British Archaeology, no 10, December 1995: Comment


This land is more than a landscape

Francis Griffith laments the lost opportunities of the Rural White Paper

The Government's newly-published Rural White Paper, Rural England, contains welcome commitment to the rural environment. Archaeology's allies in nature conservation applaud the White Paper's acknowledgement of the importance of natural diversity, and of environmental dangers flagged by the decline in species like the skylark and corncrake.

However, the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, said it represented `a new vision for . . . the countryside in all its diversity'. That is not true. Much of the diversity is missing. In 146 pages, the historic environment is scarcely mentioned. Archaeology is, according to the document, affected by tree-planting, it is found on MoD land, some of it is managed under Countryside Stewardship, and `some hedges can be of real historical importance'. That's about it.

Scarcely an acre of England has been unaffected by human influence. It is thus frustrating to see the countryside once again misrepresented either as `natural' or as `landscape' - an obsolete reading that relies on the visual, divorced from the forces that have shaped it and give it meaning.

This is not the sulky complaint of a constituency which has been ignored. In the absence of understanding, we lose respect for the countryside's component parts - not just obviously special bits like hillforts and castles, but the hedges, the leats, the gateposts and field patterns. Such features impart character and meaning to our environment, and underlie the concept of `local distinctiveness'.

What we need is a new way of looking. Field boundaries, peat bogs, the siting of farms, a bend in the road - in these and half-a-hundred other details the history of human decisions about land-use and social evolution across thousands of years is made legible. For nearly all of human time, the countryside is the only document we have. Encouragingly, our capacity to comprehend it is rapidly improving - information can be recovered from soils or waterlogged deposits today which would have astonished our predecessors less than 50 years ago. Yet Rural England is blind to it.

The critical difference between the countryside's historic dimension and its others is that archaeology is a finite and wasting asset. Aerial reconnaissance may discover `new' Roman forts, but their true number was fixed centuries ago. Once gone, they cannot be `restored', like the habitat of the skylark. Moreover, gratuitous loss is terrifyingly easy. Modern machinery can erase a prehistoric field system or parish boundary in a single day.

All this is widely documented. It was relayed to the authors of Rural England by the CBA. But it is not in the White Paper. Why? One reason must be that the key messages of historic conservation have not achieved such popular recognition as concerns for wildlife. There is, however, a narrower issue - the workings of government itself.

Rural England was produced by a joint team of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture - departments which took advice from (and provide policies for) `their' agencies - such as the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, the Rural Development Commission, the Countryside Commission, and English Nature. Who is not mentioned? English Heritage - the Government's statutory advisor on archaeology. Its sponsor department is the Department of National Heritage; and although it made a submission to the Rural White Paper team, it wasn't the home side.

It looks, here, as though we are seeing fallout from the decision in 1992 to remove most responsibility for cultural issues from the DoE to the DNH. One reason for doing so was to give greater focus to the heritage constituency. Rural England suggests that the opposite is happening - that the historic environment is now simply ignored.

The strongest forces that act upon archaeology are agriculture and forestry. When the DoE was the primary body dealing with both land-use planning and the historic environment, an integrated approach (of which PPG16 was widely seen as the first fruit) seemed likely. In retrospect, following sidelining of the subject into the DNH, PPG16 looks more like the final flowering.

The lessons are clear. We must inspire the public and the Government to a better feeling for what the environment actually is. Opportunities to try again will follow when a counterpart to Rural England is published for Wales, and possibly Scotland. The RSPB has put skylarks on the political agenda; can it really be harder to do the same for long barrows and parish boundaries?

Frances Griffith is Hon Secretary of the CBA


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