Cover Image: The Women Who Saved the English Countryside

The Women Who Saved the English Countryside

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Member Reviews

I would like to thank netgalley and Yale University Press for a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

An interesting look at the four women. I like that the author points out the problematic parts of the women's lives.
The epilogue contains lots of interesting further reading, but the lack of diversity that's pointed out in the epilogue could be tackled in the main book.
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I thought the subject matter here would be really interesting, and it was to an extent, but I found the writing to be rather dry. I'm still glad I read it, these were impressive women who fought hard for our rights of access to the countryside.I

*Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.*
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I'll be the first to admit I did not think to read the entirety of this book, but with a mother who knows more than enough about Beatrix Potter and the way she left a mahoosive chunk of Lake District to the National Trust, I thought it perfectly just that I gen up a bit.  This is genning up a lot, being a very academic look at not just Potter but four women who inspired the collective, statist preservation of the natural world in Britain.

I say academic because a large chunk is notes and index, and beyond a fine little illustration section, it has a text that assuredly comes with the intent of being authoritative and definitive.  And, of course, from the style – "[Potter's] preservationism was predicated on a mix of aesthetic judgement and local priorities rather than a nationally orientated social progressivism" indeed.

Neither does the history of the Herdwick sheep breed register highly in the common commuter's "things to peruse on the bus before work".  But that is here, for sure, in what looks like a genteel reportage of classical actions by stout women, but really is a solid piece of environmental science history.  And that is still an ungainly pigeon hole for this broad package to be placed in, for it definitely is biography (the four stories it holds overlapping to create almost a linear continuum), legislative history (with the formation of our first National Parks) and to some small extent travel reportage.

While I can see a version of this being for the layman, this is for the expert, and while that latter is not to its detriment a true five star read would be one suited to all audiences.  This serves a great cause, bringing to attention in turn Octavia Hill, B Potter, Pauline Dower and Sylvia Sayer and their home soils in fine style.  There is also a (still academic) footnote, looking at everything since the narrative stops, from thoughts of rewilding (Potter was happy with copses and woodland where farmers might have said their use of the land was the traditional and necessary, etc) to all the current books considering England's "ownership" and rights of way.  While certainly not for every reader, it all remains a sterling achievement.
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The story of four relentless women who fought for the right of access to open spaces, raised money to buy land in order to preserve it, confronted gender stereotypes and so much more so that future generations could enjoy the rights they do today. What made it quite a dry read at times was the amount of factual information regarding land deals and committees.
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Matthew Kelly, The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, 
Yale University Press 2022.

Matthew Kelly has made his book accessible to readers with an interest in the preservation of English national parks as places of pleasure, as well as those wanting a detailed and well researched history of the women who made an important contribution to the national interest. The reports and the research that underlie them; meetings, the work leading to them and their aftermath; working at finding resolution of competing interests; and the human interaction of people who are dedicated to their cause make a fascinating narrative.  

Although I was immediately attracted to the chapter on Beatrix Potter (her stories and having been to her area of the Lake District were immediate draw cards) I resisted and began with the first subject – Octavia Hill. She was active until shortly before her death in 1912, when she wrote an appeal on behalf of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Her request for donations for a plot of land continued her battle for public access against developers. This example of competing interests is at the heart of the work done by women about whom Kelly writes.  He pursues the intricacies competing interests and dealing with them through the four women’s narratives. At the same time, he maintains their individuality, in this instance using apt quotations from Hill; reference to novelists such as Dickens whose work alerted readers to the rights of the public to access to areas free from development; and details about Hill’s background and feelings for those she championed. 

The chapter on Beatrix Potter begins with the bequest she made to the National Trust, of land in the Lake District – mainly in the vicinity of Lakes Coniston, Windermere and Esthwaite Water. The link between Pauline Dower’s ancestor, Sir Charles Trevelyan and this bequest, is nicely made. While foreshadowing the next woman to be discussed, Beatrix Potter’s story stands alone. She is given her own place, as is each woman in the book. Kelly makes them the focus of the story, while setting each in context which supports rather than detracts from their significance. Kelly highlights Potter’s pragmatism in contrast with Octavia Hill’s agenda, an insight into this writer of children’s stories which sometimes too, demonstrate such pragmatism. Think of Ginger and Pickles, shop proprietors, and their customers who did not reappear, providing as they were, tasty morsels for Ginger and Pickles’ dinner! 

Pauline Dower’s story covers the years from 1949, with her appointment as Deputy Chair of the newly formed National Parks Commission, to its restructuring in 1966. Kelly is perceptive about the lack of publicity afforded her as a salaried public servant instead of a public figure. This perspicacity is a feature of the way in which Kelly deftly weaves together the narrative of public fights for the national parks, and the work of those who achieved their aims through substantial reports, attendance at meetings, support of legislation, and solid hard work. 
Sylvia Sayer, the last woman Kelly reflects upon, was Chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Society. Middle class like Pauline Dower, she was influenced by the men in her family. Her family background is an interesting part of the narrative but does not overrule her own story. As with Dower, Sylvia Sayer is placed in a family context, but shows her using her experience to become an independent and forthright worker on behalf of preserving Dartmoor. Her acknowledgement that she was impatient, did not work against her achieving status in battling for reservoirs, maintaining the countryside, and wry commentary on the age-old battle between competing interests with which this chapter ends. 

The book has a mass of lovely illustrations and photographs, notes, further reading, a good index and, to tie up the arguments made by the women as engaging individuals, and the present day outcomes and advances, an  instructive and thoughtful epilogue, ‘Fifty Years On’.

I enjoyed this book for the background it provides my experiences journeying through English countryside.  I also appreciate the way in which each woman has been given her due and her work treated with respect at the same time ensuring that each story contributed to the wider narrative of maintaining a national heritage.
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I found this to be a fascinating read, learning about these wonderful women who did so much to help save the English countryside, many of whom are not well known, so it was great to have a detailed look at these 4 women in particular to see their efforts pay off!

Octavia Hill, Pauline Dower, Sylvia Sayer, along with the very well known Beatrix Potter, are under the spotlight with each woman getting their own turn in the spotlight to highlight just exactly what they did over the years and how their relentless pursuit for the good of the local areas paid off. These were women who didn't understand the meaning of the word 'no' and we should all be very grateful for their work!

These are women who weren't doing it for 'likes' or to make themselves look good, but they genuinely cared for parks and green spaces and knew that they had to do what they could to help save them and protect them. They were fighting the corner for these pockets of green at a time when there was an increase in development, threatening to swallow them all up. This involved protecting rights of access, planting trees and just an understanding, even back then, of the wellbeing benefits of open spaces for all to enjoy.

The author of this book 'walked' their land which gave him, and then us as readers, a greater connection with the area that each of these women were involved with. They could see beyond the short term and had a real understanding of the local area and history and the impact of losing valuable green spaces would be to the detriment of the locals.

These were women from different parts of the country, and all with different backgrounds but they all shared a love of nature and weren't afraid to go against the grain to make a change, even in their elder years they were still committed! They all faced different challenges in their quests but their dogged determination made them forces to be reckoned with!

There's also a really interesting epilogue, showing the state of things 50 years on from when these women got to work and shows how times have changed but the fights still go on! It shows how extraordinary these women were with what they achieved, at a time without the internet to connect us all. And also touched on how the pandemic showed us close up just how important those green spaces are to us all and how new initiatives are reshaping the land too and will continue to do so, with more of us fighting the good fight! A really illuminating and inspiring book!
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