Love & Soil

Beautiful, broken or both?

The British uplands are an enigma. They cover 40% of the UK land surface, and with their dramatic scenery and sparse population, to many they are the closest thing we have to wilderness. Huge chunks of them are designated as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, beloved and visited by millions every year seeking refuge from the clamour of life in the towns and cities below. But not everyone is so enthralled. 

The Langdales © David Morris

The road that runs outside my house is the boundary of the Lake District National Park, and from my garden, I can watch the sun rise over the smooth undulating spine of the Pennines or set over the angular grandeur of Blencathra. When I first moved to Cumbria over a decade ago, these mountains thrilled me. They spoke of adventure, of escape, of exploration and freedom. They still do sometimes, but a cloud has fallen over them.

In the years since, I’ve learned a bit about the history of our uplands, how the often-innocent actions of generations chipped away their natural riches, leaving us with landscapes full of holes where habitats and species used to be. Once you start to see how much we’ve lost from our hills, it’s hard to unsee, and sometimes I crave the environmental blindness of my younger years. As Aldo Leopold said “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”.

Last week I noticed a tweet of photo of the Howgill Fells which summed things up pretty well. In the foreground, sheep were grazing in close cropped grass with dense rush patches. An area of bog in the middle distance bore the tell-tale parallel scars of drainage, and the hills beyond were treeless and stark. To me, it was a picture of a totally broken landscape. The comments below it came from people with a different perspective. They were gushing, exclaiming how beautiful it was, and how much the authors longed to be seeing it for themselves.

I resisted the urge to try to point out the failings and the problems that seemed so obvious to me. How would it help? And besides, who am I to say what constitutes beauty in a landscape; broken things are often beautiful.  

How we communicate the scale of the environmental challenges that the uplands face, and what the potential solutions might be is one of the biggest challenges for any of us working up here. I don’t want to be a killjoy, constantly pointing out how terrible everything is. It doesn’t feel like an approach that’s likely to achieve very much.

So, here’s what I’m going to do instead. I’m going to try to look past what I perceive as brokenness and find the beauty beneath. It’s always there if you look hard enough. The green shoots of heather coming up after the fire, or the map lichen on the cams of a tumbled down wall. When I walk in the hills with my family, I’ll make a point of only talking about the things that we can see, not the things that are missing.   

I’m going to start celebrating the innovators (of which there are many) and the places and projects that are showing how wonderful resurgent nature can look, taste and feel.

We all need to paint pictures of the future, perhaps literally, to help people to see how much more beautiful the nature-rich upland landscape of the future could be. Once we can see it, perhaps we’ll stand a better chance of bringing it into being.

So, here’s to our broken and beautiful uplands, and a belief in better days ahead.

Restored hay meadows at Cumbria Widlife Trust Eycott Hill (Lee Schofield)

This article was written for Love & Soil, a slow conversation between farmers and conservationists, published in March 2021.