way, gently panicking that I may not be. I feel alive.
This is an extract from Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017), specially edited for interartive. All photos by the author.
Tom Jeffreys writes mostly about contemporary art for publications like Apollo, art-agenda, Frieze and Monocle. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and editor of online magazine The Learned Pig.