As it passes the eastern elevation of Chatsworth House, the flow of River Derwent is delayed by a weir.  Moorhens and Coots disturb the reflections of the trees lining the banks where Herons stand sentinel and Sand Martins nest.  Beyond that the park curves up to the hilltop plantings of spruce  – a single sweep of green, interrupted only by strategic stands of trees. A herd of fallow deer turn their heads towards me  and flick their tails. This a landscape to impress,  a stylised caricature of the natural environment.  It was Lancelot Brown, the pioneer landscape artist, who first realised its capabilities two hundred and fifty years ago.  He created a landscape fit for Dukes to own, with inspiring vistas, a wide river, miles of gallops, woods stocked with game.  It was a leisure landscape to suit the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful.   

 

Brown’s landscape has survived.  Successive Dukes have preserved it, despite the gradual decline of their relative power and wealth.  Chatsworth is now a business.  It markets a nostalgic impression of natural ‘unspoiled’ beauty.  The road through the park is concealed from the house, power lines are buried, new buildings are forbidden.  No longer a privileged playground for the Duke’s wealthy and well connected guests,  Chatsworth is now open to all.  Families from Manchester or Sheffield picnic on the grass, leaving scorched circles, barbecue tins, bottle and packaging.   Youths play football and swim in the river.  Trail bikes roar up the lanes.  There are motor rallies, horse shows, concerts, an adventure playground, demonstrations of country crafts in the farmyard and Sleeping Beauty on Ice in the big marquee. Chatsworth has become a theme park.   

 

In April I rented a bijou cottage in the estate village of Edensor, one of a score or more designs the 6th Duke selected from his architect’s catalogue in 1830.  My brother, Simon, came to stay with me this week.  He is an artist.  He believes that art should be about more than making things for people to look at and artists should be integrated  in the design and maintenance of the spaces we inhabit. 

 

Chatsworth, we agreed, is a beautiful environment.  The present incumbents acknowledge the ongoing importance of the artist by displaying sculptures throughout the park and exhibitions of paintings in the house. But are artists consulted in the management of the park?   They may be, but the question begs a bigger one,  ‘What is the role of the artist in the creation and maintenance of the environment?’  

 

Artists are concerned with the aesthetic qualities of the environment and, since ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, what the environment means or can be taken to mean.  More than ever, our insecure society needs a spiritual dimension. Landscape has always been and remains a vital source of inspiration and meaning, and, as Richard Maybe expresses in his book Nature Cure, solace for the troubled soul.  So perhaps artists should work alongside planners, conservationists, environmentalists and estate managers to ensure that landscape not only satisfies the practical necessitities of life but also fulfils the spiritual requirements. 

 

Chatsworth has always been a managed landscape.  Stately homes have had to transform themselves into successful businesses to survive.   Chatsworth markets nostalgia and privilege – a way of life that no longer exists.  It sells its soul.  It has to.  It gratifies a commercial incentive while seeking to satisfy a spiritual need for beauty and meaning.  To be fair, Chatsworth just about pulls it off, though the result can seem an uneasy compromise.   The monoculture of rye grass is hard wearing and low maintenance.  It survives being scuffed away by football boots, scorched by barbecues, but it doesn’t support the growth of wild flowers.  The peace of village life is shattered every Sunday morning by the roar of trail bikes.  The conversion of the  shop and post office into a café has torn the heart out of the community.   The rural farm shop is now an upper class supermarket – the Waitrose of the peak.  As a tenant,  I feel like I am living in a film set.  I am!  The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightly and Ralph Fiennes – who else? – was filmed here last October and is being released on 6th September.   

 

Do I sound ambivalent?  Well, I am.  On the one hand, I feel that our heritage is a rich source of identity.  It may be a fiction – the kind of life described by Jane Austen and embodied in the fabric of Chatsworth was available to very few.  Most people in England lived in poverty and died young of exhaustion and tuberculosis.  But it’s a sustaining fiction.  At the same time, I wonder whether we need to create a simalcrum of the past to get meaning from life. We should look to our artists, poets, storytellers of all persuasions to help us find beauty and meaning in our current landscape. 

 

The Peak District National Park is more successful in maintaining a living environment, by perhaps not having to manage it very much at all.  The peak is self sustaining.  People live there, own their houses, run businesses from their homes or commute to Manchester or Sheffield.  They form communities and these communities adapt to changing needs.  There is some management.  Farmers are restricted regarding their use of land, they have to maintain the fabric, but theirs is still a viable existence.  Within limits this is a viable landscape, it is quite beautiful and still possible to find peace and inspiration within remote valleys full of birdsong and wildflowers.

 

Other environments are more difficult.  Every few weeks I get a request from the RSPB to support the purchase land for the establishment of another reserve, where endangered species can be protected.  I usually give support.  I applaud the RSPB’s reclamation of the reedbeds and saltmarsh at Minsmere and at Leighton Moss, though Minsmere is threatened by rising sea levels and coastal erosion.  Will it be possible to protect this habitat without destroying the essential aesthetic?     

 

I still feel that watching birds from hides in reserves is cheating – Avocets – this way,  Marsh Harriers over there.  Oh and have you seen The Purple Heron yet?  How much more satisfying it is to observe birds unexpectedly outside of these enclaves, like the Crossbills I saw the other day in the woods near my cottage,  the Peregrines teaching their chicks to fly on the Cornish coast and the Choughs – though I am aware how grazing cattle on the coastal heathland has encouraged their return.        

 

The heathland at Dunwich is a wonderful habitat for the Nightjar, a magic bird that evokes the dark sorcery of a summers night.  But this is not a wild natural environment.  It is agricultural land left to go fallow.  It is there for the moment, but left to itself, it will, in time, disappear.  The same applies to the New Forest.   The glens in the Highlands of Scotland have also been abandoned  but they are among the most beautiful and inspiring landscapes anywhere. But they need more management, more aesthetic input, if they are to avoid desecration by the creation of reservoirs and the planting of forests of fir trees.

 

 

As Simon, explained to me, management is necessary to create biodiversity and beauty.  If you dam a stream up, the bog and pond created will quickly become colonised by waterplants and insects. Frogs and newts will take up residence and Herons and moorhens will fly in.  Clear away some of the well established scrub and you will invite new growth of flowering plants that will attract insects and birds.  It must be wonderful to be able to create that on a small scale in a garden.  And perhaps that is the point.  We should not just be passive observers in order to  benefit from landscape, we need to feel ownership, responsibility.  Things mean so much more if we can partake in them.                

 

Our environment is under threat from a warmer temperatures and rising seas.  This poses a challenge.  Should we emulate the estate managers of Chatsworth and try to preserve the romantic notions of the past with modern business acumen, or should conservationists, geographers and developers work along side artists to create new environments that are secure, take full advantage of the changing conditions and yet still provide that essential spiritual aesthetic?       

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