Friday, 28 July 2017

What makes scenery scenic?

A thought-provoking article in last week's Economist has stayed with me these past few days - I keep thinking about it and feel I should take up the theme in a blog post.

What makes a scene, a landscape, a view, a vista appealing to the human eye? What makes it 'picturesque'? We have our individual preferences, but in general, a wooded hillside with a church steeple or castle turret will be seen by most people as more appealing than an industrial estate of grey oblong buildings and wall-to-wall asphalt. The former is where people would like to visit on holiday or retire to, the latter where many of us have to work.

Driving the hire car from Heathrow to Ealing, I passed through Hayes, part of the London Borough of Hillingdon, Gold Medal Winner of the Britain in Bloom final, 2015.

Sorry, but Hayes is a dump. Victorian industry - canal, railway, overlaid with 1930s industry and 1950s industry and modern day logistics, Hayes might have the odd bit of Bricktoriana here and there, but the general view as one drives northwards along the A312, the view is of large corrugated sheds on either side of a dual carriageway, electricity pylons marching alongside. Turn off the main road and endless rows of 1930s terraced housing stretch away eastwards towards Yiewsley, northwards towards Northolt and westwards towards Southall, then onward towards Greenford. Ugliness, ugliness and more ugliness.

As London's suburbs sprawled out west in the 1930s, there was no thought to how the human beings that were meant to live and work there would respond to their surroundings. No doubt better, it was thought at the time, than the cramped Victorian terraces from which they aspired to move.

This 80 square-mile slab of sprawl (bounded to the south by the Chertsey Road/M3, to the west by the Thames/Colne Valley /Ruislip Woods, to the east by Ealing and Isleworth and to the north by the Harrow Road/A404) has very little to commend it if you're seeking spirit-lifting scenery. Yes, there's Osterley Park and Horsenden Hill. But Alperton, Ickenham, Yeading, Harlington, Hounslow, Feltham will ultimately depress.

One bright spot is the Great West Road's Golden Mile, still full of wonderful Art Deco architecture, from the end of an era when factory owners cared more about how their industrial premises looked than how much they cost. I've written before about how Spirit of Place affects my mood. Perhaps there are people whose emotional state is entirely unmoved by whether they are surrounded by fine architecture or dismal sheds thrown up for the lowest price, but for me, I will seek out the scenic and choose to live and work in an aesthetically pleasing environment.

The Victorians might have thrown up plenty of jerry-built two-up two-downs, but the reason these were torn down in the second half of the 20th century was more to do with sanitation and damp than actual ugliness. Had those old houses been built to modern standards, but still looking the same, their charm would outgun a modern house of the same size.

After three days in the UK, I'm back in Poland, and I must say that South Warsaw is just so much better than West London from the point of view of the scenery and how it makes me feel.

Happier here.

This time last year:
Theresa May flies into Warsaw

This two years ago:
Announcing the start of the Radom railway line modernisation (not even half completed today!)

This four years ago:
In praise of the (Polish-built) Fiat 500 

This time five years ago:
Llanbedrog Beach and a farewell to North Wales

This time six years ago:
To the Polish seaside, by night train

This time seven years ago:
Accounting for the past - 20 years on from PRL's fall

This time eight years ago:
An introduction to fine British cheefef

This time ten years ago:
Over the Peaks by bus


dr Marcin said...

Hi Mike,

Last year I had an opportunity to commute from Putney thru Richmond up to next side of the Thames to Hounslow. It looked for me as a journey from the upper-class settlements of lets say the Old Saska Kępa down to the slums-like Wrzeciono. Guess, who is the vast majority of habitants of the above London areas?

All the very best

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Good evening, Mike, you're right - West London is generally ugly, and wilfully so. Britain is astonishingly utilitarian. Mostly we've forgotten how to create beauty. Or perhaps we simply cannot find a direct, realisable line of profit in beauty.

I hope that in Poland you don't drive past signs announcing "stunning" / "superb" / "desirable" new homes (always "homes", never houses) behind which a clutter of cheap, nasty brick boxes is arising. That's our fate over here. And to pay through the nose for them.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ WHP:

Nail on head. "We cannot find a direct, realisable line of profit in beauty".

Straightaway I'm minded of John Betjeman's Slough:

"Mess up the mess they call a town -
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week for half-a-crown
For twenty years..."

Then as now, the developers - a perennial target of Betjeman's - their powers to ruin the landscape by throwing up eyesores - make England uglier and uglier still.