How Arcadia was won and lost and found again

  • Themes: Countryside Week

Arcadianism is so deep-rooted in the British national psyche. Everyone wants their own slice of Arcadia. But if everyone gets one, how much will be left?

Bowood Park, Wiltshire, home of the Marquess of Lansdowne, c1880. Wood-engraved plates after paintings by Benjamin Fawcett and Alexander Francis Lydon.
Bowood Park, Wiltshire, home of the Marquess of Lansdowne, c1880. Wood-engraved plates after paintings by Benjamin Fawcett and Alexander Francis Lydon. Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

In the late 1630s, Nicolas Poussin painted a group of Virgilian shepherds inspecting the inscription on a tomb. Wonderingly, they decipher the words ‘Et in Arcadia Ego,’ which loosely translates as ‘I am even present in Arcadia.’  The first-person singular has generally been taken to mean death, reminding the spectator that even these beautiful, unlettered young rustics will be struck down in the fullness of time. Nearly 400 years later this painting remains relevant, not just to the human condition in general but to the Arcadia of the countryside in particular, and certainly that found in Britain. Untold numbers of people, over many generations, have made parts of it into an idyll, and the process of creating new idylls continues. To many, the countryside is a refuge from the harsh everyday money-grubbing strife of the city. And yet present-day Arcadians cannot escape external realities that threaten their paradise. Population growth, climate change, a crisis in agriculture, the ugliness of most of the architectural provision for 21st-century life… the Garden of Eden famously contained a snake that menaced future happiness, but in the modern day there are many threats to Arcadia. In 1976, the sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay reworked Poussin’s idea in a stone relief, in the National Galleries of Scotland: in the centre of the scene is a tank. Arcadias, the artist appears to be saying, do not arise spontaneously, but are a human construct that must be vigorously defended from outside forces if they are to survive. Not an easy proposition in a democracy whose popular idea of Arcadia is the dating show, Love Island, filmed on the sun-kissed island of Majorca.

The creation of Arcadia

Arcadianism is so deeply rooted in the national psyche that it has created a characteristically British way of seeing landscape and the built environment. A third of Norman England was designated as royal forest – a fiercely protected landscape of glades and groves, set aside for the king’s hunting. Medieval magnates not only built hunting lodges but pleasances: hideaways in bucolic situations, where they could escape the hundreds of people that normally surrounded them and hang out with friends. Castles were set amid beautiful lakes. The Elizabethans, having read Virgil and Ovid, plunged into a pastoral world, expressed in poetry, paintings, and the imagery of court entertainments. As the country descended into chaos and civil war, Charles I mentally retreated into the pastoralism of court masques. ‘Retirement’ – the idea that the ideal life could be pursued in the countryside – had been a popular conceit the age of Ben Jonson, but became obligatory for Royalists who were heavily fined for having fought on the losing side. No doubt similar ideas could be found throughout Europe but from around 1700 arose a characteristically British movement, when gentlemen competed to turn their parks into three-dimensional evocations of the paintings they had seen on the Grand Tour. Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego and works like it transcended the realm of the ideal and became real, under the hand of the gardener ‘Capability’ Brown and his followers. This was the aesthetic of the Picturesque, which has been called Britain’s great contribution to the visual culture of Europe.

Influenced by the Picturesque concept of the sublime, Romantic poets like Wordsworth worshipped nature, in all its rawness, savagery and beauty. Nature was the balm that could assuage the squalor and human misery of the Industrial Revolution. That was the Victorian seer John Ruskin’s idea, and it begat another British phenomenon: the Arts and Crafts Movement. Arts and Crafts failed, industry won – but ruralism and nostalgia permeated the British imagination. Although, by a creeping, inevitable process, Britain’s capital city grew to Brobdingnagian proportions, nearly everything that was distinctively British in music and visual culture in the twentieth century was anti-urban.

The Metropolis v Arcadia

There was good reason to fear the city, too. Until the Clean Air Act of 1956, London’s notorious smogs, a combination of damp air and coal smoke, blotted out the health-giving sun; the city was black with soot. Slum children grew up with rickets from lack of vitamin D. Families who could afford to decamp went to the new suburbs that ballooned outwards, leaving only a few hedges to recall what the poet John Betjeman called ‘our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex.’ Betjeman was part of the push back against urbanisation, supported by aesthetes, traditionalists, ramblers, and lovers of country sports. After the Second World War, the Town and Country Planning Acts sought to impose order on both urban and rural development, which had until then been largely unplanned, through a system of controls which required planning permission. They did a better job of protecting the countryside than creating or preserving beauty in cities. Bombed out and decayed areas of cities were cleared and replaced by high-rise blocks which, supporters claimed, would ultimately provide aesthetic pleasure through contrast and variety — principles of the Picturesque.  Villages were never subject to these pressures and open farmland, while drenched in chemicals to kill weeds and pests, was protected as part of a national policy to boost agricultural production. In hindsight, it is possible to see that the most beautiful cities in Europe, such as Paris, are classically planned: they have streets and squares lined with blocks of buildings similar in appearance and height. Still under the spell of the picturesque, Britain resists regularity, prefers the piecemeal; mandates mix and match. London has been strewn with high-rise towers. Ironically this visual disaster is a fruit of the picturesque movement – the very doctrine that has made Britain so sensitive to, and protective of, the countryside.

