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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

‘Landscape’

Posted on March 21 2014 at 11:29:04 0 comments

Towards Rowney Green

Mary Green discusses the different types of landscape around here.

It’s been a funny winter and early spring. Despite the unusually mild weather, most plants have flowered or come into leaf at about the normal time, not especially early.

The extreme wetness has not impacted as much here as elsewhere, partly because of our pastoral farming and tree cover, both of which soak up water, and a well-managed river.

As I write in March, a warm dry spell is bringing everything out: today white violets, yellow brimstone butterflies, and a red kite over Withybed.

We talk a lot about beautiful landscapes, and the opposite – blots on the landscape. It’s something people value as part of their home area, or the place they go on holiday. But what is landscape? For many people the word only applies to country areas, and then only to large open sweeps of country.

To some extent our passion for landscape is a kind of recognition of the underlying structure of the earth: its hills and valleys, rivers and lakes, and the characteristic trees and plants that come from its soil type. Sometimes it’s linked with ideas of what is and isn’t “beautiful” or “natural”.

Until recently areas could be identified as having “special landscape protection”, which meant it was unlikely anyone could get permission to build there.

Around Alvechurch, for example, the uplands around Weatheroak Hill, Forhill, Hob Hill, Newbourne Hill, Scarfield Hill, Cobley Hill and Butler’s Hill were all protected in this way, as were much of the Lickey slopes.

Now this designation is not longer used, so these places are not officially “special” any more.

Instead, a system of “Landscape Character Assessment” has been introduced. In a way, this is better, as it treats all landscape as potentially of equal value. Landscape in Worcestershire is classified formally according to its characteristics into 23 types, with six found around here.

The area around Alvechurch is mainly classified as Principal Timbered Farmlands, with some being Wooded Estatelands, and the fringes being Wooded Hills.

Further over towards Barnt Green and Lickey area we find Wooded Hills and Farmlands, Principal Settled Farmlands, and Settled Farmland with Pastoral Land Use.

These technical types are quite similar but with subtle differences. Most were agricultural land partly cleared from woodlands and partly developed from ancient open field systems.

Principal Timbered Farmlands form a balanced small-scale landscape, resulting in small fields for mixed farming, winding lanes with hedgerow trees, small woods, copses and lines of native trees. There are scattered settlements.

However, Wooded Estatelands have larger old woodlands linked by hedgerows and tree lines, and the fields are larger. The settlements are more clustered into villages.

These were originally estate lands belonging to major landowners and include old hunting parks. Wooded Hills are uplands with extensive old tree cover, frequent wooded valleys, and limited agricultural use.

Settled Farmlands with Pastoral Land Use are rolling lowland areas of pastoral farms, small irregular fields and distinctive hedgerows, but no woods. Soil is often quite poor: nevertheless there is a danger that arable farming will break up this familiar landscape. The hedges need looking after.

Wooded Hills and Farmlands have larger areas of old woodland, sometimes added to by modern non-native conifers, and larger fields, again with important hedgerows. Farming is mixed, and there are sparse, clustered settlements.

Principal Settled Farmlands are very domestic, with slightly larger clustered settlements, and mixed farms with hedged fields, but no woods. They are especially tempting to developers, so the villages have often been enlarged, and the field patterns can be lost if farming becomes more arable.

Stand on any of the hills I’ve mentioned and look across our patch: you’ll see the remains of the woodlands that once covered the whole area, in the woods, copses and hedgerows that remain.

From my house I can see a line of three old oak trees across a field: the remnants of an old field boundary. Just round the corner off Birches Lane you can clearly see the old ridge-and-furrow field patterns that existed before the fields were enclosed for sheep.

For all the “timbered” or “wooded” types, the key issue is to manage and replace ancient woodland, and to maintain and replenish the hedgerows and copses which form the structure of this landscape. Maintaining and replacing native broad-leaved trees is a priority.

In our area we are fortunate that trees are still being planted and new woodlands created, despite Network Rail and the Canals and Rivers Trust cutting down trees all round us. Mick’s Wood is a lovely new landscape item, and temporary home to the great grey shrike!

We also have protected woodlands on the Lickeys and in nature reserves like Newbourne Hill and Peck Wood. Woods are predominantly oak, echoed in the hedge-lines in these areas, whereas those areas not designated “wooded” or “timbered” tend to have smaller, younger trees.

Most of these areas have small scattered settlements, or clustered villages, with a pattern we should try to maintain. Arable farming is not too much of a threat round here: pastoral use remains the main type of farming and any arable growing is on a smallish scale and has not resulted in too much loss of hedges and habitat.

The Village area centres on the River Arrow and its lowlands and feeder brooks, with higher ground all around. Elements of the old Alvechurch Park and Bordesley Park, formerly wooded hunting estates, are visible in some places.

From the high ground you can see to the Malverns ridge along to the Shropshire hills, and to the northern foothills of the Cotswolds past Redditch. From the Lickeys you can see across Birmingham. These wider landscapes matter to us too.

All of this is the traditional landscape we have inherited. It is not “natural” apart from the actual shape of hills and some watercourses – it has been made that way by people over the centuries, and then lived in by wild plants and animals as well as domestic ones.

Overlaid on this are more obvious human features such as roads, railways, motorways, canals, reservoirs, power-lines, quarries and buildings of all kinds.

The low-lying land is mostly clay, but there are different soils on the higher ground, including sand, gravel and some acid soils. In the past extracting these has led to changes to our landscapes. They range from the small tree-lined ponds that were once old marl-pits, to bigger sand and gravel quarries around the Lickeys.

