Physical land, visual landscapes

Natalie Bradbury

Sheffield Clarion Ramblers at Castle Rock (Dane Valley ramble), 3rd July1938. Image courtesy of and B Peacock/Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

Sheffield Clarion Ramblers at Castle Rock (Dane Valley ramble), 3rd July1938. Image courtesy of and B Peacock/Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

The word ‘land’ has a multiplicity of meanings. Land suggests solidity; it is not water or air, but the ground beneath our feet. It can also relate to the ownership and demarcation of an area of ground, and the way in which that ground is used, particularly in relation to agriculture. Land often has rural connotations. On a micro-level, it is the earth and the soil. At the other end of the scale, a ‘land’ is a country or state. 

The ways in which we see and experience land are subject to powerful political, cultural, economic and ideological influences. What land means to us personally depends on factors ranging from gender, race and social class to where and how we live. In turn, our personal circumstances intersect with shifting concepts of value, leisure, nature and beauty, which change and have changed over time.

In 1987, Marion Shoard’s influential book This Land Is Our Land traced the complex and interlinked origins of land ownership in Britain. Ranging across time, history and continents, she laid bare the systems of power and privilege that perpetuate the ownership of land by a small number of individuals. And how, remote from the urban centres in which most of us live, these tiny elites govern access to the land according to vested interests.

Despite its association with establishment conservatism, land also has a long history of protest and activism, and the countryside has provided a backdrop for political and cultural radicalism. Sometimes this has been enabled by its distance from the cities. In the 19th century, during the time they spent in Manchester observing the working and living conditions brought about by capitalism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took horse-drawn coaches to the hills above Manchester where they were free to discuss politics away from the surveillance of the authorities.

Members of Sheffield Clarion Cycling Section (May Walker nee Fieldhouse (right) and Ethel Holleley (left). Image courtesy of and G. Frost/Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

Members of Sheffield Clarion Cycling Section (May Walker nee Fieldhouse (right) and Ethel Holleley (left). Image courtesy of and G. Frost/Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

Mass social movements, too, have coalesced around the land; for all its relative isolation, the countryside has also been a meeting place where people have come together for both pleasure and politics. From the late 19th century, the Clarion Cycling Club set out from the cities singing songs, distributing newspapers and spreading a message of socialism and fellowship around the countryside. In the interwar years, working-class youth left the smog and smoke of densely populated northern towns and cities in their tens of thousands every weekend in search of space and exercise.

One of the most popular rambling destinations was the open moorland of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, lying between the great northern industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield. Kinder is the highest point of the Peak District and overlooks the Greater Manchester conurbation. It is also visible from Manchester, as one of the hills which ring its horizon. Ramblers’ growing desire to access the moorland, however, was resisted by landowners, who wished to hunt grouse for a small portion of the year and objected to their disturbance by walkers.

This led to one of the most famous acts of popular rebellion in recent British history: the mass trespass of 1932. Hundreds of walkers set off up Kinder, led by idealistic and politically motivated young people, many of whom were active in left-wing movements such as the Clarion Club and Communist Party. They were met by gamekeepers, with whom they clashed. The arrest and imprisonment of several of the leaders, including Benny Rothman, and resulting publicity, led eventually to the formation of National Parks by the incoming Labour government in the years following the Second World War.

Image courtesy of Working Class Movement Library, Salford

Image courtesy of Working Class Movement Library, Salford

Today, Kinder is part of the Peak District National Park, which was designated in 1952, and is managed by the National Trust along with other areas of countryside considered to be of national significance. Although this was a symbolic victory, it was a partial one: ramblers continued to protest for full access to common land through mass trespasses until the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, passed by New Labour in 2000, entrenched the right to roam across mountain, moor, heath and down.

As Marion Shoard showed in This Land is Our Land, ownership affects our ability to interact with land physically. Equally significant to our understanding of and engagement with land, however, is its symbolic and cultural value, as represented through landscape.

In its most literal sense, landscape refers to the features of the land as visible to us. However, our eyes are not neutral observers – a set of cultural assumptions and associations affect what we see and what we choose to look at. Landscape is a verb as well as a noun: land is shaped as much by human actions as by natural processes. To the visitor or distanced viewer, rural lives and activities, and the flows of labour, capital and movement across the land, are often concealed.

