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.

The Country

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Architect: Brian O’Rorke ◦ Theme Conveners: A. S. Thomas, Peter B. Collins
Display Designer: F. H. K. Henrion

Our theme is the Land and the People; and such a theme is bound to bring to light some awkward facts. Here, in this Pavilion, we come upon the first of these – the fact that in making what they have from the land, the people have become divided. By and large, they are now either countrymen or townsmen.

It is easy enough to see how the growth and demands of industry in the last hundred years have brought this about, and how the two groups have got out of step with each other. By now the difference in their occupations has compelled them into different ways of life. So, if these two groups are again to march in step, it is essential that each should understand the conditions in which the other lives and works. Signs of their once more coming together are, however, clear: in the last few years the farmer and the engineer, between them, have made our land the most highly mechanised of any in the world. Yearly, the farmer’s confidence in the scientist is growing, while the scientist is learning to accept those vagaries in nature that have always been reality to the farmer.

The problem has been to prevent one section of our people from losing sight of the other. Farming is our heritage no less than coal and steel. In these days we boast the most highly mechanised and, perhaps, the most efficiently farmed countryside in the world. This development, from the primitive strip cultivation of the first patches wrested from the forest, through the age of private enclosures, to the period of stock-improvement and increasing mechanisation, has taken us over 2,000 years.

Our farming as varied as the landscape

The same permanent accidents of soil and climate which we saw give rise to the Natural Scene have produced a variable terrain, which skill and experience have developed through the centuries for the purposes to which each variation is best suited. So, grazing and stockbreeding have become typical in the high lands of the west, where heavy rainfall and exposure to Atlantic conditions have reared livestock as hardy as the men who farm them. In the drier conditions of the east and midlands, with often deeper, richer soil, another type of arable farming has developed. Here stock, in general, is secondary to cereals and root crops.

This diversity is perhaps the feature that distinguishes farming in Britain from that of any other country in the world. On one side of the panorama we have the hill-farmers of Wales and the Scottish Highlands, the grazier in the English midlands, and the lowland dairy farmer of the Dee Valley; on the other, the farms of the east and south producing cereals, arable crops, fruit and hops. Half-way between them comes the small mixed farm worked by the family in Northern Ireland.

While variety has always been one feature of our agriculture, quality of its products has been its complement. Whether these are livestock, or the produce of industrial farming-cereals, for example-or vegetables, fruits, or flowers, they have always been recognised as setting standards which, in good times and bad, we have maintained for centuries.

Science and the land

But modem agriculture, wherever it is carried on and whatever the final products it yields, needs modern methods, and in recent years the aid of science has been increasingly sought. Here, Britain’s contribution has also been outstanding and sustained. A lead was given to the world over a hundred years ago, by the classical work carried out on fertilisers by Lawes at Rothamsted. Nowadays research on methods of improving fruits themselves and on the better utilisation of the things that can be made from them, proceeds alongside the research that aims at solving the fundamental problems of the soil So, while one group of workers is tackling the difficulties of producing better pasture from poor and unrewarding soils, another is showing how to kill weeds that consume the soil and its nutrients.

But in addition to housing our largest single industry, the country provides the endowment for a special way of life – and a rich one. Everything, it is true, turns on the yearly cycle of husbandry; but woven into it are the village cricket match, the contests of the Young Farmers’ Club, the weekly meeting of the Women’s Institutes. And all the while, creating the fabric for this varied life, the country craftsman is at work. Much of the modern setting is of his devising; his are those many properties of the country scene that we take so easily for granted – the hedges and the hurdles, the thatch of cottage and barn, the walls, the harness of horses and the baskets that go to market.

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Livestock and breeding

Mechanisation has not killed these country crafts, nor can it. But it has revolutionised the country industries: and none more than that of poultry farming. The ideal hen of to-day is, throughout her entire life, just a single item in a great machine; little is asked from her except that she shall feed herself and lay some eggs. Ducks, less amenable to such treatment, and goats, now increasingly popular, are other junior members of agricultures livestock group, whose great variety is another feature of farming in Britain.
Sheep, pigs, horses for every purpose, have long absorbed the attention of the world’s finest natural animal breeders – the British stock farmers – but the beasts on which they have concentrated particularly are beef and dairy cattle. The modern breeder works from the exact data of long pedigrees and the beasts performance, which are more important nowadays than handsome appearance and possession of precise show points. The result is a range of superb beef and dairy cattle with one of the surest markets in the world. Look, though, upon their variety in size, in hardiness and utility; you cannot fail to see reflected here the astonishing range of types of farmland, and of farmer, in the British Isles.


One of the most valuable of all our raw materials is milk. As the basis for a vast industry – whether the thing finally produced is milk itself, butter or cheese – it has been the subject of intense research and mechanisation, so that now the consumer gets a safer and more valuable product than ever he did before.


But, great as the advances in agriculture have been through the application of science to crop production and stock-breeding, the most spectacular advances of all are seen in mechanisation itself. Since the Second World War, each type of tractor has had its set of specially designed implements, capable of handling every job that crops up in the ordinary run of farming. For major operations, and for small awkward jobs which take time and demand great accuracy, still other machines have been evolved.

Every phase of farming, from ploughing to harvest, is now mechanised. This mechanisation has passed even into such crafts as that of the blacksmith. True, he is still able to handle the jobs his forebears did such as shoeing horses; but now he is a skilled mechanical engineer besides, using the tools and facilities of modem engineering as his stock in trade. The village forge has become the village engineer’s workshop, but it is no less a part of the community, for that. A modern blacksmith can be seen at work in this Pavilion.

Planning the use of the land

All this achievement and this reputation cannot, however, enlarge our country. Britain will always be small. Land that is so scarce must, if it is to be used to its full advantage, have its uses planned. Not always has this been recognised, particularly in the planting of trees have we lagged behind.

In recent years forestry in Britain has made enormous strides, impelled by the Forestry Commission – who are at last providing the state forests that hitherto we lacked – and also by the owners of private forest estates. From the long deforestation of the nineteenth century, and the almost complete loss of all useful timber during two world wars, we are now climbing once more, at an increasing rate, to the peak of a tree-planting programme. Varieties from abroad are being used more and more, for here we can take advantage of our climate and soil to obtain even greater yields than they can give in their overseas homes.

All this new forest is planned as part of a scheme which considers every aspect of land use: trees cover the steep, uncultivable slopes, and the bare, poor moorland soils; above them, sheep and cattle graze; below, in the valleys, rich farmlands are worked more efficiently than ever before. Timber and farm produce flow to the towns and industrial areas, whose products, in their turn, flow back to bring the countryman and his family the benefits which they themselves have made possible.

The farmer of to-day

Throughout this whole story of the evolution of Britain’s countryside, one feature remains constant: the kind of man who has brought it about. It is true that his appearance has changed. No longer is the countryman the old-style yokel, a rough, uncultured being in corduroys, uncouth in accent and in manner. Now, he has become a technician putting to everyday use the results of five hundred years of development and of science. He can drive a tractor, and mend and maintain any of his mechanical aids; but still, his feet are firmly on the ground – the ground from which his livelihood and our prosperity have always come, and whose good health it is his pride to maintain.

It is, then, finally, to the farmer and his family that we owe the prosperity and permanence of our countryside.