Fenland Losses and Gains

When we talk about Britain’s, especially England’s landscapes, it is hard to find anywhere that has not been messed about with by our ancestors.

I met a guy in Bristol who had found some burnt wood near the old gaol that had been torched in the riots of 1833, claiming that this was the remains of the arson. I tried to explain to him it looked too new, that the space had been open for decades or longer, and that kids were often there at night lighting fires, but he was adamant. He owned a historical relic.

Often what we think we see is something completely different. Many places have so many layers it is impossible to make sense of them. The Victorians did huge amounts of change to the landscapes, from digging coal and mineral mines for industry, canals and railways, which often opened up Roman and other ruins, so fuelled the studies of archaeology and geology, and the counter movements of land and wildlife conservation. One of the biggest changes to agricultural land was the draining of the Great Fen and other marshes to provide land to feed the soaring population.

This is from Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts:

“When the meres and marshes of the Great Fen were drained in the 19th century, the writer Charles Kingley was able to articulate the sadness of their passing, while understanding and approving the reasons why they had to go. “A certain sadness is pardonable,’ he wrote, ‘to one who watches the destruction of a grand natural phenomenon, even though its destruction brings blessings to the human race.’ He catalogued the loss, species by species, the patches of primeval forest and miles of reeds, the coot that clanked and the bittern that boomed, the hawks and kites, the ruffs and sponbills and avocets and snipe, right down to the great copper butterfly and the insects of the fen: ‘Ah, well, at least we shall have wheat and mutton instead, and no more typhus and ague [malaria]’. …

The devastation was unrelenting, and continued well into our own age. Agriculural intensification folllowing the Second World War further denuded what was left of our woods and heathland and meres. In the newly formed eddgelands left behind after industry retreated, woods were once again able to begin the long process of re-establishing themselves in the spaces created, althoguh nothing like to the degree of the post-glacial period, because of the much smaller time frame involed, and complicated by the fact of widespread human agency and development. But these derelict landscapes left largely to themselves are also exactly the kinds of places where our new community forests are being constructed.

These are our postmodern woodlands, a man-made greening of wasteland and former industrial sites that has been going on over the past 20 years. You can easily get lost in the woods of mission statements and manifestos where community forests are concerned: the 12 woodlands established so far aim to ‘deliver a comprehensive package of urban, economic, and social ergeneration’, and are in the process of ‘creating high-quality environments for millions of people by revitalising derelict land, providing new opportunities for leisure, recreation and cultural activities, enhancing biodiversity, preparing for climate change and supporting education, healthy living and social and economic development’.

These new woods are like green engines, designed to revive and regenerate. We haven’t time to let our waste ground and mineral workings and backfields recreate their own environmetns, to find their own points of balance – even though our edgelands are already providing some of the most biodiverse habitats to be found in the country. Some of these young ecosystems, finding their footholds in our abandoned edgelands, are even cleared away and destroyed to make way for the new ‘high quality environments’. It feels like a green version of what happened to our inner cities after the war, when communities were cleared and moved on to outlying housing developments. Regeneration is such a seductive and powerful metaphor.’

I think there is more to this – regeneration is powered by developers, who make money from developing. When we were campaigning to save Castle Park in Bristol, there were loads of plans, lots of money spent on landscape design, to try to make maximum use of the space. Yet despite public consultations, they failed to discover what we did by talking to park users, that most people were happy with what was there. It did not need terracing, or fencing or shops or piazzas. The notion of leaving things be just doesn’t occur to developers and land owners. The result is that many of our parks are high maintenance, so with the downturn in public finances many are closing.

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