Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Down Come the Tall Trees

Dear Mike,

I wonder if Rowse was thinking of the section below?

W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1955), pp. 231-232:
The industrial revolution and the creation of parks around the country houses have taken us down to the later years of the nineteenth century. Since that time, and especially since the year 1914, every single change in the English landscape has either uglified it or destroyed its meaning, or both. Of all the changes in the last two generations, only the great reservoirs of water for the industrial cities of the North and Midlands have added anything to the scene that one can contemplate without pain. It is a distasteful subject, but it must be faced for a few moments.

The country houses decay and fall: hardly a week passes when one does not see the auctioneer's notice of the impending sale and dissolution of some big estate. The house is seized by the demolition contractors, its park invaded and churned up by the tractors and trailers of the timber merchant. Down comes the house; down come the tall trees, naked and gashed lies the once-beautiful park. Or if it stands near a town, the political planners swarm into the house, turn it into a rabbit-warren of black-hatted officers of This and That, and the park becomes a site for some "overspill" — a word as beastly as the thing it describes. We may indeed find the great house still standing tidily in a timbered park: but it is occupied by what the villagers describe detachedly as "the atom men," something remote from the rest of us, though not remote in the sense they themselves like to think. And if the planners are really fortunate, they fill the house with their paper and their black hats, and their open-cast mining of coal or iron ore simultaneously finishes off the park. They can sit at their big desks and contemplate with an exquisite joy how everything is now being put to a good use. Demos and Science are the joint Emperors.

Beyond the park, in some parts of England such as East Anglia, the bull-dozer rams at the old hedges, blots them out to make fields big and vacant enough for the machines of the new ranch-farming and the business-men farmers of five to ten thousand acres. Fortunately, the tractor and the bull-dozer cannot easily destroy the great hedgebanks and stone walls of the anciently-enclosed parts of England; nor is it worth doing, for the good farmer knows the value of these banks and walls as shelter, and of the hedges for timber. Much of the old field pattern therefore remains, with its tangle of deep lanes and thick hedges.

What else has happened in the immemorial landscape of the English countryside? Airfields have flayed it bare wherever there are level, well-drained stretches of land, above all in eastern England. Poor devastated Lincolnshire and Suffolk! And those long gentle lines of the dip-slope of the Cotswolds, those misty uplands of the sheep-grey oolite, how they have lent themselves to the villainous requirements of the new age! Over them drones, day after day, the obscene shape of the atom-bomber, laying a trail like a filthy slug upon Constable's and Gainsborough's sky. England of the Nissen hut, the "pre-fab," and the electric fence, of the high barbed wire around some unmentionable devilment; England of the arterial by-pass, treeless and stinking of diesel oil, murderous with lorries; England of the bombing-range wherever there was once silence, as on Otmoor or the marsh-lands of Lincolnshire; England of battle-training areas on the Breckland heaths, and tanks crashing through empty ruined Wiltshire villages; England of high explosive falling upon the prehistoric monuments of Dartmoor. Barbaric England of the scientists, the military men, and the politicians: let us turn away and contemplate the past before all is lost to the vandals.
In a similar vein, he excoriates 20th century Exeter (his native city).

W.G. Hoskins, Two Thousand Years in Exeter (Chichester: Phillimore & Co., 1960; rpt. 1974), pp. 133-135:
Eighteen years and more have gone by since the city was devastated. Much has been rebuilt in a commonplace style that might belong anywhere: it is not distinctive as the old Exeter was, with its rich regional flavour. Once more Exeter is the capital of South-Western England, and its shops and streets are as crowded as they ever were. It is still the same kind of city, with seven out of ten of its occupied population providing services of one kind or another. In numbers it grows very slowly, but with the clearing of the congested areas it spreads more and more into the surrounding country. Yet green fields are still visible from most of its streets even today, and it remains one of the most attractive cities in England to look at and to live in.

Its two greatest enemies are the motor-car and the speculative builder. In 1947 there were rather fewer than four thousand private cars registered in the city. Now there are more than twice as many, and more than twice as many commercial vehicles. The narrow streets are being torn apart and much of old Exeter is being lost because everything must be sacrificed to enable the motorist to go one mile an hour faster or to save his withered legs from a moment's walking. The motorist's demands upon our city are endlessly greedy and selfish. But people are more important than vehicles. The motorist must be kept firmly in his place, for he brings the kiss of death wherever he goes.

As for the speculative builder, he seizes daily upon the large houses that were built in late Georgian and early Victorian days, in their large, well-tree'd gardens, and clears the whole site in order to make the maximum profit. The old house comes down, and the beautiful trees, inherited from our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, are sacrificed in order to cram two or three more tatty little houses into the old garden. In twenty years' time, the opulent and seemly houses that were built in an age of elegance will have been replaced by a desert of bricks and concrete.

There is another profound difference between the city of 1960 and that of a hundred years ago. A century ago, two centuries ago, Exeter was a cultured place, the social and intellectual capital of a rich and varied province. Look how highly Richard Ford spoke of it in the 1830s, when he came to live here! Today the city library, burnt out nearly twenty years ago, is still a shambles. The failure to rebuild it is the greatest disgrace in the post-war history of the city. It is clear that books are not considered to be important in modern Exeter. How vastly different from our Victorian forefathers when they founded the Free Library in 1869! (see the Preface)

This failure to provide a good library for the people of Exeter is only the most obvious symptom of some obscure disease that goes very deep. Somewhere between 1860 and now, Exeter ceased to be a cultured city. It would be instructive to trace exactly when and how this profound rot set in, a fascinating and melancholy problem for some social historian. I suspect that the rot was going on rapidly during the later years of the nineteenth century: but what brought it about? Were late Victorians so different from their fathers and grandfathers? Why did the learned societies of Exeter disappear one by one? Why does the Devon and Exeter Institution, that learned library which Richard Ford so greatly admired, gather dust silently, and struggle to make ends meet? The people of Exeter seem to be able to exist happily without any good music: the theatre, centuries old as a tradition in the city, staggers from crisis to crisis. We cannot blame the cinema or television: the rot had set in long before either made its appearance. George Gissing noted in the early 1890s that Exeter people did not support good music even then. In a letter to his sister (December 30, 1892), written from No. 1, St. Leonard's Terrace, where he was living, he says: "We went to hear the Elijah, but it was very poorly done. Curious that the people of Exeter will not support anything good in drama or music." In another letter he complains of Exeter that "intellectually it is very dull". This could never have been said forty years earlier.

For the last two generations or more Exeter has ceased to care about any of these things. It has changed greatly for the worse in this respect. The new university, established in 1956 after its abortive start so many centuries ago, cannot fail in time to bring the ancient culture of Exeter back to life. Two or three generations are after all a very short time. Caerwysc, Isca, Exancester, Exeter — more than seventy generations of people have opened their eyes and closed them for the last time in this ancient city of ours.

And there remains much that is beautiful to look at. There are still dark ilex trees overhanging old stone walls, and there are the little sandstone churches up and down the main streets, with their startling red towers against the blue-and-white sky. And though the river-front has been despoiled in part, there is still the long-deserted quay with its noble Warehouses, built just before the coming of the railways; and the canal, probably the most beautiful ship-canal in England, carrying very little traffic but providing the most peaceful of walks along its banks down to Topsham and beyond, to, where the Exe scents the open sea: the same shining river that brought the pre-historic ships up to earliest Exeter more than two thousand years ago.
Best wishes,
Eric [Thomson]


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