Climate and the British Scene

The weather is an integral part of the landscape. Just go for a stroll on a sunny day: everything is rosy. The hills in the distance are there, but slightly concealed by the summer haze. Overhead, fluffy fair weather clouds drift lazily by on a soft south-westerly breeze. All is well. But do the same walk in February, when bitter snow storms off the North Sea slice their way through woods and fields and the hills in the distance are nowhere to be seen, and then you won’t believe that the two scenes – the two experiences –  are part of the same world, let alone landscape.

I was very struck by this when I went on various expeditions to get pictures for my The Making of the British Landscape book. Some places, like the infamous Ribblehead viaduct, high in the Yorkshire Dales, on the Settle-Carlisle railway, were always shrouded in mists. I said ‘infamous’ because some 200 navvies and their families died during the line’s construction, and that was as recently as 1875. You might say that gloomy weather was a part of that particular landscape, unless of course you were, or are,  a farmer living up there, then you’d treasure fine days, as I did after filming at Risehill with Time Team, when I made a pilgrimage to the viaduct on my way home. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the photo I took (p. 522) made the viaduct look positively Tuscan.  There was also another reason I took that picture. I knew most of the plates in The Making were to be in black-and-white, otherwise the book would be completely unaffordable and I didn’t want to sacrifice 80% of the text to make a lavish coffee table version – not that Penguin or my editor offered me the chance. So all the monochrome photos had to be high contrast and that sunny view of Ribblesdale was just that. But secretly I preferred the misty, mysterious shots I’d taken earlier. So here’s one of them. The two people in the right foreground give an idea of the viaduct’s huge scale and as for those mists…

Ribblehead Viaduct, N. Yorkshire

The Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle Railway of 1875. The humps and bumps in the foreground are all that remains of the Blea Moor Common camp for navvies and their families. Today, this site is a protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. This was the last main railway line to be built by hand labour. A carved stone memorial, together with the unmarked graves of some 200 victims of accidents and disease, who died during the line’s construction, can be seen in the small church nearby, at Chapel-le-Dale.

There’s also a danger of visual clichés here: Stonehenge always has to be pictured in low sunlight and the elegant tower and spire of Salisbury Cathedral must be accompanied by a rainbow. Gardens are always seen in sunlight or snow, but never, as I said in my post about Day Lilies, on a dull day. But I digress: this post is meant to be about Climate and the British Scene, not about weather and specific places. And there’s an important difference: that between weather and climate, landscape and place. Landscapes fit together to form countries and continents; they articulate and change; they can be explained and understood. Places are smaller and less predictable and their fortunes can fluctuate at the whim of powerful individuals or the rise and fall of trade and commerce. In my area, for example, Peterborough flourished after the arrival of the East Coast main line in 1850, meanwhile neighbouring Stamford, which hitherto had been very prosperous, slipped into a gradual decline. And the result today? Stamford is blessed by some of the finest medieval and Georgian stone buildings in Britain while Peterborough is a typical Midlands industrial city. The decision not to allow the main line through Stamford was taken by the principal land-owner there, the Marquis of Exeter from his stately home at Burghley House, on the town’s outskirts. Meanwhile the surrounding landscape of the area remained comparatively unaffected. The big changes here had been kicked-off much earlier with the draining of the Fens and the subsequent Enclosure Movement – events whose effects were recorded in memorable verse by the great poet John Clare who lived mid-way between Peterborough and Stamford, in the little village of Helpston. I still find his gravestone in the village church, and its epitaph ‘A Poet is Born not Made’ strangely moving. The poor man had a tragic life, ending, of course, in a lunatic asylum.

But now back to the title of this post: Climate and the British Scene. It’s also the title of a book I read many years ago by Professor Gordon Manley. It was published in 1953, just a couple of years before the great W.G. Hoskins’ Making of the English Landscape. Both are products of their time: literate, almost poetic, but wonderfully explanatory. Everything they discussed meshed together and made perfect sense. It was a time when people thought they understood the world around them rather better than they did. Radiocarbon dating and the archaeological ‘boom of the 1970s to ‘90s turned Hoskins’ rather short-term view of landscape development on its head. Similarly, Manley makes no reference to the effects of man in his chapter (12) on the development of Britain’s climate through geological and then historical time, although his graph (p. 294) of mean winter temperatures in N. Europe does show the sharp rise from  just before 1850, that is such a feature of modern climate-change studies.  For my money, Manley’s book has stood the test of time rather better than Hoskins’; but, having said that, both are masterpieces.

I’ve long had an interest in climate, weather and landscape. Indeed, it’s essential if I’m to keep our livestock and grass healthy. In fact, I dearly wish somebody had predicted the horribly wet late spring and summer we’ve just had to endure – not that I could have done much about it. So, over the years I’ve accumulated a number of books on climate, of which Gunter D. Roth’s Collins Guide to Weather, is one of the best, because it links climate to landform, although in a less joined-up way than Manley. But in this instance I think the internet has also made a huge contribution, especially Wikipedia and the Met Office website. Both are very good, but again, as happens so often with the web, it’s the linking narrative that seems to be missing. I’ve noticed it sometimes with students, who might have superbly detailed knowledge on a particular aspect of a subject – say a site or group of sites – but who often lack the background explanation. I suppose it’s all about stories and narrative: why do certain cloud formations come about and what do they portend – and again, why? By and large the internet, which is fashioned around bite-sized pieces, falls short of providing the background story. I suppose it’s the difference between education and training: you can be trained to recognise different cloud formations, but it requires education to understand why they matter; what they mean, and why they are up there in the sky above your head.

And so I come to the source of this brief foray into the world of clouds, fronts and anticyclones. I was sitting on the garden last week enjoying the late summer evening and, it must be admitted, a large glass of Maisie’s home-made Pimms (she refuses to divulge the recipe), when something caught my eye. I think a cat must have walked along the top of the brick wall that separates the back garden from the yard. Then my gaze was taken by the sky above. The weather forecast on the radio had predicted heavy rain the next day and there, up above me in the heavens, was the celestial portent of change: swirling cirrostratus clouds. These were the fibrous-looking ones, known, I believe, as cirrostratus fibratus – not a label to be attempted after more than half a glass of Maisie’s lethal Pimms. They are high (5.5 km or 18,000 ft.) ice clouds that form on the approach of a frontal system. I’m sure they’re all of those things, but in the vast canvas that is the Fenland sky, they are also breathtakingly beautiful.

fibrous cirrostratus clouds

A fine display of fibrous cirrostratus clouds above my house in the Fens.

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