Museum Without Walls

By Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades on places and the people that make them

Monday, 27 June 2011

Rural Rides

Here's a piece - Rural Rides - from Museum without Walls in which my memories of a semi-rural childhood spent plashing around on the rivers of Wiltshire are marshalled into an attack on the paralysing British obsession with the picturesque.

Rural Rides (2002)

We cannot escape our earliest domestic topographies. They adhere down the years as a sort of measure. The slum is as potent in this regard as the secret garden. The escapee from the slum will later recall it with rosy partiality - witness urban northerners and cockneys, passim. This sort of nostalgia (literally, the longing for a lost home) is independent of a yearning to actually return to that home. Things are different when you grow up in more propitious circumstances. Sure, the house I lived in till I was fifteen may have been merely two-up, two-down, rented and part of a terrace. But this was a thatched terrace – a rarity even in Wiltshire – and its walls were cob and it was near the several rivers that conjoin and diverge to the south and west of Salisbury Cathedral Close. And when I was fifteen my parents moved, in the week of the Cuban missile crisis, to the only house they would ever own, one they had built at the confluence of two of those rivers, the Avon and the Nadder, the latter so straight over about two hundred yards that it might have been canalised. Standing here Constable had painted the cathedral and his friend Fisher’s house, though this sort of landscape and cowscape are more readily associable with Cuyp. Between the rivers there were lush floated meadows, that is meadows subjected to rudimentary hydraulic engineering, incised with straight watercourses called leets, the flow in which had been controlled by means of primitive sluices operated by men called drowners: only one drowner remained, the octogenarian Mr Thick who was crippled by his trade disease of arthritis. Even before they moved house my parents had a rowing boat on the river, moored beside an unused brick abattoir of circa 1890 which still retained the stalls in which kine had awaited their death. I led the life of Bevis, rowing myself round Alligator Island and up to the mill where the white water was my very own Niagara and where the still water was on four perplexing levels and the leet system might have been modelled on a scheme by Escher or – such was the small scale might of the aquaducts which carried the courses over each other - Piranesi. Down Cow Lane beyond the abattoir was Hawk Bowns’s bodged farm, all corrugated iron and rusting buses. My father and I built an eel trap out of an axle, bike wheels and chicken wire. Through spring I would haul it from the water with the creatures wriggling within. Through summer I would swim among the lithe green weeds where prognathous pike awaited their prey. They scared me in a way that the sloughing snakes in the leets never did.

Now, I regarded these rivers and meadows as my adventure playground (the construction was yet uncoined), my qualified paradise, my private domain. There I could be Livingstone, Drake, Earp, a spy, a Chindit, an escapee. This was how I inhabited these places, how I possessed them. But I was all the while apprised that the leets’ first purpose was to enrich the pasture to feed the cows to make the milk. The rivers drained the uplands of the Plain and the downs. The great spire which rose above the chestnuts was not a mere eyecatcher, a vertical accent of unparalled height and signal sublimity, but an exhortation to obeisance and worship. I knew this because I lived inside this terrain as much as I lived inside my head: the compact of make-believe it occasioned did not preclude comprehension of its primary reality and utility – it’s a question of both/and rather than either/or. My nostalgia for this roofless pleasuredome is tempered by the knowledge that I no longer have an appetite for slithering on my tummy from ditch to willow hiding from German troops with tracker dogs. But say I hadn’t lived there, say I had only seen it from the outside insouciant of the seasons, of the perpetual mutations, say I had lived all my life in a city or – statistically more likely – a more ordinary suburb, one untouched by bucolicism... 

All through the summer months tourists to Salisbury would stray down the hidden road where my parents’ new house was seeking Constable’s pitch. They would already have borrowed his eyes to gaze at the cathedral from Long Bridge to the north west, from the lake (a pond, actually) in the grounds of the Cathedral School. What they sought, whether or not they articulated it to themselves, was the mediation of the picturesque - which etymologically signifies no more than in the style of a picture or apt as a picture’s subject. 

