The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Beauty of Britain

Category: Land + People

by J. B. Priestley

We live in one of the most beautiful islands in the world. This is a fact we are always forgetting. When beautiful is­lands are mentioned we think of Trinidad andTahiti. These are fine, romantic places, but they are not really as exquisite­ly beautiful as our ownBritain. Before the mines and facto­ries came, and long before we went from bad to worse with our arterial roads and petrol stations and horrible brick bun­galows, this country must have been an enchantment. Even now, after we have been busy for so long flinging mud at this fair pale face, the enchantment still remains. Sometimes I doubt if we deserve to possess it. There can be few parts of the world in which commercial greed and public indifference have combined to do more damage than they have here. The process continues. It is still too often assumed that any enterprising fellow after quick profits has a perfect right to de­stroy a loveliness that is the heritage of the whole com­munity.

The beauty of our country is as hard to define as it is easy to enjoy. Remembering other and larger countries we see at once that one of its charms is that it is immensely varied within a small compass. We have here no vast mountain ranges, no illimitable plains. But we have superb variety. A great deal of everything is packed into little space. I suspect that we are always, faintly conscious of the fact that this is a smallish island, with the sea always round the corner. We know that everything has to be neatly packed into a small space. Nature, we feel, has carefully adjusted things — moun­tains, plains, rivers, lakes — to the scale of the island itself. A mountain12,000 feethigh would be a horrible monster here, as wrong as a plain400 mileslong, a river as broad as theMississippi. Though the geographical features of this island are comparatively small, and there is astonishing va­riety almost everywhere, that does not mean that our moun­tains are not mountains, our plains not plains.

My own favourite country, perhaps because I knew it as a boy, is that of the Yorkshire Dales. A day’s walk among them will give you almost everything fit to be seen on this earth. Within a few hours, you have enjoyed the green valleys, with their rivers, fine old bridges, pleasant villages, hang­ing woods, smooth fields, and then the moorland slopes, with their rushing streams, stone walls, salty winds and crying curlews, white farmhouses, and then the lonely heights which seem to be miles above the ordinary world, and moorland tracks as remote, it seems, as trails in Mongolia.

We have greater resources at our command than our an­cestors had, and we are more impatient than they were. Thanks to our new resources, we are better able to ruin the country­side and even the towns, than our fathers were, but on the other hand we are far more alive to the consequences of such ruin than they were.

Our children and their children after them must live in a beautiful country. It must be a country happily compromis­ing between Nature and Man, blending what was best worth retaining from the past with what best represents the spirit of our own age, a country as rich in noble towns as it is in trees, birds, and wild flowers.

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