Choking in ivy? Let's get serious about aesthetics

21 June 2019

Writer Graham Cunningham says ivy is damaging the aesthetics of our countryside and calls for intervention.

It is glorious day in early spring and I have just returned from a stroll along the tree-lined lanes and footpaths around the village where I live in one of our great National Parks. Our native sycamore, ash, alder, willow and beech are (or were) a visual delight in all four seasons – the ethereal beauty of their naked canopies in winter every bit as much as in their plumptious heavy-laden summer.  A visual delight, that is, until you are brought hard up against the reality of just how many of them are – in our time — now choking with ivy.

What you are, these days, increasingly likely to see is a sort of Jackson Pollock abstract – mad, dark splodges of dense evergreen ivy seemingly lobbed at the trees, relegating the branches to a mere spidery backdrop. Nature imitating art perhaps after all.  Many roadside trees have succumbed to such an extent as to have become now mere sculptures in ivy. 

Occasionally there is relief, as when I passed along the edge of one particular farm where the hedgerow trees were gloriously free of ivy infestation. It is then that you notice the tell-tale clue that, here, the farm buildings too are more cared for than is usual with the modern agri-business type of farm - brick barns properly and respectfully maintained rather than just botched up. And you sense too that here is a farming family of a certain mentality a pride-of-place mentality of a kind for which there is probably no answering clause in the Environmental Stewardship Farm Subsidy funding handbook.

Exmoor by Maria O'Reilly

Exmoor. Photo credit: Maria O'Reilly

As one for whom the delights of the English landscape have been one of the very greatest pleasures of my life, I know from personal experience that it was not always so clogged with ivy. But this is not a hot issue in modern Britain.  It does not merit even a tiny footnote in any public discourse about our rural environment. Those of us who cherish England's traditional green and pleasant landscapes are up against a growing constituency for whom any real appreciation of its essential character - its picturesque character - has atrophied. 

Absent from modern approached to the countryside is any understanding that much of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ is actually the legacy of its former landed estates and of the countryside idyll of the Victorians and Edwardians - who understood the possibility of sympathetic enhancement of the purely ‘natural’ - with landscaping, elegant walls and railings, finger-post signs and other forms of ornamentation. This was a vision of England still evident in railway and Green Line bus posters in the 1930s and 40s.

But of course our national landscape has since then been subject to huge demographic and economic changes which we have no choice but to yield to. But what need not change is the underlying aesthetic sensibility that gave us the artistry of a Capability Brown and a Gertrude Jekyll. Yes, these historical cultural icons are still cherished but an internet search in 2019 will find no echoes of their sense of the possibility of such a thing as a beneficial intervention in the rural landscape; merely a tut-tutting about more obviously unwelcome interventions - urban spread and agribusiness etc.  A particularly dispiriting example of this blindness to an aesthetic dimension to the countryside is the indifference of some arboricultural and heritage organisations in this country to this spread of ivy to places where it does not belong. Whereas in America, many environmental organisations view the indiscriminate spread of ivy on trees as a serious nuisance, people in the UK who feel the same way about it are up against an 'expert' consensus that ivy's benefits as a wildlife habitat outweigh all other considerations.

Yes, - one might argue - But isn’t this all a bit academic anyway now that so few people actually work the land? All the greater then is the need for a re-kindling of a visual, aesthetic dimension to our conception of the environment. It could be spur to the growth of voluntary groups and local societies dedicated to the careful management of hedgerow trees – similar to that which already happens, for example, with seasonal hedge-laying. Unless we regain our deep appreciation of what is special about our countryside; understand that it is not a wilderness but the product of centuries of husbanding by man – then to adapt a line of Hopkins’ famous poem about Goldengrove Unleaving - it may one day be that it is England we are grieving for.

By Graham Cunningham