I’ve recently returned to my childhood home for a while so I’m seeing the landscape here through fresh and more experienced eyes. The last time I was really part of this landscape all I wanted to do was pick blackberries, swing on clematis vines like a little ginger Tarzan or catch fish and crayfish.
While these aren’t bad uses of anyone’s time I’m now coming at it from a different angle. I thought it was a great opportunity to share with you, dear reader, some of my ideas and, with a bit of luck, inspire you to discover more about your local environment.
In the future, I’ll go into the practical side of discovering more about past land use and how you can find out what flora and fauna an area holds. For the moment I’d like to take a step back and start off gently to give you an overall picture which is always a good idea with this stuff.
We’re in North West Kent. This is in the South East of England so we can’t avoid the fact that this area has a high population density. We’re in a valley, the Darent valley. It cuts straight through the North Downs to connect the Thames estuary with the Weald.
The North Downs provide a unique environment. The steep scarp slope faces South and almost creates its own microclimate. This and the river valley make this a prime site for human habitation.
In Swanscombe, up the valley nearer the Thames, human remains have been found that are dated to around 400,000 years ago and paleolithic flint tools are commonly found in gravel deposits in the valley. There are numerous other reminders that human life has flourished here from the earliest times.
The landscape reflects this long history of usage. Most of the valley is enclosed farmland. From the earliest days of agriculture, land like this would have been highly valued in this favorable position. Fortunately for the tree lover, much of the North Downs retains its topping of woodland.
Back in the days before the tractor and even the horse (at the dawn of agriculture the horse hadn’t reached England) it was hard going to plow this soil with its abundant flint and chalk. This and the added difficulty of plowing up the steep slope meant the woodland remained out of reach of the plow.
Much of this woodland would have been coppiced to provide firewood, building materials, tools, and more besides. You couldn’t pop to the builder’s merchant.
For most folks, what you used came from the immediate area so the woodland was managed with this in mind. You could argue that the woodland would have remained even if they could have plowed it, because of its importance and, of course, the voracious appetite for the land we have today hadn’t developed yet.
This pattern of land use continued for a long time and it’s only relatively recently that there’s been a huge change. If this was a film, you’d now see a clock with rapidly spinning hands denoting the rapid winding forward through the ages!
In the early 1800s, the artist Samuel Palmer came here. At the time this was still a relative backwater. He was enchanted by the seemingly idyllic rural life. Palmer spent nearly ten years here and the young artist produced some of the most incredible works of art I’ve ever seen.
Some of these give us a stylized hint of the landscape at this time. He became increasingly disillusioned by the reality of rural life – the conditions endured by farm laborers at this time were increasingly poor.
After unsuccessfully fighting the reform bill of 1832, which he thought would make their situation worse, he went back to London never to return.
My father can still remember the woods being worked in the early 20th century. Some of the woods I now roam in were leased to a local solicitor whose keeper stocked them with pheasants for weekend shooting parties. Not everyone’s cup of tea but the woods remained an integral part of life here.
Nowadays the woods here aren’t working. Fortunately (in my opinion) they’re owned by the District Council and managed for amenity and conservation which is far better than many of the alternatives.
This ownership change may have been their savior at the end of a long period of diminishing returns in forestry, the removal of any strategic need for woodland, and the feeling of many a modern man that woods are just “there” but not really of any practical use.
During the 20th century, the changes in land use and methods really picked up the pace. Two world wars, rapid technological advances, and ever-increasing and ever-cheaper imports saw farming and forestry altered entirely.
After the panic over the nation’s lack of homegrown timber during the second world war, much of the local woodland (by today’s standards classed as ancient woodland) was cleared to make way for plantations of spruce, beech, and pine. Unfortunately, it was only a few years until this position changed and strategic reserves of timber were deemed unnecessary. What a waste.
Luckily the location had again played a part in retaining some important habitat. Where access to extract timber looked tricky, the woods weren’t touched.
This meant lovely ancient groves of Yews remain to this day. Although the landscape was altered forever, underneath you will still find traces of the old woods – the wood banks, old coppice stools on boundaries, and the odd big old beech or oak which escaped the clearing.
Within my lifetime there have been more major changes. What I haven’t mentioned until now is that the woods I love the most are split by the M25 – one of the busiest motorways in Europe.
The old shepherd’s barn, thought to be the inspiration for several of Samuel Palmer’s paintings, was dismantled and kept by the villagers but its previously tranquil site now sits under six lanes of roaring traffic.
The thing that never ceases to amaze me is that life continues despite this. Life is so resilient. These woods are as alive as any other but most of the people speeding through to who knows where don’t even give them a second glance. They have no connection.
Maybe they’re just driving to pick up some building supplies?!