In his book Feral, the environmentalist George Monbiot describes the Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales as a ‘desert’ devoid of life. It is, he says, a ‘dismal, dismaying’ landscape, venturing into which makes him ‘almost lose the will to live’. Feral is a polemic for ‘rewilding’ Britain, which means for Monbiot covering moorlands with trees and forests.
John Bimson (who helps run a wonderful little b’n’b, Bron y Llys, in the heart of the Cambrian desert) wrote last year about the disingenuity of Monbiot’s argument. During his walk in the Cambrian desert, Monbiot writes, ‘No bird started up – not even a crow or a pipit. There were neither fieldfares nor redwings, larks nor lapwings.’ But that was because, Bimson points out, Monbiot had decided to take a walk at the end of October. In spring or summer, the Cambrian landscape echoes to the music of ‘skylarks, meadow pipits, pied and grey wagtails, stonechats, whinchats, wheatears, red grouse, peregrines, buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, merlins, ravens – and of course those crows’. There are ‘stoats, weasels and brown hares (admittedly all secretive and rarely seen), common lizards, newts, frogs and toads’. Carpeting the Cambrian Mountain with woodland would, Bimson observes, mean losing not just ‘the long views and wide vistas’ which make upland moors so stunning, but also much of the actual wildlife in the area, as most of the birds, for instance, are ‘upland species that would lose their breeding habitat if the moors were transformed into forest’.
Monbiot clearly has his particular aesthetic preferences. But that is all they are – aesthetic preferences. He has merely dressed them up as arguments for an ‘authentic’ wilderness. Human-shaped woodland is no more ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ than human-shaped moorland.
There is, to my eyes, real beauty in bleak landscapes, not just in the Cambrians, but in the Scottish highlands and islands, the Yorkshire moors and the Suffolk coast. There is a vastness here that itself draws the eye – big skies, great horizons, stretched perspectives. There is often an ethereal, almost unreal, beauty that has to be felt as much as seen. The cloudscape can seem like an extension of the land, throwing upon it a light that renders it almost haunting. I have written of the Isle of Lewis that ‘In its moodiness and broodiness lies its preternatural beauty’. That is true, too, of many other landscapes of bleakness, though nowhere is quite as magical as Lewis. So, here are some of my favourite landscapes of bleakness, from the Isle of Lewis, Assynt, Sutherland and Caithness in the Scottish Highlands, Orford Ness, a strange, almost hypnotic part of the Suffolk coast, to a glorious sunset over the Cambrian desert, as seen last week.
Isle of Lewis
Forsinard Flows, Caithness
North Yorkshire moors
Orford Ness, Suffolk
Sunset in the Cambrian desert