When it comes to the British countryside, we don’t know which way to turn.
In the 17th Century it was something we feared – a chaotic, violent place where Nature, red in tooth & claw, vied for a taste of your blood with bandits, highwaymen, smugglers, murderers and the clinically befuddled. Mention the countryside to Thomas Hardy and he would flinch, mutter something about accursed heaths and reach for a quill. One did not tarry long abroad after dark.
Two centuries later, we can’t get enough of it. Red has turned to green. We yearn for slightly (only slightly) overgrown hedgerows and the susurration of sunlit leaves overhead. We salivate over delightfully quaint villages embedded in the side of hills like raisins in a plum duff. We long to hear someone say “ooh arrr”. Warm beer, nuns on bikes, little stone bridges only negotiable if you turn sideways-on. Grassy meadows – as if, left to her own devices, Mother Earth would render the whole world suitable for cricket with the minimum of tending. In short, a primal yet civilized refuge from the dull churning of modern life.
Neither view is correct or even fair, but that’s not the point.
This is the view from the edge of the Northumberland National Park, last Saturday. I’m going back up the hill, having just turned round at the bottom because I was feeling wobbly. My friends are way off to the right, doing the remaining eight-point-something miles of our chosen route. (By Monday, the wobbliness turns into a head-cold).
I pass someone swaddled in Gore-Tex, scrambling down the path with barely-controlled glee. “Eeee, it’s easier this way” he grins helpfully. (Yes, I know, sir, I’ve just done it). I watch him as he skips down the slope but he’s sure-footed, not stumbling or tripping, not even once. With a sense of being spiritually short-changed I haul myself up the remainder of the hill. The sun comes out as I reach the crest, casting a bright but bloodless light over the hills that tints photographs bluer than the eye remembers. I’m knackered.
I lay down on a knoll, curse, stand up again, check my coat for sheep-cack (missed it – a miracle!) and recline once more. Closing my eyes, I listen…to the sound of nothing in particular to listen to. It’s noisy – rich and delicious, like the audio equivalent of stew.
Then the sun goes in, the air chills…
…and suddenly I’m on an exposed hillside, hugging my jacket to stave off a knifing wind that smells of rain, and all the sheep have gone from the slopes below. I’m running the risk of being demonstrably more stupid than sheep. Time to go.
Every year, thousands of us Brits get caught on slopes wearing inappropriate clothing at ill-advised times – or sometimes because there’s little forward-planning that can help when the weather thumps down with all its weight. There are people who can help – and they’ll never run out of work, because deep down, what we really want is that Hardian, 17th-Century countryside to show a bit of leg. We want the thrill of being close to something that can stomp us flat – to gulp as the lightning bangs down, to stand in the rain and not be able to hear ourselves shriek. We want beauty, but we want a little horror as well.
But more than that, we want to feel unspecial. An “unspoiled” landscape, one that humans haven’t defaced by their pesky need to both survive and thrive (how greedy) is one where humans don’t really matter. We’re just passing through: clinging on here and there, but generally in transit. In Britain, the moors are the places that feel the most indifferent to human beings. The irony here is that environmental archaeology suggests we made many of them in the first place – as if Bronze Age peoples anticipated our need to get away from it all.
(I’m being daft; they really didn’t).
The call of the countryside is a deceptive one. As human beings, we want the contradiction of comfort and challenge, slippers and hiking boots. That dual call can lead us astray – but when the weather goes Pete Tong and the topography doesn’t fit the map and there are Blair Witch style noises out in the dark, we’re secretly, guiltily, foolishly loving it just a little.
We don’t know which way to go, but right now we’re gloriously Here.