Landscape has been particularly significant to our ideas of political and national identity at times of crisis and been used to mobilise opinion and action. Amid the Second World War, artists were deployed not just as war artists, but to show what was at danger of being lost at home, and to document the landscapes and townscapes of a nation on the verge of transformational change. It also played an important part in a symbolic battle about what was worth preserving at a time when much needed to be rebuilt. After the war, the urgent demand for new housing, schools and other facilities necessitated dramatic changes to natural and built environments. Landscape became caught in an ideological battle between the old and the new, and debates over modernity and continuity, progress versus tradition.

In more recent decades, campaigners such as The Land is Ours, a group founded in the 1990s by the environmentalist George Monbiot, have drawn on ancient landscapes and monuments to fight the expansion of road and air networks across the countryside, inspired by the writings of Marion Shoard.

In 1997, Shoard revisited This Land Is Our Land, reinforcing the interconnectedness of land across the globe. Much of what she wrote remains as urgent now as it sounded then. Since then, however, much has changed.

In 2019, we are again in a time of crisis. Last summer, during an unprecedented dry spell, moorland fires above Manchester burned for weeks. The smell reached the city, leaving a lingering taste and haze, and the immediate landscape became a visible reminder of climate change. Old certainties about the political map of Britain have shifted too and huge geographic divides have opened up following the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and the EU referendum of 2016.

On 29 March 2019, a group of artists from Manchester and Huddersfield, working across disciplines including performance, drawing and print-making, ascended Kinder Scout. The walk took place on the day that Britain was due to leave the European Union. Some of the participants had roots in the north of England, others were originally from elsewhere in Europe and had moved to the UK to live or study.

Working individually and collaboratively, they re-enacted and retold the myths of the land, and created new stories around the landscape. The resulting artworks and documentation from the day form the exhibition This Land is Our Land at PAPER in Manchester, which takes its title from Shoard’s book. All of the artists involved work with paper, a material which is immediate and transportable, democratic and accessible, and light enough to be carried in a pocket or hiker’s rucksack. 

The show reflects how far artistic representations of the landscape have strayed since the static painted pictures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with which viewers interact only as detached observers. These artists enhance our experience of the landscape and bring it closer to us. They journey across lands and take us with them. They bring bits back. They act as guides and unlock gateways. They draw our eye to small details at the same time as connecting fragments with bigger pictures. They share their experiences of the land and create multiple maps and viewpoints. They open the landscape up to us and offer new readings.

Bibliography and further reading/viewing

Jenna Ashton, People’s Landscapes: Unearthing Passion and Protest, National Trust, Swindon, 2019

Marcus Barnett, ‘The Kinder Scout Mass Trespass’, The Jacobin, April 2018

Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1998 [1984]

Alec Finlay, White Peak: Dark Peak, Morning Star/Derbyshire Arts Development Group, Newcastle/Derbyshire, 2010

David Matless, Landscape and Englishness: Second expanded edition, Reaktion, London, 2016 [1998]

Jade Montserrat and Daniella Rose King, ‘(some possibilities of) Rural Belongings’, Women & Performance, November 2018

Denis Pye, Fellowship is Life: The Story of the Clarion Cycling Club, Clarion Publishing, Bolton, 2004 [1995]

Raphael Samuel, ‘Country Visiting: A Memoir’, Island Stories: Unravelling Britain, Verso, 1998, pp.132-152

Gill Saunders (ed), Recording Britain, V&A Publishing, London, 2011

Marion Shoard, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for Britain’s Countryside, Gaia Books, London, 1997 [1987]

Marion Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, Remaking the Landscape: The Changing Face of Britain, ed. Jennifer Jenkins, Profile Books, London, 2002, pp.117-146

Guy Shrubsole, ‘Reclaiming the Commons: Guy Shrubsole interviews veteran land rights campaigner George Monbiot’, The Land, issue 22, 2018, pp. 12-15

Raymond Williams, Border Country, Library of Wales/Parthian, Carmarthen, 2005 [1960]