The paramountcy of the picturesque is a national bane. It has us all in its thrall. It militates against an understanding of rurality. What does a picture do to a landscape? It reduces it to two dimensions. It amends, transforms and idealises it. It frames it: a ‘scene’ is rendered finite. It tells you about the taste and preoccupations of its author. Shapes, chromatic range, weather, lucence – these are made, they’re inventions. A painting or a photograph creates a reality, it doesn’t represent what’s there: scrutinise, say, Edward Piper’s photographs in the Shell Guide to Buckinghamshire – he renders the county as though it’s perpetually in the throes of an apocalyptic electric storm. Filters. We know that such work is all artifice but fail to act on the knowledge. I’m no more immune to the picturesque’s lure than anyone else: driving across North Yorkshire a few years ago I could not resist the temptation to go to Greta Bridge. Within seconds of arriving I realised my stupidity and didn’t stay long enough for retinal actuality to supplant Cotman: it’s that painter’s vision of Carr’s bridge that remains in my mind’s eye. And there you have it. The picturesque’s appeal is self-evidently to the eye. It causes us to look, to see – we may even see with our own eyes though we prefer to have a view sanctioned by at least a postcard: the bits in between those which have received such validation don’t count, we’re blind to them. The British experience of the rural is almost exclusively visual, almost exclusively led. And when gazed upon from a car the country is happily framed by windscreen and windows. The cult of the picturesque can only thrive in circumstances where the majority of the (sub)urban population suffers an overwhelming ignorance of the country, an ignorance which manifests itself in idealisation and in fear.

The Romantic idealisation of nature and of the country (which are hardly the same: consider not only leets but field systems, hedgerows, roads, tumuli, vernacular buildings) coincided with and was doubtless in part prompted by the demographic transformation of Britain from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society. The grass was greener and all that (indeed there was no grass in the teeming wens before the provision of public parks). Thenceforward the link between the bulk of the populace and country was to be gradually ruptured; the country would no longer be a familiar but a cynosure. None the less English suburbs, like those of other countries, were centripetal, they looked in to the city to which they were conjoined and on which they depended, their architecture aped urban models. And whilst cities might be flawed organisms their problems could be confidently addressed through the energetic application of new technologies. 

But during the last quarter of the 19th century there arose a neo- romantic utopianism, a winterbourne which burgeoned into a great river. At the very moment when the noxious toxicity of urban industrialisation was being countered by mains sewage disposal, gas lighting, the destruction of rookeries and a host of kindred measures the bien pensant consensus was one of escapist despair: the only solution was to abandon cities. But not, as the proselytisers of land colonies had wished, for the country itself; that would be a step too far for a people long disconnected from it, who feared the real thing. Rather, for an idealised bucolic simulacrum, for a land-hungry picturesque cosmeticism. Thus was the garden city born – from the good intentions of men such as Kingsley, Morris and Howard. And from its inception the garden city carried the very germ of its traducement. All over England throughout the 20th century and on into this New Wen has multiplied and spread. The first stage of this process comprised the suburb which employed coarsely rustic imagery and place names to announce its secession from the city, it looked out rather than in. In its current phase the suburb is bereft of urb...It’s going on fifty years since Ian Nairn first used the word subtopia, but it’ll do: an ugly coinage for an ugly and ubiquitous sort of place whose multiplication is apparently unstoppable. The only other country which has behaved and built so negligently is the USA where land, is needless to say, rather less scarce.

The inchoate dispersal of dormitory places makes the division between city and country inapposite. A division unquestionably persists but it is no longer topographically determined. It is one of mentation. Subtopia, ex-urbia, whatever one calls it, is inimical to the wellbeing of both city and country. So long as the wealth created in cities is used by the creators of that wealth to escape cities every night then those cities will continue to decline for the people who should have an interest in fostering civilisation (which is after all a facet of cities) will be elsewhere, and the streets will be abandoned to barbarians: would central Bristol be populated by beggars and bouncers were its bourgeoisie, the cadre that should govern the place, actually to live there? The question can be asked of virtually any city other than London. Yet the escapees bring to subtopia and the pockets of rurality around it an uncomprehending fastidiousness, a quality honed by two centuries having passed since an ancestor saw a calf born or a pig slaughtered. Fastidiousness is a form of denial, a deft sweeping-under-the-carpet, an elective ignorance. Yet it is never total: there may be no visual connection between the meat in a supermarket and a lamb’s limbs but, surely, those who eat the stuff would reveal, under tough questioning, their knowledge of where it comes from. In the same way those who wish the country to be framed, to comprise set-pieces such as Castle Combe, Montacute and their like must know that there is more to it than that. No, perhaps they don’t.


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