Around the year 2000, ruralism – all the rage in the 1980s – lost to the city. In the UK, Manchester, Glasgow and particularly London became the happening places: cool, a magnet for the world’s young. Culture – art, theatre, music, dance – was intense. Festivals and street food flourished. Public transport improved. A nation that had previously been thought of as somewhat distant in its personal relations found it liked other people, crowding together to watch Pride parades and the New Year’s Eve fireworks. So many office workers coming into the centre, so many tourists – their numbers joined by the increasing amounts of people who chose to live in the heart of the city, making the pavements too narrow for the hordes using them. London property prices soared into a stratosphere barely imaginable to those living elsewhere The ripple effect that traditionally caused country prices to catch up with those in the capital stopped. Britain became two countries: London and everywhere else.

Arcadia rocks

Now, the pendulum could be swinging back. Cosmopolitan London decried Brexit. Who would make its cappuccinos when the Spanish baristas had gone? Wouldn’t the great money tree of the City of London be poisoned at the root? Even before such fears could be put to the proof, the pandemic hit. London emptied. Village homes that had previously been hanging on the market unsold were snapped up by professionals, escaping London much as Henry VIII fled the plague. In Second World War parlance, the countryside had a good Covid. Urbanites, confined to taking one walk for exercise a day, looked with envy at the Instagram feed of their country-dwelling friends, who could hold barbecues in the garden. Families with large houses were pleased to see their young return from shared flats in the city. Commuting was put on hold, and it is now questionable whether it will ever resume on the same scale; it is costly both in terms of office space and human wear and tear. Long months confined to the same quarters made homeowners re-evaluate their surroundings and the end of lockdown was followed by a scramble to move house. This time it is country prices that are up and London properties that don’t sell.

Before Covid, office workers trudged to their desks. Now changes that might have taken a couple of decades to come into effect have been adopted in eighteen months. Britain has discovered Zoom. Villages that have been deserted during the day should, in theory, become vibrant again. Shops and pubs should reopen, as commuters spend more time at home. More holidays are being spent in the home country. There is perceived virtue in supposedly more natural ways of life, which are theoretically greener, causing less damage to the planet – although the image of a low-impact lifestyle may be belied by the reality; try living in the countryside without a car. Whether or not these trends prove to be permanent, they contribute to a narrative that was already beginning to take hold before the pandemic, the vogue for country chic. Arcadia rocks.

An intimation of this can be seen in Somerset, where The Newt, an 800-acre development of gardens, restaurants, shopping, beekeeping, and landscape has become truly an Elysium to visit and relax in – for those who can afford the membership fee. A Roman villa found on the property has been excavated and will become another attraction, together with a full-scale reconstruction of what it might have looked like in its prime. Ten minutes away, the town of Bruton has been colonised by the contemporary art dealers Hauser and Wirth; the art – large, spectacular, international – is displayed in old barns. A restaurant has been created in a former farmyard. These activities are transforming a previously unprosperous part of the countryside, through what might be called the Arcadian economy.

The Newt and Hauser and Wirth fashionably combine stylish modern design – lots of right angles and glass – with traditional stone buildings. The Daylesford Farm Shop, inspired by Lady Bamford’s organic kitchen garden, gives off a similar vibe. Country houses like Chatsworth and Houghton insert new art into ancient settings – indeed, a new book on the Duke of Devonshire’s family seat is called Arcadia, Chatsworth, Now, suggesting that Arcadia remains a living place, as it was when Chatsworth was first built around 1700.

But this is not the only vision of Arcadia on offer. In their different ways, the architect Ben Pentreath, the artist Luke Edward Hall, and Matthew Rice, the designer and general manager of the pottery company Emma Bridgewater, offer a more nostalgic vision, in the tradition of the interwar artists Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden. It is deeply English (and Scottish and Welsh too). It is also easier to access by those who care about what they eat. A generation ago, good restaurants in the countryside were few and far between, and greengrocers did not sell avocados. Gastropubs are now everywhere, and the local food economy has produced an astonishing number of cheesemakers, wineries, and purveyors of meat from rare breeds (there are also supermarkets whose shelves bulge with the world’s produce, for those who prefer them).

Trouble in paradise

The countryside is now truly Virgilian – a place where the successful, whose money and reputation have been made in cities, can refresh their energies, in a rural setting but with the appurtenances of civilisation at hand. Parts of the countryside, I should say. For the description applies to the hilly west of the country rather than the agricultural east – although an outbreak of Arcadianism can be seen in the fashionable North Norfolk coast. Certain parts of the country have done well from it. You only have to look at the immaculate state of some Cotswold villages, whose cottages would have been all but uninhabitable a century ago, to see that it’s a source of prosperity.

