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The central feature of Bert Bissell’s life was his deep-seated Methodist faith. Bissell went to the hills (always the hills for him) to renew contact with this faith rather than to discover it for the first time. Climbing mountains in search of God has a long history and Bissell’s dedication to it suggests we should not be too quick to construe ruralism or nature worship as a displacement of religion. Nevertheless, even in Bissell’s case, other elements than religion contributed to his ruralism, including strong physical and social impulses. Perhaps most important of all was the need to shore up his own sense of self in the face of a world moving rapidly away from his most cherished beliefs and values.
When I began writing this book the best part of two decades ago, I hoped to find a single explanation for popular ruralism. It was a disappointment to discover that rural landscapes fitted into each of the diarists’ lives in a different way. However, on consideration I realized that hidden beneath this apparently multi-causal explanation was the mono-causal explanation I had been seeking. What the diarists looked for and what they took from the landscapes they were drawn to corresponded in each case to the distinctive assemblage of their psychological characteristics, refracted through the circumstances in which they found themselves. Since none of them had the same mix of characteristics or circumstances, it is unsurprising that landscape figured differently in each of their lives. Certainly there were some commonalities, and I have tried to draw attention to the most prominent of these through the Adherer–Withdrawer–Restorer–Explorer framework. But even within each of these categories there were wide differences in landscape experience. Of all the diarists, Cresswell and Hallam had most in common in the way they related to rural landscapes.
The introduction outlines the aims, methodology and time frame of the book, explains its structure and briefly introduces readers to the eight individuals whose diaries are the book’s principal source material. A succinct review of the literature on elite and popular ruralism in Britain follows, emphasizing that there has been far more research on the former than the latter. The pathbreaking work of Helen Walker, Harvey Taylor and Alun Howkins on popular ruralism is acknowledged and summarized. Although we now know much about the macro-history of popular ruralism (at least as expressed through the outdoor movement), we know much less about its micro-history – how the countryside fitted into the lived reality of people’s lives. This is the gap which this book aims to fill.
Like Spear Smith, Catley was intensely self-conscious, sought to create an identity founded on ruralism, and had cultural aspirations (in his case literary rather than artistic). While Catley was no more successful as a poet than Spear Smith as an artist, at least in his younger years his engagement with rural landscapes appears to have brought him more satisfaction and peace of mind. In part, this was because Catley’s ruralism fostered rather than replaced social relationships, through walks, cycle rides and, especially, youth hostelling. It may also have been that less was at stake in Catley’s ruralism, allowing him to take a more objective interest in rural landscapes and, paradoxically, to find more emotional fulfilment in them. Certainly Catley explored the rural landscapes around his Bristol home both intensively and extensively, offering him rich opportunities for self-discovery and self-development. However, as middle age and domesticity came upon him, the vital and life-affirming role landscape had played in his younger days receded into the past.
William Hallam grew up in the little village of Lockinge (Berkshire) but lived for the rest of his life in Swindon, where he was employed at the Great Western Railway Works. His remarkable diaries (eighty-two volumes: 1886–1952) provide an exceptional opportunity to assess the effects of moving from a rural, agricultural background to an urban, industrial one. Hallam was in many respects a classic example of the alienated industrial worker. This certainly intensified his passionate ruralism, yet its roots lay much further back, in the deep-seated loyalties formed by his early experiences in Lockinge. Indeed, although he was a working-class man rather than a genteel middle-class woman, the parallels between the role landscape played in Hallam’s life and in Beatrix Cresswell’s are remarkably close.
Katherine Spear Smith had no need to work for her living but, growing up in a liberal, academic household in the early twentieth century, she felt a need to find a vocation in life. Influenced by Wordsworth and Ruskin, she constructed a persona based on sensitivity and responsiveness to nature and sought to express this by becoming a painter. Art, however, proved fraught with anxiety and disappointment and she fell back on her identification with nature, shot through with religious promptings. The functions of ruralism in helping Spear Smith construct an identity, but also the potentially isolating and even illusory character of this identity in her case, are the principal themes of this chapter.
Diaries are rich but sometimes challenging sources for historians, not least because of their particularity, which can make it difficult to generalize from them. This chapter outlines some of the ways scholars have approached diaries, highlighting the comparative method used by historians such as James Hinton. The relationship between, in Fothergill’s words, ‘the first-person narrator who speaks in the diary and the historical personage who held the pen’ is considered and Huff’s view that we should read diaries as ‘friendly explorers’ endorsed. Questions relating to when, why and for whom a diary may have been written are discussed and the equally important issue of what a diary omits or suppresses. The exceptional potential of long-run, unpublished diaries as source material (as used here) is underlined. Finally this chapter explains the principles on which the diaries on which the book is based were selected and the extent to which they may or may not be representative.
Each of the individuals considered in the book had a different relationship to landscape. This reflected the varying circumstances, situations, events and influences (including cultural influences) that shaped their lives. Despite these contrasts, it is possible to identify four broad groupings. Adherers like Hallam and Cresswell were motivated by a passionate need to maintain their connection with a cherished past. Rural landscapes associated with this past served as a guarantee of its continuity. Withdrawers such as Dickinson and Spear Smith sought to escape from an oppressive present, be that family tensions and social prejudice as in Dickinson’s case, or Spear Smith’s vocational difficulties. Restorers turned to the countryside as a place in which they could reconnect with and re-energize belief systems that had been challenged, disrupted or pushed aside by personal exigencies or professional demands – medical practice for Johnston and probation work for Bissell. Finally, Explorers like Barmes and Catley valued rural landscapes above all as sites of self-discovery and self-development.
Ostensibly the most privileged of the diarists considered in this book, Violet Dickinson had one of the most difficult lives. She had a fraught, distant relationship with her mother, her often-absent art dealer father played an ambivalent role in her life, and for many years the family had no permanent home. As a young woman, underneath the superficial, nouveau-riche assurance, Dickinson was deeply uncertain of her direction in life. She fled her high-society milieu for the safety of an East Kent smallholding, in company with her younger brother Cedric. Rural self-sufficiency and craftwork appears to have provided a measure of stability, fulfilment and peace of mind for Dickinson. However, her successive moves to smallholdings in Sussex and then Somerset were indicative of continuing emotional tensions (some linked to her closet lesbianism), and her efforts to construct a new ‘family’ about her in these secluded rural settings were only partially successful.