Our common land
In everything she did Octavia Hill believed passionately that everyone, no matter what their economic circumstances, deserved to have access to the life-enhancing, soul-enabling things of life. And this meant having access to recreation, the arts, heritage and above all to the open world of nature. She believed that this was especially true for those whose daily lives were lived almost entirely in confined urban places. In 1877, she wrote in her essay ‘Our common land’:
'Cooped up for many weeks in close rooms, in narrow streets, compelled on their holiday to travel for miles in a crowded stream, first between homes and then between dusty high hedges, suddenly they expand into free, uncrowded spaces under spreading trees or on to the wide commons for which blue distance is visible; the eye, long unrefreshed with sight of growing grass, or star-like flowers, is rejoiced by them again.'
It was this determination to make the wide open spaces of nature available and accessible to the poorest that led Octavia Hill to campaign for the preservation of Parliament Hill Fields and Hampstead Heath. It is what led her to argue for the foundation of a National Trust, not just for the conservation of history but for the conservation of nature and landscape too. It is what led her to campaign against the destruction of her deeply loved Lake District. And it was all of a piece with her broader social vision, of meeting the need that all humans have for a life of true fulfilment, not just economically, but aesthetically and emotionally as well. Aspiration for fulfilment — that was what she wanted to bring into people’s lives, whether it was through well-managed housing or the ability to have ready access to grass, trees, flowers and an open sky.
In her central vision of the need to help everyone to strive for true, rounded, holistic fulfilment, Octavia Hill was way ahead of her time. And indeed, we still struggle to keep up with the strength and urgency of her vision. If we look at what has happened in the hundred years since Octavia Hill’s death, we can’t be terribly proud of the record. England has lost more than half its hedgerows since the Second World War. The grey partridge has declined by 90 per cent in Britain, and the linnet by 57 per cent.
Octavia Hill would have asserted, as she did in her essay ‘Our common land’, that the danger of destruction of open space ‘is imminent because we are all so accustomed to treat money value as if it were the only real value’. And she sounded a trumpet-call for the need to consider the real value — spiritual, intellectual, emotional, fulfilment value — for future generations, not just for our own. If valuable open space was built over, it was lost forever, not just for the next year or two. The ‘forever’ bit was of vital importance to her, and remains fundamental to the National Trust.
And if we look at the Octavia Hill legacy through the succeeding century, she would I think have been quietly proud of what her pioneering work had brought about: the National Trust itself, of course, and urban parks in towns and cities up and down the country, national parks, country parks, the Forestry Commission, conservation and wildlife movements, species and habitat protection, regulation of pollution and development, green belts — a term that Octavia Hill herself is credited with coining — and most recently the Right to Roam.
A hundred years or more on, we still need to rediscover the importance of wildness and nature for our own lives, and carry Octavia Hill’s vision into the future:
'Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.'
This extract is taken from 'Octavia Hill and the importance of nature', the fourth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.