Book of the week: The Fight for Beauty

A campaigner’s first book is a provocative read, says Kate Green.

The Fight for Beauty by Fiona Reynolds
(Oneworld, £16.99)

Buy this title for £14.99 at the Country Life Bookshop

Somewhere along the line, the word ‘beauty’ has become embarrassing to use—we have taken refuge in cold, vacuous expressions such as ‘sustainable’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’ and ‘natural capital’. Beauty is as vital for the human spirit as oxygen and water, suggests the author, yet in all the legal documentation designed to protect the countryside, the word is barely mentioned.

This is the premise of Fiona Reynolds’s first book, in which she charts the political battle to preserve the British landscape from despoliation since the enlightened days of Ruskin, Wordsworth, Octavia Hill, A. E. Housman, war poets and landowners who went on Grand Tours—people who spoke of beauty without blushing.

Dame Fiona shines light on those inspired to try to reverse the damage done to wildlife and the landscape in the 19th century (1,000sq km (386sq miles) of wetland was drained every year between 1840 and 1880). These include the National Trust, which she directed for 11 years, the RSPB, the CPRE, the Wildlife Trusts and the national-parks movement, plus major landowners such as the Duke of Devonshire, who understood that it was right that the Peak District was accessible to the public, but the book is just as much a revealing account of how bureaucracy choked beauty.

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It exposes a list of bodies, movements and quangos that seem to have been continually merging, closing, dividing, changing names or producing earnest reports that are quickly forgotten and achieve little and of weaselly worded legislation. By the 1930s, there were so many different groups that the battles to save landscape and nature became separated in a schism that Dame Fiona says still isn’t fully repaired.

Unsurprisingly, she lays the blame for many problems at farming’s door while also pointing out that it is farming, and the local distinctiveness of it, that has created some of the most beautiful areas of Britain.
The second World War reminded people of the land they were fighting for, she says, but also left many farmers impoverished. The resultant drive for food led to the ripping out of hedges and the ploughing of moorland, pesticides and pollution, Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, silage replacing hay and, ultimately, the infamous grain mountains.

Then came the Trust’s coastal campaign in 1965 and EU intervention, with legislation for cleaner air and water, and improved wildlife habitats; tellingly, at this febrile time in politics, she suggests that the European Community was one of the most effective environmentalists of all. To this was added the booming membership and, therefore, political clout (some would say too much) of the RSPB and National Trust.

The campaign for beauty has been a game of snakes and ladders. The EU, a friend to beauty in some ways, brought in the Renewable Energy Directive in 2009 and, with it, wind farms and solar panels. The shift from intensive farming to subsidy dependence brought diversification, not all of it pretty. economic prosperity created a need for transport links and new housing.

Dame Fiona points to the untimely death in 2009 of Sir Martin Doughty, first chairman of Natural England and a keen rambler, and suggests that, around this time, Government quangos were being discouraged from having opinions.

The book could perhaps do with more about the personalities of campaigners, but it tells a compelling story. The ending is more a rallying call for continued vigilance than a vision of hope. It was clearly intended to be an uncomfortable read—and it is.

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