The Natural Scene

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Architect: Brian O’Rorke ◦ Theme Convener: Kenneth Chapman
Display Designer: F. H. K. Henrion

What is the reason for this extraordinary variety in the British landscape? Why is it impossible to find a photograph or a view that makes you say, “That sums up the whole of the British countryside!” while there are many that could have obviously been taken nowhere else? Part of the answer has been given in “The Land of Britain” Pavilion; for the rest we must look into the private lives of the animals and plants which together clothe the surface of this land.

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Most of our wild animals and plants have colonised the island much as man did – from across the Channel and the North Sea. They have moved at different rates, have chosen different places in which to live and multiply, and different sets of neighbours. Always there has been at peculiar sympathy between us and this untamed living world around us, which nowadays shows itself as a desire to know its secrets. In this Pavilion some of them are displayed.

Life in fresh water

The Lake District, the New Forest and the estuary of the River Stour are three areas that have come in for particular study recently. In all these districts, water as well as land provides the environment; so aquaria are being used for watching the behaviour of the plants and animals more closely.

Through having recreated the real conditions in this way, we now know, for instance, how the fish of the Luke District are dependent for their food on the microscopic plant life of the water, and how this life, in turn, exists at different depths, depending on the penetrating power of the different elements in the sun’s light rays.

The wild lands of Britain

Nothing, however, can so well illustrate the great variety of our natural scene as a rapid journey between some of the most distinctive areas. Nine more scenes, all widely different, are shown in this Pavilion.

We begin in the extreme west, on the island of St. Kilda, which is cut from volcanic rock, way out in the Atlantic, far remote from the Scottish coast. For centuries man has struggled for a foothold here and failed. The island remains the breeding place of seals and myriads of birds.

The Scottish Cairngorm mountains, high and cold, are another remote area, but one that is on the mainland. Here is a fastness of rare animals, and the small plants are those that can tolerate acid, peaty soils.

But height and cold are only two of the factors that may limit the abundance of plant and animal life. In parts of the Pennine Hills the country rock is limestone. This is a rock whose structure encourages the water to tunnel underground rather than flow in normal fashion on the surface. On these dry heights plants do not grow large and thick. They are short tufted and give little cover to protect insect life from the upland winds. This means less food for birds, which by consequence are rarer here than on moors, where heather and the like provide shelter for this smaller life.

The downlands

In the North Downs is the scenery so often spoken of as “typically” British. The word implies that here, at least, is permanence; in fact, the animals and plants are on the move, actively re-colonising the land. Much of the downland was once cultivated or grazed by sheep: but for over a century now the slopes have been abandoned by the farmers for the richer soils of the lower-lying land. Now these chalk downs are in the process of acquiring a new natural vegetation cover.

A new natural scene

Except in the most wild regions, then, man is the most important single factor in determining the natural scene, and giving the signal for its change. His presence alone may not be intolerable to wild animals and plants; but his works will upset their earlier agreed associations and bring about communities that are new. The natural history of contemporary London shows this clearly.

Birds, trees and grasses

There is, however, in these islands another wealth of great variety – the large numbers of different species of animals and plants that are not peculiar to one area, but are spread throughout the country. Such a plant is grass, yet to many of us it is nothing more. But examples of nearly forty different forms of grass are not difficult to find, and this by no means exhausts the British list. Think, too, of the number of different shapes of leaves that make up the verdure of the country scene, of the repertoire of bird-songs that provide accompaniment, and of the butterflies that, for a season, lend moving colour to its décor.

The twelve examples shown in this Pavilion of widely different landscapes derive from the natural scene on which our forebears got to work when they started to herd stock and till the land.

How they have farmed this primeval land with conscious intention is related in the next chapter of this story of the British isles.