Once a backdrop to my youth, the vast chalk downlands of southern England still retain a strong hold on me and I think of them often. Steep slopes, rippled by thin soils that creep downhill under the pull of gravity, with domed summits and dipping valleys, their presence lingers deep within me, a comforting sense of something ancient and unchanging. It is of these slopes that I think when I hear the pomp of Elgar, delight in the lines of Edward Thomas or gaze on the works of Eric Ravilious. Such strong attachment underlines the spirit of place, a sense of one’s roots and the shaping influence of the landscape within which one grows up. Had I been born on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors or deep within the fens, it would have been a different landscape that would now exert its hold on me.
I am interested in the way that the southern downlands have become something of a symbol for lost Britain, the echoes of a golden age where our touch upon the land was somewhat lighter than it is today, where space remained for nature and where an outdoor childhood was the norm and not the exception. At such a remote distance there is a risk of shaping the past, rose-tinted, into something else, something that it is not. You only have to look at the nature writing of the time to discover writers who, like me, looked back fondly to a much earlier time, when our presence was less heavily borne by the land.
It would be fair to say that the downs have suffered fewer intrusions than many other parts of Britain. With slopes too steep for arable they have stocked those livestock able to make a living on the thin, relatively poor soils. True, they have provided the lime that fertilised those early crops and their lower slopes have been striped of timber, but their imposing nature has stifled urban sprawl and they remain sparsely populated. While many of the villages may have lost their sense of community, watered down by the commuter families unwilling to put down roots, others remain connected to the land and each other, maintaining the bond between landscape and its people.
This connection with the land is something that we need to see reinvigorated in the young. While we are an increasingly urbanised population, there is still an opportunity to get youngsters reconnected with the natural world around them and, perhaps more importantly, with a sense of their heritage and their origins. We need these urban communities to share this feeling of belonging, of having a connection with the landscape and an understanding of why this matters.