My picture shows the River Weaver Navigation at Hartford, Cheshire, where the Navigation is perhaps at its most bucolic. I have caught it, moreover, in its autumnal colours. But in the background is Hartford Bridge, built by Cheshire County Council in 1939, whose utilitarian design and bright blue paint might seem incongruous. It might seem to spoil the view. But I suggest that that view would not be special without it. What makes the scene is the balance of the natural and the artificial. Up close the bridge has the brute beauty of pure engineering: it is the girders and the concrete that impress themselves on us. In the distant view the severity of the bridge is softened by the water and foliage; but at the same time the water and foliage are counterpointed by the bridge.
Human activity inevitably imposes artifice on a landscape. We tend to exalt the countryside – there, we say, is ‘nature’ – but houses and street furniture are not fundamentally different in villages from in towns and cities. And though, as I said above, this is probably the Weaver at its most bucolic, this section, the Vale Royal Cut, is in fact one of several artificial sections, variously straightened, provided with locks or bypassing the river proper altogether. The Navigation was created to meet the requirements of industry; and the work on it began relatively early in the eighteenth century, some time before the canal age and the apotheosis of industry.
Hartford Bridge symbolises what a river navigation is – an essentially industrial thing – and it asserts that character even in such a sylvan setting as this. It is the tension between these two opposites which makes the scene uniquely delightful.
I remarked in a previous post that the urban park is a distinctive form of landscape. What I have to discuss here is a very good example of this, but one which also shows that we do not always value the urban park for what it is.
Waddon Ponds is a small park near Croydon. It was until recently the point where the River Wandle first became visible; now at nearby Wandle Park upstream, where the river was chanelled through an underground pipe in the mid 1960s, it has once again been revealed. Still, the breadth of the ponds at Waddon is a stirring sight.It is here that we first have the sense of a watercourse that will influence a whole district. The park once could not have been more of an urban park, and to some extent this is still so. The lawns, the flowerbeds, the shrubs, the railings, the surrounding houses – all add up to an example of the gardener’s art which is both a resource for, and a dramatic foil to a densely populated district – and which could not reside anywhere but such a district.
Recent work on the park, however, has deliberately moved away from this characteristic scene. Notices at the park entrances tell us that:
Waddon Ponds is one of the few places in Croydon where you can see the River Wandle above ground. With its crystal-clear water it’s a much needed peaceful haven in the town centre.
Work is currently taking place to make the ponds more natural for the benefit of birds, amphibians and insects.
This work seems to have consisted mainly in planting reeds in the river and in the use of rough-cut timber to train them.
Why is there this impulse to turn everything into a semblance of country? Compare this with the marketing of the suburban house between the world wars as a country retreat. This practice has been conventionally criticised on the ground that suburban development turned to town the very countryside that was supposed to be its attraction. Not quite: the suburb is a distinctive landscape too, different from countryside or town. It is worth looking at, and pleasant to exist in, for its own qualities. (And wildlife of a distinctive kind can look after itself there too.)
A park such as Waddon Ponds is part of the suburban landscape. I do not think the alterations at Waddon have gone too far; but the attitude behind them carries the danger of smothering a distinctive and subtle savour which has never had its due – though it has remained popular with citizens.
Reading recently, with as much patience as I could muster, Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, I reflected that re-creating the flavour of a time and place is not helped by too great an effort to do it. Some objectivity – an objectivity that archives are good at holding us to – is paradoxically far more evocative.
Scarp is a personal exploration of the ridge of high ground to the north of London on the Middlesex-Hertfordshire border. This is the eponymous Scarp, which the author claims to have identified and named. The book recounts some of his explorations of the area and his relationship to it throughout his life. But if his aim was, as the blurb says, “first and foremost a personal inquiry into the spirit of place” the attempt does not at all come off. It is pretentiously written: Papadimitriou strains after effect, over-ornamenting his description to the point of tedium, and recalling for this reader Orwell’s “a tremendous advantage is gained by not trying to be clever” and Samuel Butler’s “I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable”. The central premise is unoriginal: that ridge of high ground has been known for generations as the Northern Heights – a phrase Papadimitriou does use, on page 231, but in passing, and printing it in lower case. The nineteenth century railway engineers who built the main lines north from London all had the problem of penetrating the ridge; the plans drawn up between the wars to extend the Northern Line called the scheme the Northern Heights project; and Northern Heights was a name considered for what became the London Borough of Enfield. Papadimitriou often wanders off into fantasy – acknowledgedly to be sure, but it is difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins and hence what we should take seriously as personal testimony. We have here in short merely one mind’s discursive thoughts and reveries, and although he clearly does know some history and despite some close descriptions of nature I did not at all have a sense of the landscape he reckons to portray.
An instructive contrast is with Alan A. Jackson’s London’s local railways. Jackson simply recounts the story of the construction and operation of these local lines throughout their life, the changes they have seen and their effects on London’s landscape and development. He has quarried the archives very thoroughly. The book is – I suggest in consequence – far more atmospheric. His method is implied in the book’s dedication, “To the suburban traveller”, to which he appends an epigraph from Constable, “We see nothing until we understand it”. Understand your familiar scene, Jackson seems to say, know thoroughly its origin and its function over time, and you will feel more intensely its essence – indeed put like that it is almost a tautology. Jackson visited every one of the lines he writes about, in many instances more than once over decades, and his physical descriptions are commonly his own observations. Though they can be highly coloured he states exactly what he sees and uses it as historical evidence. They are personal, but objective in the sense that he wanted to give an account of what is “out there” rather than an account of his thoughts.
I like to think that the archives both anchored him to objectivity and inspired him to be atmospheric. When we use archives to write history we are bound to convey the knowledge they give us; but it is in giving it to us and as they give it to us that they take us close to the atmosphere of things as they were, an intense sensation which we will also wish to convey, and which we will convey by recounting with feeling what we find. The two things are indissolubly paired.