Posted on: October 17th, 2015
The ‘white peak’ is a landscape every bit as complex, sophisticated and pleasing to the eye as the greatest works of art or our finest cityscapes. England’s countryside tells a national story of economic progress and the lives of generations of farmers extending over thousands of years.
Standing at dusk on the elevated earth walls of Arbor Low, I scanned this impressive Neolithic, or new stone-age, burial site and the countryside in which it sits. This ritual place was built to be visible and is elevated high on the Peak District limestone plateau.
I thought about the people who fashioned these earth banks and stone circles 3500-4500 years ago. The British population of the Neolithic probably never numbered more than that of a modern English town. Yet, they cleared our native forests, opening up the landscape and introducing farming, settlements and trade to Britain, as well as placing imposing curiosities in the landscape like Arbor Low and the better known Wiltshire henges.
The low October sun emphasised fine detail in a panoramic scene dominated by hundreds of miles of stone walls hewn from the land itself. Regular, rectangular early 19th Century fields dominate the farmland around Arbor Low, bounded by map-drawn straight stone walls symbolising the power of the Duke of Devonshire of the day.
As Napoleonic wars were fought, the national priority was to grow more food and so enclosures changed parish after parish. Folk legend bemoans the resulting ‘theft’ of common lands, but enclosures were how an emerging industrial nation fed its poor urban workforce.
In his 1955 classic The Making of the English Landscape W G Hoskins explains that that the 19th Century enclosure landscapes that dominate the centre of England from Dorset to Yorkshire were ‘a complete transformation from the immemorial landscape of the open fields…into the modern chequer-board patter of smallish, square fields’.
Hoskins would also point out the ‘S-shaped’ croft-like strip-field abutting the homes and farmsteads in the villages of Chelmorton which tell of enclosure more than a hundred years before. He would explain that much of the landscape here would have been ‘open field’ lands developed from their earliest years by the Normans and fostered by the medieval monastic granges before being swept away by the new aristocratic landowners.
At Chatsworth, on cold winter mornings, it’s possible to see the ‘ridge and furrow’ patterns of strip cultivation that Bess of Hardwick and then William Kent and Lancelot Brown sought to erase in favour of their more formal parks.
There’s an irony that Hoskins writes that ’everything is older than we think’ because archaeological surveys since he published suggest that the pre-historic bronze, iron and Romano-British people who settled here following Arbor Low’s builders probably had more impact on the landscape than even he thought.
Quite what archaeology lies in the thin limestone soils of this peak land landscape is surprisingly little-known, but elsewhere in the midlands, for example o the routes of the new motorways, Romano-British settlements appear quite widespread and there is more evidence for extensive pre-Roman field systems that lie under the surface of much of today’s enclosure landscapes.
The landscape has its more modern elements too. Here, the Cromford and High Peak Railway winds its way 16 miles from the wharf at Cromford Mill to the canals that allowed access to the port of Liverpool where empire-grown cotton was landed. When completed in 1831, this was the world’s longest and highest railway with engineering to match the difficult terrain including the steepest inclines, sharpest bends and largest embankments of any railway.
Wagons were hauled by stationary engines up the 1:8 incline from Cromford before winding the circuitous and difficult route to Chinley. It was also a financial disaster for its backers.
20th Century changes to the landscape have been subtle, with the guiding hands of first the aristocratic landowners and now a national park, but nonetheless they have been profound.
Herds of familiar black and white Friesian and Holstein cattle, a breed introduced only in the First World War and popularised only in the 1970s, now dominates the dairy industry replacing the Ayrshires and shorthorn cattle of the past.
Large, modern farm sheds, huge stacks of black polythene-clad silage bales and an intensity of grassland management today’s farmers’ grandfathers would have thought impossible dominate the land today. Wind turbines, the low-carbon solution to cooling milk in the farm dairies, and a forest of road signs on the arterial roads are the latest addition to the landscape.