Guest Blog: the wye valley and ‘natural beauty’

from Andrew Blake, Manager, Wye Valley aONB

I’ve always felt it an honour and a privilege to work in the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It is now 50 years since the area was designated an AONB, becoming the UK’s 28th AONB in 1971. That was the year I left Infant School, Idi Amin came to power, Britain went decimal, Mick Jagger married Bianca, the first British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland, crash helmets became compulsory for motorcyclists and the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail was launched.

Foy Bridge across the River Wye near Ross-on-Wye. The sky is blue with white clouds, the sun is warm. The river is calm and like a mirror.
Foy Bridge

It’s not within my remit to dwell on all of those in our Golden Anniversary year. But as part of our celebrations I did want to look at where we’ve come from and what the prospects are going forwards. The ‘What is Natural Beauty’ symposium is an opportunity to do just that, in collaboration with the Place Collective, the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas and the Lake District National Park Authority, celebrating their Platinum Anniversary.

By coincidence rather than design, the symposium will pre-empt the Government’s response to the ‘Landscapes Review’ of National Parks & AONBs in England. This was published in September 2019, and chaired by Julian Glover. In June a Written Ministerial Statement outlined the Government’s initial response to the Glover Review. Included were proposals for Natural England to review the process of designating more areas of the country for their natural beauty and to consider initially 2 new AONBs and extend 2 existing Areas.

So it is particularly pertinent to be asking ‘What is Natural Beauty?’ The Wye Valley AONB Management Plan, that I lead on producing, has a section on ‘What is Natural Beauty?’  which focuses on the legislative origins and concept of the term. The Management Plan then lists the Features and Special Qualities (27 of them) that contribute to the Natural Beauty of the AONB.

Two children canoeing on the rapids at Symonds Yat on the River Wye. The water is relatively calm. The children are laughing and whooping as they pass the busiest part of the river.
Rapids at Symonds Yat

Regarded as one of the finest lowland landscapes in Britain, the Wye Valley AONB has dramatic views over limestone gorges and one of the largest remaining areas of ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland in the country. The renowned woodland ecologist Dr George Peterken noted that as a predominantly wooded and riverine environment, the Wye Valley has a greater combination of ancient and natural features than virtually all the UK’s other AONBs and National Parks.

The juxtaposed habitats and dynamic topography led Rev. William Gilpin to espouse his theory of The Picturesque based on a tour down the Wye in 1770. Artists, writers and tourists subsequently flocked to the Wye Valley to marvel at the picturesque, sublime and romantic views … and they still do!

Sunlit willow trees on the banks of the River Wye at Ross. The light is low and the sunlight is striking the trees and bathing them in a golden light. The sky is dark and menacing behind.

But the Cistercian monks who chose Tintern for the location of their second Abbey in Britain 900 years ago obviously saw something special in the valley’s tranquillity and productivity. Likewise the Norman lords, King Offa and the iron age Silures found the dramatic topography outstanding for incorporating into their castles, Dyke and hill forts. Meanwhile the complex geology gave the area powerful streams, abundant forest and copious minerals from which early industrialists forged the crucible of the industrial revolution. On the fertile floodplain and red soils farmers cropped cereals, fruit, livestock and fodder. All these goods were traded up and down the Wye, then over bridges.

The palimpsest cultural landscape is an important part of Natural Beauty. But you don’t have to know the detailed history of an area to appreciate that countless generations of peoples have lived, loved and died there.

However, dig deep into a place (literally or metaphorically) and you come to realise that we are all migrants in that landscape, sharing our culture briefly with its nature. We craft the landscape through that interaction, and we craft ourselves.

Stephen Fry mused on “What is it about humans, that we marvel at the only world we know? We are wowed by the absolute ordinary, astonished by the every-day”. We find beauty in the very mundane events of leaves dying in autumn, the planet’s rotation making the sun pass the horizon, birds communicating, water flowing over rocks. These are not just visual stimuli, but totally sensory experiences. When encountered in conjunction – birdsong during an autumnal sunset by a waterfall – we create a deep emotional response to that place and time. Association and memory play a strong part in Natural Beauty, because in knowing that ‘that place’ remains (and places like it) consolidates our appreciation of it. Appreciation comes hand in hand with understanding, (although we may all have differing perspectives). David Attenborough said “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

The challenge for my day-job, and the presenters on “What is Natural Beauty?” is to discern whether the intrinsic value of natural beauty will shift as the landscapes change and subtly evolve (as they inevitably will). A particularly strong influence may come from the climate and ecological crisis. However, our AONBs and National Parks should continue to enable another two or three generations at least to create deep emotional responses to outstanding landscapes. Then it will be their turn to realise what is natural beauty.

Sunlight streaming through the trees at Lady Wood, just off the edge of the River Wye north of Monmouth.
Lady Park Wood, straddling England and Wales beside the River Wye, north of Monmouth


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