Friday, 1 June 2012

A Suffolk Expedition

I spent yesterday in the delightful company of Justin Partyka and two American guests Judith Stark and Donez Xiques. We explored the pre-Enclosures landscape of Mellis, Burgate and other parts of the old Redgrave Estate. The ghosts of Roger Deakin and the spirit of Oliver Rackham were rarely far away, both people who knew the area. The rain was also our companion.

A hornbeam stool in Burgate Wood,
last coppiced perhaps 60 years ago.
This part of Suffolk is thick with commons and greens, ancient lanes and woods, the elements of the pre-Enclosure landscape which have somehow survived in this part of the county. Two centuries ago, the Enclosures impacted on the old landscape by dismembering commons and open field systems, for example the now-vanished Allwood Green and North Field at Rickinghall. Meanwhile, the villages of Mellis and Burgate remain clustered round their greens and linked by trackways; Burgate still has its Mediaeval wood, complete with original bank and ditch, 'giant coppiced stools' and the earthworks of a lost moated manor; Mellis still has its mile-long Green. The diversity of the plant life in this landscape is a measure of how long such traditional features have existed - the Dog's Mercury along the lanes, Herb Paris and Oxslip in the woods, for example.

Away from the woods, greens and lanes, however, the usual clayland agri-prairie holds sway, except where old-fashioned mixed farming is practiced. A shift in the rural economy in the 1970s destroyed far too many ancient features. Pointless agricultural greed became the order of the day, fuelled by EEC subsidies. In Mellis, Cowpasture Lane was removed south of the railway; Stonebridge Lane was removed between the Green and Whitmore's Wood. In Hinderclay, some 60 acres of the Wood was removed. Over half of Redgrave Park was converted into arable. Within a few years, many parts of my childhood's landscape became unrecogniseable. Local inhabitants were disgusted and inflamed; some, like Roger, took up arms in defence of the vernacular landscape; they battled at planning meetings and founded local protest groups, as at Botesdale. They found (in the short term) that  they were powerless to do anything but rage in the face of the destruction. Roger's experiences here led him to become a founder of Common Ground. Writers such as Marion Shoard challenged the regime of rural land ownership ('The Theft of the Countryside'; 1980).

Stonebridge Lane 1904  (Ordnance Survey, 6" : 1 mile)
An ancient drove way between Burgate Little Green to the north, and Mellis Green.
An enigmatic avenue of trees leads south from Furze Way, and merits a landscape archaeological investigation.
Stonebridge Lane 2011 (courtesy of Google Maps)
Stonebridge Lane has been removed south-east of Whitmore's Wood, as have many hedges and ponds.
All traces of the avenue have also gone, though it remains a public footpath.

As these photographs show, the loss of local landscape detail between 1904 and 2011 is not just a loss of ecological richness; it is also a loss of historical richness and meaning.

How many people know what has been lost? How many appreciate what survives? A visitor may travel through the landscape of High Suffolk and complain that it is flat and boring. We need to tell them the truth: the beauty is in the detail.

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