In comparison with other landscapes across Shropshire, the landscape of the Mosses is relatively young (not forgetting, of course, that a large part of the Mosses lie in Wales… but more on that in another post). Shropshire’s geology spans over 500 million years across almost all periods from the Pre-Cambrian to the present, and there is a more ancient feel to the Shropshire Hills in the South of the County than the lower lying areas to the North. The Mosses as we see them today, began their formation as the glaciers retreated in the last Ice Age only around 10,000 years ago. And in recent centuries, the Mosses have faced change as a result of human actions.
But how would we describe the experience of seeing and being in this wetland landscape? It is not a place of classically dramatic views and spectacular rock formations. It is not particularly a place with natural physical challenges for the adventurous outdoor enthusiast. Yet there are challenges, perhaps more psychological than physical. Its charms are more understated, but no less impressive.
The landscape experience begins on the approach. Main transport routes, such as the road linking Wem and Whitchurch, pass several miles away, so in order to reach the Mosses, we need to leave the main road and navigate through winding, twisting narrow lanes passing fields, farm cottages and village hamlets. There is a peculiar disorientating effect which takes hold during this journey, which seems to take me back in time and nullify any sense of direction. Despite many trips to the Mosses, I still find it difficult to repeat the same route and find my way without referring to a map or sat nav.
The Mosses are mostly fringed with woodlands of birch, oak, willow and alder. Then as I walk through to emerge onto the Moss, there is the wow moment. Suddenly, the sky opens out above and the view expands across seemingly endless flat land to the horizon. The landscape is vast and there was no inkling of it being there from the approach, almost as if it is a huge void in the landscape from which no signals can escape.
From there onwards, as I walk across the Moss out in the open, the views to the horizon barely alter. Occasionally, around ponds there are small trees and bushes which break up the view and bring it closer in. Otherwise, within only a few hundred metres of leaving the fringe woodland, I get the strange sensation of walking but not seeming to move any closer to the other side.
To experience the Moss landscape, I do not expect to find ever shifting vistas, but must bring my senses in close, to take careful notice of subtly changing patterns of vegetation, rhythms of wind in the irongrass, and maybe catch a glimpse or hear the myriads of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. Senses of hearing, smell and touch take on a more prominent role. I must slow to a standstill and be patient.
We know about the peat industry and other human impact on the Mosses, and I will discuss this further in future posts. But how have the public perceptions of landscape changed through the centuries?
From Neolithic times into the feudal Middle Ages, people would have foraged for food, fuel, water and protection from the land, and sustained families with small scale agriculture where permitted. People were in tune with all the subtleties of the landscape through the changing seasons. Landscapes were perhaps viewed as places of utility, awe, mystery and myth. As landowners gained greater power, access to the land and commoners’ rights began to be eroded.
In the 18th Century, two diverging movements emerged almost simultaneously, which shaped how we look at the landscape today. In 1757, Edmund Burke published his essay “A Philosophical Enquiry in to the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful”.
“Sublime, he gave qualities, such as obscurity as well as vastness and the capacity to invite terror”Anna Pavord “Landskipping; Painters, Ploughmen and Places
During the late 18th Century/early 19th Century, artists and writers, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, travelled to make their own Romantic observations of the British and European landscape. In 1771, Paul Sandby made a two week tour of North Wales to make paintings. Other painters like Samuel Palmer, John Constable, JMW Turner, and John Ruskin were to follow and develop their practice around landscape.
Gilpin introduced the term “picturesque” in the 1780s. Rules of aesthetics became established for how the picturesque landscape was to be viewed.
At the same time, agriculturists and farmers were also making surveys of Britain with a very different aim: to find ways of improving the land to make most effective use of it.
Arthur Young published commentaries on the state of agricultural land, the first of which appeared in 1768. He made his assessment of Shropshire in 1776. You can read the full and detailed account here: https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/travellers/Young/3
A Board of Agriculture was set up in the year France declared war on Britain and it commissioned a set of reports from 1793 onwards. The people appointed were pro-landowner, pro-enclosure. Land was assessed to maximise profits and yield most effective advantage to the country as a whole. As a result, many land reclamation, drainage, roads and canals and other schemes were implemented. Large expanses of heath and otherwise uncultivated land were quickly identified as needing such improvement. There was little room for sentiment and untamed beauty.
William Cobbett (1763-1835) continued the movement to make most productive use of the land, but from a more sensitive understanding of the rural ecology, and of those who lived on the land. He took a different direction and fought against the enclosures and sought better conditions for poor rural labourers. Cobbett had a deep appreciation of the English pastoral and the integration of farming and nature.
As with many places across England in particular and Wales, it was enclosure and the drive to exploit the resources of the Mosses that started larger scale peat extraction and industrial development, which continued to 1990. Since then, nature conservation has taken over and now the Mosses are carefully protected. This is more than just a turn to appreciate the picturesque. In our environmental emergency, this has become a critical course of action.
But what of the future? What effect will separating areas of the land as nature reserves have on human perception of nature in our everyday surroundings? Perhaps we should also look back at William Cobbett and recognise that there is a need to live with and gain a detailed appreciation of the beauty and utility of the land around us. Can we, as humans own our legacy, and learn to be-with rather than continue to attempt to control the land?