A gallery of faces showing the presenters and contributors to the What Is Natural Beauty Symposium

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.

The River Wye photographed from Symonds Yat. The image shows a green summer landscape, with the river between woodlands and fields.

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


COP 26 image with lake district background

If we don’t succeed here, then where?

This question from Catriona Manders, Youth Committee & Junior Ranger, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, introduces the Protected and Conserved Areas Joint Statement on Climate Change and Biodiversity, which was announced at COP26.

Why are we sharing this? Well, we think it’s spot on – surely it’s a responsibility of protected places to care for life and set a strong example. And, with PLACE sitting within CNPPA, it’s great to know that CNPPA was among the founding signatories pledging to take action to better care for landscapes and seascapes, and to join together – as no one place can do it alone.

To reflect, here’s Lois Mansfield, Director of CNPPA:

“The significance of this accord cannot be overestimated. For the first time ever, those involved in protected and conserved areas have come together to call on world leaders to support their work in the fight against climate change ad biodiversity loss. We are one enormous family of protected areas. The sheer power of multiple agencies coming together to make one statement of intent means we can now work collaboratively and internationally.

Protected areas are not just pretty places, they are the pinnacle of biodiversity, interrelated to living landscapes in many parts of the world. If the battle against climate change and biodiversity loss is to be won, we must win it first in these special and conserved areas. Our role can be transformational.

Signing this Joint statement is really exciting for CNPPA, and it’s happening in the 70th anniversary of our local national Park, the Lake District. It really brings home the importance of being part of wider family, and the need to help each other achieve a sustainable future for everyone who lives and works in, and enjoys, our national landscapes. Finding common ground and being able to speak with one voice empowers protected and conserved areas to address the challenges of the 21st Century.”

Some of the text from the signed document …

“Over 70 countries are members of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People that champions a global deal for nature and people with the central goal of protecting at least 30 percent of world’s land and ocean by 2030 (30×30). The 30×30 target is a global target which aims to halt the accelerating loss of species, and protect vital ecosystems that are the source of our economic security.

We believe the global family of Protected and Conserved Areas is well placed to respond to the calls to action from the IPCC, IPBES, IRP and UNEP and to support the ambition of countries around the world, including the G7 and the members of the HAC, by taking rapid and far-reaching actions to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

… we can be the first 30 percent that inspires and informs land and sea use choices across the remainder of the planet, and we can be the places where billions of people connect with nature and become inspired to play an active part in combatting the dual crises.

To read the full document, click here to download the PDF.

Catriona Manders at COP26 holding up the signed document.