Louise Cooke – This Exploited Land Heritage Officer
A personal book review of ‘The Moor’
I have an immense soft spot for travel writing and nature writing, with my book shelves over piled with more discursive and anecdotal tales of places and things. I find these more informal and less academic accounts really helpful in piecing together what it is about a place or a landscape that makes it special. In the UK Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane the late Roger Deakin are all part of a long-line of storytelling about natural places and natural things that stretch back to the eighteenth century and Gilbert White in Selborne, Hampshire. Robert Macfarlane is perhaps responsible for the very recent “explosion” of new nature writing (or writing more broadly about places) that has tried to capture everything from geology to local traditions and everything in between. The products of that explosion in nature writing is quite mixed: some is fantastic, and some doesn’t quite hit the mark. The idea has even been hotly debated – extract from The Guardian 18.7.13.
‘The Moor – Lives Landscape Literature’ by William Atkins (published 2014) fits within this outburst of ‘nature writing’. The book is an ambitious attempt to tell the story of some of the upland areas in England. Atkins looks at the different areas* and presents on the lives and literature that are associated with them, whilst also reflecting more personally on his own visits and the people he meets.
* Bodmin Moor, Exmoor, Dartmoor, Saddleworth Moor, the Calder Valley, the Haworth Moors, Alston Moor, Otterburn and our own North York Moors.
Atkin’s chapter on the North York Moors highlights the work of Canon Atkinson (Forty years in a Moorland Parish published 1891) and Frank Elgee (Early Man in North-East Yorkshire published 1930). He also discusses the presence and impact of RAF Fylingdales. More than anything he reflects on the practices, tensions and benefits associated with management of the moors for grouse shooting which have such a large effect on the landscape.
I think that there are some obvious “could have done with an edit” moments; perhaps featuring fewer areas would have helped Atkins do more with ‘The Moor’, especially as at times the balance between detail (e.g. the colour of his bath water) and more sweeping issues (e.g. the impacts of tourism on fragile upland areas) is a little perplexing. But overall ‘The Moor’ is an easy way to get into some of the less well known upland areas of England (like the North York Moors) and I would recommend it.
One of the tasks I am undertaking at the moment in the development stage of This Exploited Land (HLF Landscape Partnership) is writing a Statement of Significance to articulate what it is about the programme area that makes it distinctive. It was partly to get a popular understanding of the landscape (or at least understanding its ‘aesthetic values’) that encouraged me to pick up ‘The Moor’ earlier in the year. I suppose I wish William Atkins had talked to us about the very intimate connections between geology, and past and present uses of the land that are so integral to our This Exploited Land story. These connections are shown not just on the moor tops but in the bottom of the interjecting dales too – for instance at Beck Hole where the former mineral workings are virtually ‘lost’ within the woodland there.
Our This Exploited Land (TEL) story is very much about challenging the artificial divide between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ heritage. The landscape today is the result of past exploitation, and active current management (or ‘curation’). Perhaps in a few years times when our story of pioneering early railways and ironstone mining is better known (thanks to the efforts of our TEL programme), a follow up to ‘The Moor’ might focus on the This Exploited Land story as an elemental part of what makes the North York Moors distinctive as an example of a human-made and human-maintained landscape.