Throughout the turbulent twentieth century, the English countryside served idealists and romantics as a "theatre of dreams" - an idealised space where time had stood still, suburbia had been excluded and craftspeople continued to find personal fulfillment working with their hands in villages that had remained unchanged for centuries. Madeleine Bunting's father went further than most in imposing this vision on his family. The North Yorkshire plot of land he leased in 1958 and used to build a highly personal chapel, a showcase for his sculptures and a focus for his unspoken but fervent Catholicism, was a place that aroused conflicting emotions in his family, and after his death in 2002 Bunting realized that if she was ever to truly understand him she would have to understand the Plot and its many historical associations.
So this book is a memoir, the story of a parent who must have been very hard to live with, whose aspirations made an uncomfortable fit with the realities of family life and the conflicting demands on the rural landscape in postwar England. It's a kind of exorcism, deeply personal but made universal and political by Bunting's intelligence and the research and writing skills she has acquired through a successful career in journalism. It's not a linear narrative by any means; the way the focus shifts from family picnics to Cistercian monks, from moths to the woes of modern farmers, could collapse into chaos in less accomplished hands. But in the second section, "War", the picture comes into focus and she draws together the threads of personal and collective memory.
Her father first discovered the Plot on a highly significant date - 6th June, 1944. While his contemporaries just a few years older were facing German tanks in Europe, he was an Ampleforth schoolboy on his way to a school picnic. Starting from a powerful image of her father bent over a memorial statue he carved and gave pride of place to in his chapel, Bunting shows us clearly that survivor guilt was a large part of his motivation. He was left with a life he hadn't expected to be spared to live and the statue of a 1940s soldier he is looking at, with a haunting mixture of grief and pride, represents himself.
Divisions can be very blurred between the personal and the political. What we naively think of as a natural landscape as we admire a view is, in reality, shaped by hundreds of years of human toil. While Stanley Baldwin was making speeches about the eternal values of the English countryside, real farmers were struggling to survive the Depression. And the pretty cottages now occupied by wealthy "good-lifers" commuting to the cities were abandoned rural homes falling into decay in Bunting's childhood.
It's not a depressing book by any means, but it's a very honest one. The countryside has always been exploited - by cattle drivers, monks, hill farmers, grouse beaters, the Forestry Commission and, most recently, mass tourism. With her trademark thoroughness Bunting brings all these influences to life and shows that they had both positive and negative effects. She writes lyrically, but never sentimentally, of the beauty of the North York Moors, articulating both the overall view (literally in the last chapter when she experiences her childhood haunts from the vantage point of a glider) and the tiny but significant details. She has a gift for making the most unlikely subjects fascinating - I never expected to read about grouse shooting or the subculture of medieval cattle drivers with such enthusiasm. You could rush through this book but, like driving through a landscape that needs to be hiked through to be fully appreciated, that would be missing the point.
This is a great contrast to the numerous coffee-table books you can buy about the countryside. The illustrations and maps are modest but each carries a wealth of meanings. It's a meditation on the value of knowing a small place very well and appreciating the layers of historical and cultural associations that landscape carries in this crowded island. As the nature writer Garry Snyder once said, sometimes the most radical thing you can do is stay home.