But remember the snake. Go to the county town of Gloucester, a city with a cathedral, and the picture is altogether bleaker. Here is the other face of the countryside, where increasingly great wealth exists in close but unacknowledged proximity to poverty. As many as 37 per cent of children in some parts of Gloucester are living in poverty. The money that might once have been made here has gone instead to Cheltenham, with its racecourse, literary festival, and billion-pound companies. Gloucester has stuck with the countryside’s traditional activity of farming and suffered.

By definition, Arcadias do not occur everywhere. They are limited in size and separate from ordinary life. You may even have to close your eyes to see these places of the imagination – and certainly close them to some things that would otherwise destroy the carefully constructed image of a perfect world. The gun of Hamilton Finlay’s tank must be kept loaded and ready to fire. Life has become more comfortable and sometimes more beautiful than it was in the mid-1970s when his artwork was made – railway services have improved, mobile phones have replaced telephones in kiosks, old buildings are routinely repaired not demolished, road verges aren’t cut until after No Mow May to help wildflowers. But the threats remain legion.

Arcadia under threat

Let’s consider just two of the many complex issues. First, the revolution that is underway in farming. Few Arcadians are directly engaged in agriculture – indeed, the number of people employed in the workforce is tiny and the contribution to Britain’s GDP is small. But since farming remains by far the largest land use in the countryside and dictates what, other than housing estates, are allowed to thrive there, it is important to everyone. Recent history has not been good. Nature is on the retreat.  There may be more urban foxes, and some reintroductions, such as the red kite, dozens of which routinely fill the sky over the M40, have flourished; but the numbers of songbirds, hedgehogs, and wildflowers have plummeted. Now Brexit coincides with the fourth agricultural revolution, whose proponents aim to bring automation and big data into farming – and who knows what is in store? Brexit ended the Common Agricultural Policy, whose incentives encouraged the wrong sort of agriculture for conservation.  Precious topsoil washed off into rivers, causing floods – and it was never the farmers who paid to clear up. Bigger and bigger machines needed bigger and bigger fields. Anything that competed with crops was eliminated. Some of the damage was mitigated by environmental stewardship schemes, but they were too patchy to stop the general collapse of some species. When I drove my motorbike from Cambridge to London in the mid-1970s, I had to stop at least once during summer months to wipe my visor clean – it was splattered with insectoid body parts. These days, the car windscreen is clear.

A slice of Arcadia for everyone

Post-Brexit, rural policy can be rethought from first principles. We can fit the countryside for the fast-moving, environmentally conscious twenty-first century, rather than the Continental Europe of the 1950s. The flat eastern half of the UK will produce more, while the hills of the west, which include many of our most beautiful landscapes, will be managed for low-intensity grazing and conservation; rural tourism is already booming, due to Covid.

So picture it. Farming becomes more efficient. Consumers see more fully traceable British food in supermarkets and shops, grown to the best environmental and welfare standards. Nature gets more breathing space.  This win-win is made possible by the efficiencies of technology. Gene-editing, opposed by the bureaucrats of the EU, offers the prospect of disease-resistant crops that grow better in the northerly climate of Britain.  Supersized, red diesel-guzzling tractors and combines will become as outdated as Zeppelins. The future lies with small robotic tractors, operating with GPS to deliver exactly the right amount of nutrients to the soil, with micro precision. Britain has the possibility of growing more of its own food. The gigantic greenhouse development of Thanet Earth, in north-east Kent, is providing supermarkets with many of the salad crops that would otherwise be trundled over in carbon-unfriendly lorries from Holland or Spain.

That is the vision and Arcadians should embrace it. Modern, in this case, means better. More wildflowers will bloom beside the picnic rug when it is spread on a meadow – and there should be more meadows, which have reduced to a mere three per cent of their number after the Second World War. But this glorious future could be bitten by the snake of the post-Brexit free trade agreements Britain is making with the rest of the world. Australian and American farmers want better access to the UK market, and the scale on which they can produce food will undercut the home industry. If agriculture becomes unprofitable, farmers will try to squeeze more out of the land. Goodbye conservation. Expect more solar panels and golf courses.

Secondly, housing. Britain is unlike most other European countries; its rural areas are not depopulating, but filling up. The pressure to build more homes in the hope of deflating house prices is huge. The population is expanding rapidly, due largely to immigration. First generation immigrants tend to live in cities, but their children and grandchildren may have other tastes. Volume encourages house builders to construct estates on fields rather than on complicated urban wasteland. Tax breaks should be given to encourage the redevelopment of out-of-town shopping malls now that Jeff Bezos has made them redundant. Low-rise commercial sheds surrounded by acres of car park are not only hideous, but an inefficient way to use precious land. This idea has yet to capture the imagination of government. Instead ministers seem unable to stem the tide of concrete flowing towards the countryside. Everyone wants their own slice of Arcadia. But if everyone gets one, how much will be left?


Clive Aslet