The artificial waterways of Bittell reservoirs, Cofton lake and the Birmingham and Worcester canal are linked to former industrial transport and now to the leisure industry. In Alvechurch is a large site which was a brickworks and quarry, adjoining the canal. Pubs like the Crown at Withybed were used for stabling bargees’ horses, especially those en route to Cadbury’s with chocolate crumb.

Although people often think modern rail and roadways spoil the landscape (the canal is old enough to be thought “pretty”), actually they are an important part of it. Lines of new native trees on the Alvechurch Bypass and Redditch ring-road have become a much-appreciated part of the landscape, and wildlife corridors.

Alvechurch village is noted for its “gateways” – bridges over or under its entry roads which make us realise we are entering or leaving the village and countryside. People at Withybed will tell you that crossing the railway and canal is when you know you are home.

We also include domestic animals in our landscape – think of the “timbered farmlands” around here full of sheep or longhorn cattle, or other regions with their low-lying meadows and dairy cattle, or high ground elsewhere with mountain sheep or Dartmoor ponies.

And trees, even some non-native ones, become features of the landscape – the Wellingtonias in Alvechurch, varied exotic conifer plantations on the Lickey tops, clumps of large conifers around big 19th century houses such as those on Cooper’s Hill.

Lines of native poplars follow farm boundaries and oaks delineate parish and estate boundaries. A fine copper beech marks your entry to Alvechurch village coming in from Redditch. Go to the Yorkshire Dales, and drystone walls become the boundary markers.

And when we picture a landscape, it is always dressed in the plants of its characteristic type. The old woods, and the hedgerows that once were part of them, are full in April of bluebells, wood sorrel, wood anemones and yellow archangel.

Pasture land is ochre in winter and green in spring, until it becomes golden with buttercups. Hedgerows, our green corridors, become white with waves of blackthorn, cherry and may blossom through spring.

When I picture the landscape up towards Rowney Green from my side of Alvechurch, it always has that distinctive little round clump of blackthorn bushes surrounding an old pond.

The view from my window is characterised by a hilltop wood, primarily ash but with distinctive apple and maple trees, and the foreground full of plum and damson blossom in spring.

However, when I get back to the Midlands after being up north or down west, what makes me feel most at home are the clusters of red brick houses, our local habitation, originating in our native clay.

When I look around the west of Ireland, I especially notice how little white one-storey houses are scattered everywhere, not necessarily clustered into villages like they are here.

And I love those Pennine villages where little lines of gritstone terraces march up and down the hills, the legacy of our mining and textile industries. Houses are part of the landscape too.

There is a much-revered Scottish naturalist called Frank Fraser Darling who revolutionised our way of seeing landscape and wildlife. He was one of the first in the 1930s to study animals and birds intensively in their local habitat.

He also said that the apparently beautiful Scottish Highlands were a devastated and sterile landscape, where local people had been stripped out over the centuries along with its native flora and fauna.

What it needed most now, he said, was people. It’s really only recently we have begun to realise that even the Amazonian rainforest isn’t “virgin” but has existed for millennia with people living in it and contributing to its nature.

So, like it or not, we are part of our landscape. It can’t be “preserved” (or it will die), but it can be cared for so that we feel it is a positive part of our lives.

Nowadays we love reservoirs which were created by flooding old pastures, and canals that were cut through farmland, and wooden windmills, but are still a bit unsure about new railways and windfarms. Personally, when I drive through a forest of wind-turbines on my way through Yorkshire, my heart lifts.

Beauty is not so much in the eye of the beholder but in what we have been used to thinking of as beautiful. Until the late 18th century, wild mountain landscapes were thought of as savage and ugly, and then the romantic movement declared them beautiful.

In later medieval and Renaissance times, formal gardens and stylised country landscape appeared as the background to pictures of people. Before then we didn’t write about or paint landscapes.

Around Alvechurch station the landscape has changed. Unfortunately some lovely old plum trees of an unusual variety have been destroyed, as well as ash, hawthorn and other “ordinary” trees.

New vistas have been opened up: perhaps we’ll get to like them. It will be a long time before new vegetation grows enough to replace the wildlife corridor. 

My poem comes from the madness of spring and the March hare, and from who knows where else!

Nameless

I’m here in the spring, laughing in the leaves
Watching the blackbird open up his petals
Listening to the crocus practising her song
Watch out or I’ll trip you, tumble you down
Here among the milkmaids’ pink petticoats
If I touch you, you will burst out in violets
I’m here in the spring, laughing in the leaves

My face is carved young out of this old oak tree
My hair streaming like snakes in the wind
In my beard nest thrushes and robins
And around my roots the bluebells dance
Sometimes I stand in front of your diggers
Cursing the straight lines you force on the land
I’m here in the spring, laughing in the leaves

I am the hare, upright in the cornfield
Ears hearing the turning of the earth
I lie on your pillow at night, bringing dreams
Shining my moon face all over your bedspread
So your plans go astray and your timetables burn
Waking in sunlight you still feel my magic
My face is carved young out of this old oak tree

Water, I rush down the rock blowing crystals
I grow into salt and crash waves on the shore
I break down your rivers and deluge your houses
Taking you back to your womblife again
I fill up your body but you do not know me
Forget your defences, and swim down with me
I am the hare, upright in the cornfield

My seeds in our soil turn round with the worms
Growing through tarmac and battlefield blood
I rise in the poppies and foam in the hedges
May blossom scenting your warm fingertips
Winter won’t kill me; the frost makes me stronger
I bend in my gentleness against the wind
As water, I rush down the rock blowing crystals

My seeds in our soil turn round with the worms
I’m here in the spring, laughing in the leaves
My face is carved young out of this old oak tree
I am the hare, upright in the cornfield
As water, I rush down the rock blowing crystals
Just when you think you have everything sorted
I rear up my head and you’re drowned in the moon


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