My time in the UK is nearing the end and it means saying farewell to people and places that have contributed to a great deal of fond memories over the past two-and-a-half years. All of my previous posts have been about travels away from Britain, so I wanted this post to be about some of the strong memories I have of Britain itself. In particular I wanted to focus on the landscape, something I was exposed to gradually and for which I developed a deep appreciation. It was Clare who introduced me to much of the British countryside and initiated and planned many of our ventures into it.
When I first arrived at Gatwick in early August 2015, I had virtually no previous experience of anywhere in Britain outside of London. I knew, from peering out the window of a train between London and the ferry port at Dover over 20 years earlier, that English countryside was incredibly green and that the vegetation was abundant and lush. I remember being amazed by the trees; how big the leaves were and how dense the foliage was. I thought the plant life in England was on steroids, at least compared to the vegetation common to much of Australia.
Since that initial very limited experience, I’ve had the opportunity over recent years to see considerably more of the countryside, although it took me some time to appreciate it for what it was. There was some initial disappointment at the lack of mountains, the absence of ruggedness, the ever-present intrusion of mankind’s influence and the unpredictable weather. I thought the landscape was too gentle and contained, too much like farmland, not wild enough, over-explored and over-inhabited.
But as Clare introduced me to more of the country, my appreciation grew. Our first excursion, back in early 2016, was a relatively tame one to Richmond Park on the edge of London. It was originally created in the 17th century as a deer park by King Charles I and still retains a wildness more reminiscent of a hunting ground than a city park. We made our visit during the middle of winter. The air was cold and the ponds were frozen yet the skies were clear and the sun bathed the landscape in a muted golden light. The scenery was majestic. The seemingly boundless park was part meadow and part forest, had a resident deer population and extensive walks that made us feel like we were somewhere remote, far beyond the confines of the city that bordered it.
Our next trip was a little further afield to the countryside around the village of Otford, south-east of London near Sevenoaks in Kent. The walk took us via public access pathways across hilly and boggy farmland, through patches of woods and open meadows. Despite the extensive clearing of woodland for farming, there was still a richness and charm in the natural surroundings that hadn’t been lost, something evident in rural areas across much of Britain.
Nearly a month later we ventured into the wilder and more remote Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales. Often plagued by extreme and unpredictable weather, the Brecon Beacons is a stunning natural landscape with extensive treeless and uneven plains formed by unique hilltops and escarpments. As we walked various trails, particularly those along the more elevated and windswept tops, we enjoyed open vistas almost devoid of human habitation, extending into the distance in all directions. There was also the ever present feeling of being vulnerable and exposed to the elements. It came as no surprise to me that the Brecon Beacons is used by the British military and the SAS as an outdoor training ground, a region whose harsh weather has even claimed the lives of elite soldiers.
Not long after, I was walking across the moors in the Peak District, the coastal marshes of Norfolk and Sussex and hiking over multiple days through the wild and dramatic landscapes of the Cairngorms in Scotland. Over time, I came to understand why the English and Welsh call so many regions of their land, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is evident in the extensive palette of greens, browns and yellows that colour the woodlands, the rolling hills, rocky escarpments and undulating flatlands. There is the tremendous variety of trees which together form lush forests of unbelievable and tranquil beauty and whose appearance changes considerably depending on the season and the light.
I came to realise how much the weather and the movement of the skies adds intensity to the nature of the landscape. During those times when the sky is grey and turbulent with the onset of rain, the scenery appears dark and foreboding, as if it has acquired an almost treacherous mood. Within hours it can change to clear skies and sunshine and then just as quickly change back.
Besides the wilder places there is the beauty of the city parklands and the more domesticated countryside that surrounds the urban centres. Extensive green meadows divided by endless miles of hand-crafted stone walls, the thick hedge rows that line the narrow country lanes, the public access paths across farmland, the gates and crossings, the grand estates, the stone farm houses, the gurgling brooks and the tranquil ponds. In addition there is the extensive network of narrow canals with their impossibly still waters that mirror perfectly the vegetation that flanks them on either side. They harken back to a more nostalgic era, before even trains were used to transport goods across the country.
Each feature of the landscape – whether it be a mile stone, an ancient oak, a windswept hilltop or an old mill – has a history and a story behind it. It could be the birthplace of a famous poet or painter, the site of a medieval battle, the source of an engineering marvel or a repository for ancient artefacts. All of these features add a richness and complexity to the landscape that is appreciated more and more over time and with each visit. Each patch of Britain seems to be rich in layers of history, myths and legends and stories passed down, each of which is deeply integrated with the landscape and the people who inhabit it.
Gallery 1: Wilder Landscapes
Gallery 2: More Cultivated Landscape Features