The soul of the landscape through the soles of your feet

The best way of fully appreciating a landscape, its physical make-up, the wild-life, the character and  hidden meanings, is to walk through it. So much more detail can be seen, there’s  an intimate experience of the small scale, you hear the sounds, sense the smells and all the individual elements that make up the landscape. And when these are reassembled into one unified picture it better captures the genius loci, the spirit or soul of the place. Such deeper appraisal is essential for any landscape architect called on to create new designs for sites like these and others.

Last week a group of first year landscape architecture students were taken on a short walk in the Cotswolds in order to better  experience  the varied topography of the local environment , to see the hills and valleys of the scarp edge, the contrasting tidy monoculture of the farmland with the more unkempt limestone grasslands of the steeper slopes home to many birds and butterflies. There was too much to take in on one visit, so this short blog post just highlights some observations we made along the route (shown on the accompanying map).

Cotswold Way (public footpath) According to the Long Distance Walkers Association, the Cotswold Way trail meanders along the western edge of the Cotswold Hills, mainly following the often-wooded top of this limestone escarpment, from where there are extensive views over the Severn Vale to the Malvern Hills in the west. It descends from time to time to pass through attractive villages nestling under the shelter of the edge. It crosses stone-walled farming countryside, skirting country houses built from the local limestone, and many sites of archaeological interest. On our visit, we were blessed with warm weather and clear views but not many other walkers. For the first part of our walk we hugged the hedgerow alongside the A436 road which seemed quite busy and noisy. Thereafter we crossed over the higher summit of Wistley Hill which gave us an excellent view of a typical scarp profile to the south.

Scarp edge (geology) The scarp is composed of hard limestone (of Jurassic age) which because it is slightly tilted to the east produces a steep slope to the west over the Vale of Gloucester. Below the limestone strata (layers) are beds of clay which when saturated can subside and cause landslipping. The scarp is slowly receding eastwards because of this continuous erosion. The scarp edge is not farmed (too steep) and is usually clothed in beech woodland (known as hangars) or open coarse grassland which support rare butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy fritillary.

Ravensgate Hill view The view from the bench at Ravensgate Hill is particularly interesting. It captures the essence of the Cotswold edge. The River Chelt rises to the east and forms the shallow valley as seen in the middle distance of the photograph. Fields on either side tend to be small and irregular all the better to provide shelter for cattle and sheep. They are also separated by extensive hedgerows of hawthorn, elder, hazel and blackthorn. Some patches of woodland have existed for a long time: so-called ancient woodland, much approved by conservationists. The higher areas are more exposed, softly rounded and used principally as sheep grazing or monoculture of cereals.

Hedgerow This is a boundary formed by a dense row of shrubs or low trees. Hedgerows enclose or separate fields, protect the soil from wind erosion  and serve to keep cattle and other livestock enclosed. They also form one of Britain’s most valuable habitats as much needed refuges for songbirds, while voles, mice and shrews are typical hedgerow mammals that take advantage of all the autumnal fruit. If edges of cropped fields are left unplanted or sown with a wild flower mix this so-called conservation headland helps sustain the rich biodiversity already present in the hedgerows.

Quotable quotes Apart from appreciating the physical and biological landscape, I also made some comments about how a love of landscape can spur you to a better understanding of it and how exposure to nature can improve your general wellbeing. According to one former student’s experience, “natural beauty often acts as a trigger encouraging moments of reflection which may lead us to positive mind states”.

In the Walking Englishman’s blog (https://www.walkingenglishman.com/cotswolds05.html), he talks about climbing Ravensgate Hill and experiencing a wow moment: “There is no better place than Britain in summer and I was looking at its beauty as I rested. A gentleman approached me and stopped to talk a while. We both revelled in the view we were enjoying and he told me the story of how JR Tolkein took inspiration from this view and used it for the structure of Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.”

Bodfan Gruffydd, the founder of our landscape course in Cheltenham, had this to say about the genius loci of a place: such visual unity is the essence of satisfactory landscape conservation and should form the basis of areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) such as the Cotswolds. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/35fhwfoxagmypjs/LI_v10_n1%262_1993.pdf?dl=0) In addition to the visible, other senses may be significant: are sounds enjoyable or disturbing? Are smells aromatic or acrid? Do smells evoke memories?

Bob Moore October 2017

About gloscape

Landscape Architecture @ University of Gloucestershire

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