I used to spend much of my spare time at two small nature reserves at Lingfield in Surrey. We were guided in our work by the advice of many helpful people and groups. To help repay that debt, I occasionally gave illustrated talks to other communities on why and how they might set up their own reserves.
One common obstacle I warned these groups against is resistance to the idea that reserves need managing. Many people believe that what they see around them in the countryside got there naturally and looks after itself. Woodland, especially, should be left alone, having arisen without human ‘interference’.
This is ill-informed baloney. There is scarcely a square mile of Britain’s land surface not touched by humans, from the Stone Age onwards. At some time in its existence, almost every wood and forest has been managed, usually to produce a crop either of whole trees or parts of them. (For more on this, I recommend Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside.) Hedgerows are there for a purpose, too, as are meadows. All need continual attention.
Part of the cause of this fallacy is the photographs and paintings of the countryside we see from our youngest days. These mostly promote a view of the countryside as being static and unchangingly lovely. They seldom reveal the processes taking place behind the scenery, nor do they show the effort and ingenuity involved in keeping a place productive (and thus beautiful).
One of my talks expanded on this theme, using the example of John Constable’s most famous painting. I turned this talk into a paper, “Chocolate boxes and change: reading The Hay Wain”, which I reproduce here.
It’s long, so I have posted it as a Screed. The notes to it are even longer, so they are separate. In the text, each bracketed number refers to the relevant note. I’ve added the photographs subsequently.
I hope you enjoy both.
I left Moffat at the end of March and set out on the 40-mile drive north east to Melrose.
For the first stretch, the road threaded its way through Moffat Dale, with Moffat Water idling alongside. I drove between softly rounded hills, hazy in the morning sunlight, and up past The Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, the Loch of the Lowes and St Mary Loch to Selkirk.
The road was all mine much of the way and the van floated along effortlessly. It was the sort of drive you don’t want to end.
Life snapped back to sharp and noisy normality once I got on the major road at Selkirk. A quick plunge into Galashiels for food shopping and then I was at Melrose.
The club is famous (among rugby folk, at least) as the home of seven-a-side rugby, which started there in 1883.
I stayed at the site for only a week, so missed the start of the annual “Sevens” tournament. Just as well — the town would have been packed with ascetic types playing chess in the corner of the public bar or, in the tea rooms, quietly discussing logical positivism over their chamomile tisanes.
More interesting to me was the ruined abbey, just half a mile away. These are the remains of an establishment that was the first and largest Cistercian monastery in Scotland and one of the largest in Britain. King David 1 of Scotland ordered its foundation in 1136, the first monks coming from Rievaulx Abbey, in Yorkshire.
The money to build the abbey came from donations and from farming, especially sheep. During the Middle Ages, they were a major source of wealth — walking gold, in effect. The abbey farmed nearly 15,000 head of sheep by 1370, selling their wool as far away as the Low Countries and Italy. It owned around 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) of land in the Borders and elsewhere.
In contrast to the lavishness of their buildings, the monks lived austere lives of prayer and abstinence. Lay brothers carried out much of the work on the land and with the livestock. These men were from the peasant classes and were almost all illiterate.
Jocelyn of Furness (1175−1214) recounted a story of a lay brother of Melrose whom the Devil influenced to learn to read. The man eventually realised the errors of his way and repented of his “sin”. Gives one a flavour of the times.
The English attacked Melrose Abbey repeatedly, under Edward I (1300 and 1307), Edward II (1322) and Richard II (1385). The last of these onslaughts caused such damage that major rebuilding was needed. It is that Gothic structure we see the remnants of today.
Henry VIII’s forces struck the final blow in 1545, during his ‘rough wooing’ of Scotland. The Abbey never fully recovered.
Historic Scotland, which runs the place these days, describes what’s left as a “magnificent ruin on a grand scale with lavishly decorated masonry”. Spot on.
Sculptures cover most of the outside of the building and include demons and hobgoblins, angels, cooks and “Green Men”. You can see some of those decorations below. They famously include (not in picture) a pig playing the bagpipes. Adrian Fletcher’s site shows close-up pictures of this and other statuary.
This picture, taken in early evening, shows the warm pink colour of the stones used in the 1385 rebuilding.
Although not as romantic as, say, the abbeys at Rievaulx or Tintern, the remains at Melrose are among the most rewarding to visit. If you’re in the area, I recommend spending a couple of hours there. The town offers plenty of places nearby for refreshment afterwards.
(And if you want an idea of how the abbey looked when complete, see this modern church in America, which is an imagined replica.)
There is much more to be said about Melrose — it has some excellent food shops, for instance — but I’m keeping things short this time.
I’ve started another blog, this time concentrating on my travel photographs. It’s called Roger’s Lurch and is on the Tumblr service. Every day, I’ll put up one of my favourite pictures from the last five years.
I hope you enjoy the selection. You don’t have to register to see them.
My other photo sites remain. Roger Whitehead Photography holds the collection of ‘proper’ photos. (All are on sale, by the way.) Flickr is where I continue to put my jokey pictures and those that are just reportage.
I welcome any comments, here or at any of those sites.
[Added a few days later] I’ve started yet another photo blog. This one is called Plantigrade and is for my pictures of flowers and of the natural world.