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Traditional open Downland view

The countryside of the UK is as diverse as the accents of those who live there, and often as poorly understood.

One of the biggest differences is the form of field boundary, whether these are hedges, fences, walls, dykes or banks.  Each form has come from a combination of the type of farming that was historically undertaken, the material that was available to form the boundaries, and when those boundaries were formed.

One of the biggest differences is the form of field boundary, whether these are hedges, fences, walls, dykes or banks.  Each form has come from a combination of the type of farming that was historically undertaken, the material that was available to form the boundaries, and when those boundaries were formed.

During the 1970s and 80s there was much alarm and discussion about the removal of hedges across the land with the loss of small enclosures to create large fields that farmer’s claimed were needed so they could use  modern large agricultural machines for profitable farming.  In some areas there was a loss of many tens or even hundreds of miles of hedgerow in what was perceived as be the transformation of the traditional English countryside of narrow lanes and high hedges into an alien  prairie wasteland.

This was seen as the destruction of all that was most loved in the countryside and as being symptomatic of its urbanisation and would ultimately lead to the concreting over of everything.  It was a the same change that had altered the appearance and character of many  towns and villages.

At the time it was claimed that the hedges that were being destroyed were all of great age and historical importance.

However, there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the date of many hedges in what is classed as lowland England.  It has been shown that the majority of the boundaries are comparatively modern, being the result of the numerous Enclosure Acts of the late 18th & 19th centuries, although some do survive from as early as the post Roman period.

The same Enclosure Acts are now being used to protect many hedges as it is difficult to remove them because they were required to be planted by specific Acts of Parliament.  The Hedgerow Regulations have also been introduced to control damage and loss of these features.

However there were always areas of the country that were not enclosed or constrained by banks or hedges – these are the Downs, Plains and

Wolds and other similar tracts of open grassland.  Typically this is high chalk or limestone ground, traditionally wide open and seemingly bleak expanses of grass sometimes known as sheep-walk as that was the only form of farming.  They were areas where nomad shepherds followed their flocks by living in a caravan .

Government grant funded planting that will soon destroy open Downland

This was shallow soiled  open ground where there were few trees and thorn bushes formed small spinneys, much as it has been since the .  Sheep graze very tightly to the ground so they devour the young seedlings of trees and bushes, leaving only the spiny stems of thorn bushes so creating the open landscape that has existed from at least the Bronze Age.

Now there seems to be a reversal of hedge loss happening with new and replacement hedges being planted to restore the traditional character in area where hedges are the norm.  The trouble is that in some cases new hedges are causing as much damage to the character of the countryside as did hedgerow removal because they are occurring across open chalk and limestone grassland.  This is because hedges are intruding into areas where they have never been and changing millennia old open landscapes through a mixture of disinterest and the active ministration of farming grants.

What was wide open country up to about twenty or at the most thirty years ago is now growing hedges.  Many of these hedges are self set or wild sown where seeds grow along fence lines and are no longer grazed off now that stock is seldom kept on the ground and are away from the main cultivation zone.  This loss of grazing allows the seedlings to b

ecome full sized shrubs that are soon spreading more seeds and so a new hedge becomes established.

Self-set hedges could be considered as the new phase of natural growth because they have a sporadic, raggedy and natural appearance.  What is an intrusion is the ordered planting of thick, even and artificial looking hedges using EU and other grant money.

This is a deliberate change to the character of historic landscape that is is being permitted, if not encouraged, by bodies that are supposedly there to protect our heritage landscapes such as the Wolds, Downs and Plains.

If uncontrolled hedge removal is not permitted then the p

lanting of hedges across landscapes where they are not appropriate should not be permitted with the use of our money.

Keep the open landscapes of England open!

There is an assumption amongst a lot of the people that I encounter as well as being a large amount of comment that appears in the press as well as on radio and TV that the historic built environment and new architecture cannot mix.  This applies equally to the man in the street, the conservation officer in the local planning officer as it does for many high ranking opinion formers.  It is as if anything new will corrupt the old and should be avoid as much as possible.

Before I going any further I should clarify by what I mean by new building.  This is work such as extensions to existing structures or completely new buildings in historical environments.  It does not include restoration or conservation work to an existing building where it is necessary to match the existing for materials, a particular building style or form, as well as workmanship standards.  That is because restoration and conservation needs to be based on proven evidence rather than conjecture, supposition or what would be ‘nice’.  Anyway that is enough of that before I start to wonder off into a separate field of thought that can be blog on its own.

Unfortunately all too often new building work is poor quality reproduction or pastiche design because it is considered to be appropriate to blend with the historic building or environment.  The designs, at very best might just warrant the title of architecture, is inevitably bland, of awful quality and is often described as ‘Disneyesque’ or ‘Tescolite’.  These are buildings and extensions that have as much in common with the historic built environment as plastic has to the natural world.

It would be very easy to put all the blame for poor quality or cheap design on amorphous developers.  Unfortunately it all too often comes from the decision makers such as planners and their committees playing safe by opting for the bland and mediocre rather than the new and bold.  Many good designers are suppressed by what they are told will be acceptable in order to obtain the necessary development consents because of inadequate design briefs and the quality and boldness of the decision makers.

Classical and contemporary combination

When compared to Europe, the lack of good modern architecture to be seen commonly in  towns and villages is noticeable in the UK.   It also means that there is no noticeable building style that is or will be identifiable to distinguish the period from the late 1950s or early 60s.  In the past we have had a noticeable styles that have identified the major reigns such as Elizabethan, Jacobean, Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian.  From the early 1900s we go by decade or events with the distinctive styles of the twenties through to the fifties with the War Period in between.  What do we have from the 60s onwards – nothing of style or distinction.

It is difficult to know what has brought about this reticence or resistance to modern architecture.  It might be the brutalism of heavy concrete styles coupled to the mass demolitions and town centre redevelopments that drastically changed the character of many communities in the post war period.  Equally it could be the poor quality of building standards and materials that also appeared in the same period and has led to need for much repair and even replacement.

What we need to do is to break the thought pattern that infers that design must always be ‘safe’, not offend, and that only reproductions are acceptable in historical settings.  For this to be successful will mean that architectural design standards will need to improve along with materials and standards appropriate to the site  / location, which could be easier said than done.

The national historic environment protection bodies such as EH, CADW, HS, etc, have policies that allow for and even encourage the use of good strong modern architectural design in an historic setting, so they should not be seen as part of the reactionary forces.  Unfortunately, some officers who implement the policies within these bodies disagree with the thinking of their employers and so do nothing to encourage contemporary design, and have even been known to discourage it.

Good contemporary design when used in an historic setting should not alienate either the historic setting or those who will use it in whatever form.  This may impose some constraints, on  the selective use of materials and appropriate workmanship together with good detailing.  It will also need proper and careful consideration by the planning bodies who will ultimately be asked to approve it.

What this should bring about will be a rejuvenation of the historic built environment.  Remember that everything that all those old buildings that we now seek to protect were once new and most probably seen as radical or modern ugly design when compared with what was then the common everyday styles of building.

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