Guest blog: Symposium reflections

from Howard Davies

The ‘What is Natural Beauty?’ Symposium, run by the PLACE Collective through the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, and in partnership with Wye Valley AONB and the Lake District National Park, took place on December 1st, 2021. And what a success it was – the provocative (and unanswerable?) question raised through the symposium invited a diversity of views and opened up many avenues for discussion among more than 100 participants.

A formal report will be shared early in 2022, but for now we thought a perfect way to summarise the symposium would be to share this reflection from Howard Davies, former CEO of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Read on …

Howard begins:

“I think it begins with 3 main sets of questions:

What is beauty?

  • Does it exist objectively in things themselves? Is it an inherent quality of some landscapes, and not others?
  • Does it exist only subjectively in the mind of the perceiver?
  • Do landscapes possess special qualities that are perceived as beautiful in the mind of all perceivers? Is there a shared, cultural component to this? Do perceptions of landscape beauty vary, dependent upon societal values and norms?

What is the scope of things to which beauty can be applied?

  • Purely sensible – perceived through the senses? See, feel, hear, smell …
  • Or is it something more profound – is there an Intellectual or moral quality to beauty?
  • And if the scope is this wide does sensible beauty lead you to moral or intellectual beauty?

The romantic poets spoke of natural beauty as a spiritual, almost other-worldly experience that was accessed through our relationship with nature. For example, Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual beauty’ – Natural Beauty was what you experienced, as a result of your relationship with nature. It was a natural phenomenon connected to the experience of nature, not nature itself.

How does natural beauty relate to other value concepts?

  • The functional, the sustainable, the spiritual? And does natural beauty align with the concept of a sustainable, ecologically rich and functioning landscapes?

Presenters and performers

Kate Humble opened this seminar with reference to the picturesque and the role of landowners in transforming landscapes in accordance with the aesthetic of counterfeit neglect. She challenged us to reconsider what makes our landscapes beautiful and suggested we take a steer from nature.

Desperate Men provided an entertaining take on the notion that the map is definitely not the territory and questioned the full scope of outstanding natural beauty, and whether beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder

Penny Bradshaw introduced us to the romantic poets and writers, the picturesque in more detail, and Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime – the agreeable horror associated with some of our more dramatic landscapes.

Crystal Moore challenged us to rethink how we value our environment within the frame of the climate and human emergency that now faces us, and to reinvent ourselves. Steve Ratcliffe also framed natural beauty within the wider context of sustainable development and personal impact, with examples drawn from his experience in the globally important, vibrantly lived-in, distinctively special, Lake District National Park

Mike Collier introduced colonialism into the argument, and talked about the impact of race, class, power and privilege and the history of land ownership. Touching on identity, beliefs, and deep-seated cultural values. He made the case for celebrating beauty in difference, rather than the industrial green landscapes of curated, ‘rural’ Britain.

Anjana Khatwa gave a personal reflection of her lived experience as a woman of colour, geologist, earth scientist, and mother in the British landscape and how these lenses affect her view of beauty. Ruth highlighted the benefits of performing in the natural environment, and some of the barriers that exclude people of colour from the countryside. She asserted that no environment can be outstandingly beautiful if it is exclusive.

Sally Marsh examined how we might consider natural beauty today if we embraced its full scope, not just visual amenity, in the planning and management of landscape.

Matt Larsen Daw drew on our nurturing love-affair with nature and our ultimate inter-dependency on this for the wellbeing of our body and mind. I was particularly taken by his description of landscape as “Time and nature made solid”.

Neil Heseltine took us beyond physical attributes and face value, to remind us of the complexity of nature. He made the point that nature needs space and time to play out its processes and intricacies and that the way land has been stewarded over the last 50 years has limited this. He highlighted the important role that National Parks and AONBs can play in helping people understand the complexity of nature and their impact on it, especially with regards the way we produce our food.


So, by way of a summary – for me, sensible and intellectual beauty strike at the heart of what it is to be human. It is the tension between the finite and the infinite, life and death, permanence and transience, lost and found, past and future, harmonious and discordant – it is this symmetry that we inherit from the classical approach to beauty. The wonder, awe, majesty, and drama of nature and our small place within it, we inherit from the notion of the sublime. These marry together to form the yardstick by which we have historically qualified our current suite of protected landscapes, protected for their natural beauty … a concept that is still valid, and indeed important for our wellbeing. Many landscapes however have difficult histories that have given rise to multiple challenges, many of which have been clearly expressed today, and all landscapes are subject, like us, to the existential crisis that is now upon us.

Landscapes are the product of processes and interventions. Ultimately I think, we need to focus less on the product, and more on our relationships with each other and the environment within which we exist, and on which we depend.

We need to be more creative, recalibrate these relationships urgently, and reposition ourselves, our economic systems, and the way society operates, such that a supportive, functioning, environment is the natural outcome. We might therefore focus our search for natural beauty and elegance in these relationships, and become more comfortable in letting our environment be what it will be.

AONBs and National Parks are the perfect vehicles to lead this change and champion what essentially needs to be a new, more diverse, social contract around landscape and natural beauty, but to do this with the intention of triggering systemic change on the basis of kindness, and active and open listening – the point made my Harriet in the poem that started this discussion.

Thank you.


To find out more about Howard Davies, and the other presenters and performers who took part in the symposium; and to browse through some resources, view the symposium programme here.


Kate Gilman Brundrett’s reflections on the symposium … evolving!

Huge thanks to the event supporters and funders: Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, Wye Valley AONB, Lake District National Park.



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