COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The 'face' of Northumberlandia. (S)
The 'face' of Northumberlandia. (S)
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David looks at what we can do to reinstate and reclaim landscapes once used by industry and why we should always be on the look out for ways to enhance neglected or scarred parts of our area:

In John Wyndham’s futuristic novel, The Chrysalids, the hero David, aged about ten, wanders off from the family farm towards “the high bank”.

He says that “it was far too big for me to think of it as a thing men could have built ... it was simply the bank, coming round in a wide curve and then running straight as an arrow towards the distant hills”.

What David is seeing is something built by the “Old People” – semi-mythical beings who could manipulate the landscape on a whim. As readers, of course, we are meant to realise that we are the Old People, that the novel is set in a dystopian future – and that the bank is a railway embankment.

There seems always to have been a human desire to shape the landscape to our own ends. We have only to look at the thousands of prehistoric earthworks that cover much of the country to see the scale of our earliest ancestors’ ambitions. Within a few miles of Ripon we have some of the most important examples, at Thornborough Henges and the nearby cursus to the northwest, and the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge to the southeast.

Then there are the hill-forts, many from the Iron Age, where huge banks were raised round defensible hilltops and the Romans’ road-building that saw the countryside crossed with arrow-straight routes. The Normans raised motte and bailey castles; the Elizabethans, in more settled times, created pleasure gardens – though where necessary they built the most modern defences, notably the bastions round the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Eighteenth-century landscape gardeners like Capability Brown thought little of moving quantities of earth to create new lakes. By the time of the Industrial Revolution we reach the age of the canal and railway builders whose mastery of civil engineering – albeit achieved with the muscle power of the navvies rather than our modern machinery – saw the country transformed.

If you want examples, take a walk along Ripon canal, drive along the Ripon bypass and admire the former railway embankment by its side, or take the 36 bus to Harrogate to see the bridges and cuttings of the old railway line.

We can celebrate these achievements of the past but how should we respond to modern industrial uses of our landscape? However much we may complain about “scars on the landscape” and about individual proposals for industrial work in our own neighbourhood, there is no doubt that modern life would be more difficult without these vital works.

So we should be as supportive as we can of any plans to reclaim and reinstate landscapes that have been altered by industry but are no longer needed for their original role. Some of the most visible are the spoil heaps of extractive industries – the coal mines, the quarries, the gravel pits among them.

One way of treating these weals on the landscape is to leave nature free to regenerate. For the landowners this is, of course, often the preferred option; it has the advantage of costing them little except, perhaps, the maintenance of some perimeter fencing.

That may have been suitable for the small-scale industries of the past – the local quarries or the one-man open-cast mines, or even the lead mines of Swaledale that we find fascinating today – but it does not do for the huge modern developments.

Planning permissions these days insist on plans for after-use – though often these are minimal. We have all seen former slag heaps that have merely been smoothed over and grassed to make a landscape as sterile as the Russian steppes.

There are ways of doing better. In the Ure valley we are used to seeing gravel extraction – the current workings just beside Hewick Bridge are perhaps the most visible at present.

There are long-term plans in place to ensure that these gravel sites are turned into wetlands when the work is finished, as has already happened on the racecourse area. Further north Nosterfield Local Nature Reserve attracts many birds and provides hides to see them as well as accessible nature trails at the old gravel pits.

What if you want to do something on a large scale?

The Eden Project, that placed its “biomes” in Cornwall’s china clay workings, is one possible answer.

Another has recently been provided just outside Cramlington in Northumberland, where Northumberlandia has risen from the landscape. Northumberlandia is the brainchild of landscape architect Charles Jencks. It is a huge re-forming of the landscape in the form of a reclining woman, 100ft-high at the forehead and a quarter of a mile long from head-to-toe.

The work is part of the restoration of the Shotton surface coal mine, which provided all the material – 1.5m tonnes of rock, clay and soil – that was used to build it. And this £3m project was not, as you might have assumed, paid for through the Lottery.

It was funded by the mining company, the Banks Group, and by the Blagdon Estate on whose land the sculpture sits – or rather lies.

We may not have the land or the funding in Ripon to emulate Northumberlandia, but we have our own projects of reclamation. The scarred landscape of the current gravel extraction will be healed and become an attractive waterscape.

The scrubland behind the Workhouse Museum has, through the hard work of volunteers, become the productive and pleasant Workhouse Garden. There are others that readers could name for themselves.

So we should always be on the lookout for how we can enhance those parts of the area that have been scarred or neglected.

Can we make a park out of the unused field just to the north of the Workhouse Garden, for example? Are there places where we can plant more trees? – the Civic Society has organised the planting of 60 roadside trees over the last year, but more are needed.

There are opportunities to make our own mark on the landscape today – without adding to the scars.

And perhaps when we really are the “Old People”, the people of the future will have something to thank us for.