The British Landscape

Ken Worpole
4 July 2006

Towards the end of Raymond Williams' novel, Border Country, the main character, Matthew Price, climbs a hill near his home village in Wales – where the father he is visiting is close to death – and looks down on the landscape of his childhood. It is a critical moment in the book. From a distance he realises that the mountain "had the power to abstract and clarify", yet knows he must go back down where he lived, and once again become embroiled with all the confusions of family life, work, class and politics, knowing the detached view can never be sustained.

Both landscape painting and photography are underpinned by the ideal of the detached view, capturing the meaning of a place and a culture at a precise moment for ever. The human wish "to see life clearly and to see it whole", is evident in this extraordinary collection of landscape photographs by John Davies, selected from his work of the past 25 years.

The British Landscape, photographs by John Davies. Is published by Chris Boot, June 2006, Hardback £35

Ken Worpole is an author and policy advisor. His writing on openDemocracy includes:

"Aldo van Eyck, The Playgrounds and the City" (February 2006)

"Lido life" (March 2006)

"Ian Hamilton Finlay's world" (April 2006)

There are sixty large duotone black and white photographs printed in this book, each with a concise caption stating place, date, and brief history of the place photographed. Almost without exception, the photographs are taken from an elevated position looking down. The early prints are elemental landscape photographs: hilltop views looking down onto and across gloomy fells, tarns and valleys, with dark storm clouds pressing low and almost squeezing out any room to breathe – were there any people in these places coming up for air, which there aren't. This is the view of upland Britain before the quarries, mines, railway lines, power stations and vast housing estates arrived: a benighted Eden before the fall.

There are just four of these brooding wildernesses, after which Davies focuses on the industrial occupation of the landscape – particularly around Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield and south Wales – in the last days of British industrial muscle-power. These portray a period of decline, regeneration, and in some cases the complete levelling of the former factories and houses, followed by a process of landscaping to produce an effect as if nothing had ever existed before.

This complete eradication of all evidence of human industry, culture and community, produces some of the most disturbing images, as Davies' photographs raise the complex issue of how we preserve the public memory and experience of our industrial past, while adapting to new ways of living and inhabiting the landscape. Too many regeneration schemes, these photographs suggest, are based on the wholesale eradication of public history and memory, producing an ersatz sense of modernity, a mixture of system-built housing, ring roads, theme pubs and retail parks.

The photograph of Agecroft Power Station, near Salford, taken in 1983, portrays what is actually typical about most industrial landscapes – that they are not urban at all, but usually comprise heavy industry set in a rural hinterland. For this reason it is not surprising that many miners who turned to writing and painting – and quite a few did – were committed pastoralists.

The landscaped portrayed here is a classic piece of marginal rural land, broken up by cooling towers and electricity pylons, and cut through by rivers and canals, in the interstices of which are playing fields where several football games are in full flow. In the bottom corner a small group of cars have gathered, and a white horse seems to be the subject of a bit of informal trading. The chromatics are low contrast, almost smudged, as vapour from the cooling towers rises into the sky to cover the footballers with shadows, while in the distance the landscape blurs into mist and smog. It is a winter scene, with patches of snow, leafless trees, and a Bruegelesque sense of life going on in random pockets.


Agecroft Power Station, 1983, © John Davies

The photograph of Hulme: Manchester, 1984, portrays a new, post-industrial non-place. Originally farmland, this district close to Manchester was filled with back-to-back housing for the growing population of industrial workers. This was finally demolished in a slum clearance programme in the 1960s, yet had to be cleared again in the 1990s, as the replacement housing itself fell into rapid disrepair. This photograph of the completed '60s experiment in planning new communities, already hints that failure is imminent – in the banality of the buildings and the inhuman scale of their relationship to each other – as it proved to be.


Hulme, Manchester, 1984, © John Davies

Taff Vale Railway, Rhondda Fach, 1993 provides another image of the uneasy mix of the pastoral with the industrial (or ex-industrial). A former mining village, once part of a region with a strong religious and political culture, the mines have closed, and so has the railway line which connected them to each other, and the world beyond. Slowly the once sharply demarcated industrial landscape is reverting to nature, and rural pastimes come back into play. In the bottom right hand corner a couple are blackberrying, whilst other villagers amble along an overgrown path where once hundreds of coal trains rattled and roared.


Taff Vale Railway, Rhondda Fach, 1993, © John Davies

Gas Street Basin, Birmingham, photographed in 2000 reveals another aspect of post-industrial place-making. In this highly urban setting, the industrial canal and boat-moorings have become a stage set for the "new economy": financial services, administration, retail and leisure. The impenetrable mirror-glazing on the high rise office block simply reflects back another version of this film set. Some people I know find these pictures by Davies cold and overly static – they are certainly disturbing. In this and other high-contrast photographs of modern city centres, almost entirely unpeopled, there is a feeling that a social apocalypse about to happen – if it hasn't happened already.


Gas Street Basin, Birmingham, 2000, © John Davies

The final photograph, Site of Easington Colliery, taken in 2004 raises concerns of another kind. The former colliery in County Durham lay close to the coast, and the mines extended out under the sea. Today all traces of the pithead and its buildings have been erased, and the area has been landscaped and planted to recreate an ecology that once might have existed before the mines arrived.

It is now designated Durham's "Heritage Coast", and is an attractive place to visit. Yet this programme of ecological renewal has been built on the back of wholesale economic and social destruction. Future visitors may never know that this place was once the centre ground of an extraordinary rich industrial life and culture. Whilst the traces of the early Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings are preserved assiduously, evidence of the lives and labour of communities and cultures closer to us in time are erased with scant regard.


Site of Easington Colliery, 2004, © John Davies

On opening this book the reader is confronted by the shock of the old. Black and white photography seems to belong not just to another era, but to another world. It is astonishing to think that some of these scenes are more recent than the Beatles, computers and satellite TV. Yet black and white photography – the authentic mode of the social documentary tradition – seems antiquated in an era which proclaims the end of ideology and history.

The unique landscapes of British industrial life – half furnaces and cooling towers, half medieval field system – are now being demolished and landscaped with such haste that one wonders why there is such a wish to erase all memories of the past. Yet a distaste for history and a lack of respect for past lives and cultures now characterises almost every aspect of modern political life and rhetoric. Newness is all.

For these reasons one should be doubly grateful for this inspiring book: to the photographer John Davies, for an invaluable record of what has gone before, and to the publisher for producing an artefact of great artistic and emotional power. As the images mutate from wilderness to industrial monumentalism, and then to suburbanisation and even wholesale ecological succession, the reader gains a strong sense of worlds and landscapes now lost, and with them social and political cultures which possessed a greater purchase on landscape and community than is often evident today.

Not everything in the past was wonderful, far from it, but there are lessons to be learned about the inhabitation of place which are now lost to us through a wilful disregard for the lessons of history and physical geography. Economy today has been utterly divorced from geography – and the social consequences are real and lasting, as the photographs published in this book reveal.

All photographs are © John Davies

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