Monday, 13 June 2011

WH Hudson on Axe Edge 1913

The years before the First World War saw a renaissance in an interest in the English countryside in every aspect. The Arts and Craft Movement inspired by William Morris and the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded on the desire to return to a pre industrial past including a return to a simpler life attuned to nature and a rejection of mass industrialisation. In architecture houses that were inspired by rural dwellings were being built by Lutyens and Gilbert Scott at the end of the 19th century. In music composers such as Holst, Vaughn Williams and George Butterworth who died on the Somme in 1916 were collecting folk songs in the West Country and the Sussex Downs. This interest in rural life was probably the result of a reaction against the growth of urban life during the Victorian period. By 1851 more people lived in cities than lived in the country. This love of nature and an awareness of country life is particularly marked in writing. Writers at the times as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Richard Jeffries and Flora Thompson, whose chronicle of country life in Oxfordshire "Lark Rise to Candleford" is still printed.

In May 1913 the Anglo Argentinian writer WH Hudson was in the area. He was at the peak of his powers and had produced many books on bird watching and nature either in Britain or on Latin America. His most well known book "Green Mansions" was published in 1904 and often cited as the first ecological novel subtitled- A romance of the Tropical Forest- it is a mystical novel on the life of a forest child in the Amazonian jungle who is at one with the animals of the jungle. Hudson in May 1913 was collecting material on Axe Edge for a book "Adventures Among Birds". Hudson was not impressed by the locals comparing them unfavourably with the more fiery Lancastrians. He blamed their lack of spirit and energy on Methodism.
"Moorlanders are not a happy looking or a lively people. They have colourless faces and for good looks compare badly with inhabitants of the adjoining districts.

The farming methods were backward. "The farmers depend mainly on their lean ill fed cows for a livelihood: they make butter and feed a pig or two with the skim milk. They live on bacon and buttermilk themselves and bread which they make or buy, but vegetables and fruit are luxuries"

"I asked several farmers why they did not cut bracken which was plentiful enough, to serve as bedding for cows, since they could not get straw. They answered that occasionally a farmer did so, but it was not a custom and they thought the cows did just as well without bedding at all!"

Hudson encountered the innate deep rooted conservatism of the area. This entirely coincides with an account from a farmer Tom Mullins born in 1863 whose autobiography is included in a collection of autobiographies of working people called "Useful Toil" published by Penguin in the 70s. Mullins whose autobiography was collected when he was an old man recounts walking to Leek market as 10 year old from his parent’s farm at Rushton Spencer with a basket containing two hundred eggs on one arm and another basket with twelve pounds of butter on the other. In the 1870s Mullins records that the reaction of the locals when the first steam powered farm machines arrived in the area was one of laughter! The farming methods described are not far removed from the medieval with Mullins quoting a farmer who was far opposed to anything modern that he even refused to use horses.
Hudson details the life of the amateur biologist at the beginning of the 20th century who must be fit and must have money enough to exist without work. He was in that category having inherited wealth from family interests in Argentina. On Axe Edge he found what he was seeking the companionship of birds and nature. He is captivated by the song of the curlew as it is breeding season and birds trill to each other as they fly over the bracken. He describes with great pleasure hearing the plaintive song of the ring ouzel while walking near Flash while decrying the absence of larger birds

"Not a buzzard, not a harrier, not a raven which when soaring would seem an appropriate object and part of the scenery in these high wild places".

I wondered in the intervening 90 years since Hudson wrote his observations on Moorland birds how the species he describes are coping in the early years of the 21st century. I am indebted to Rhodri Thomas, Ecology Manager of the peak District national park Authority for a very full response to my questions about bird populations on Axe Edge.

The Curlew, which is included on Staffs Moorlands District Councils coat of arms, did well between the 20s and 50s but has declined steeply in the local area since the 80s. In 1985 there were 421 pairs which fell to 173 pairs in 1996 changes in land management may lay behind this decline.

The Ring Ouzel the sound of which so enchanted Hudson has suffered a sharp decline in the Southern Pennines. The RSPB have suggested that there is evidence that climate change might be implicated. It is not completely gloomy news the Buzzard population was all but extinct in the early years of the 20th century probably as a result of persecution. I have noticed myself the rapid rise in population around the area. Again with the Harrier the news looks favourable. There were two successful nests last year producing 10 chicks. The Goyt Valley saw the first nesting of Hen Harriers in over 130 years in 1997. The species had been common once in the area but had become very rare by 1863. The signs are that the bird is about to make a return in numbers to the area. The Raven a bird which had been common in the 18th century had virtually died out by 1905 but they have recolonised during the 1990s and are maintaining a consistent and significant increase.

1913 was the last full year of peace. There is evidence that Hudson was accompanied for part of his time on the North Staffordshire Moors by the poet and nature writer Edward Thomas who was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Thomas was to be killed in the First World War four years later. I wonder how many of the listless young men Hudson and Thomas met on their travels in the district or were friends of Tom Mullins escaped their isolation when the opportunity presented itself after August 1914 never to return to their remote farmsteads?

What is clear about the writings of Hudson, Thomas and Jefferies are expressions of wonderment at the natural world. These are feelings that many people today share: a sentiment testified by the growing interest in wildlife. This is a world under threat with 60% of the ecosystem services that support life on earth being degraded or rendered untenable. We need to drastically heighten our sense of the first principle of ecology- that everything is connected to everything else.