Helen goes to possibly the tiniest area ever visited by Open Country - the Harrop Valley on the eastern fringe of Cheshire, where the Peak District National Park meets the Cheshire Plain. It's a little-visited bowl of land tucked away in tough hill country, not the landscape most often associated with Cheshire. Helen's guide through the programme, landscape historian Richard Purslow, has made a detailed study of the place. By looking at the lie of the land, at field names, tithe and Ordnance Survey maps, Richard says that anyone, in any part of Britain, can begin to piece together the history of a landscape and find traces of the people who've lived and farmed there over the centuries.
The Society for Lanscape Studies
The programme sets out to trace the way the land in the valley has been used by man. Helen begins by going back four thousand years, looking down on the valley from an Neolithic burial mound. Archaeologist John Barnett points out the way in which the mound has been placed just below the ridge of the valley, within sight of the people who lived there, acting both as a territorial marker and as a constant reminder of the locals' ancestors. And, in an effort to repopulate the valley in the mind's eye, he explains how early man would have farmed - building a home where the soil was easy to till, having no concept of land ownership or financial exchange. Farming four thousand years ago was a matter of growing what you needed and bartering the rest.
Council for British Archaeology
Richard Purslow takes up the story, filling in just some of the moments in the valley's life, from the building of the Roman road which ran nearby to its mention in the Domesday Book and thirteenth century documents detailing local foresters' rights to hunt. It was a wild place in medieval times, home to wolves, and Richard explains how the Black Prince offered a reward for every pair of wolves' ears brought to the foresters' court in Macclesfield. This hunting of the wolf was part of a move towards a more settled landscape in the Harrop Valley, a sign of increasing exploitation of the land by man and the beginning of the changes which culminated in the modern field system.
Woodland, however natural and untouched it may appear, has also been controlled and manipulated by man since the valley's early days. Dr Susan Mackenzie of English Nature goes for a walk with Helen in Harrop Wood: heavily managed until relatively recently and exploited for its timber until cheap imports took over. The wood was enough to support a local workforce, the timber going towards making fencing or bobbins for the cloth industry. Now, though, there's been a reversal - from the woodland providing a living for the locals to those locals maintaining the woodland for leisure, for wildlife and for pleasure.
John Dunning is a hill farmer who illustrates that reversal in the way his life has changed. Starting out in this area because homes were cheap, he's seen the valley become home to people who have no link with the land, who know nothing about the valley's history and who, he says, have nothing to contribute to working the land. He has had to change direction, setting up a company producing bird seed and, supported by government grants, encouraging birds to nest on his land. Although he says that he recognises that farmers have always had to adapt to survive, he regrets the changes which have driven farmers like himself away from the land they have worked for centuries.
Richard Purslow, our guide through the programme, says he loves the Harrop Valley partly because it is not extraordinary enough to be protected - and because parcels of land like this, right across Britain, can tend to get forgotten. He believes that studying our local landscape is vital if we are to value places like the Harrop Valley before they're lost to development. Only by understanding what went before, he says, and understanding how man worked the land and lived from it, can we truly appreciate the British countryside today.
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