THE MYTH of the English countryside held sway for most of the 20th century and is still extraordinarily powerful: the countryside is the essence of the nation's identity; the thatched cottage and bluebell wood are where England is most English. The countryside is a place not only of natural beauty but also of enduring values: courtesy, honesty, unselfishness, patriotism, and a stable and unthreatening social order.
Like all myths, this one had truth in it; it reflects the countryside much as it was 100 years ago. But the myth, which always ignored half the country, has become degraded and dishonest because it has persisted while the countryside changed profoundly. Now it has ended up as a middle- class residential fantasy of restored Georgian vicarages with Aga kitchens, low crime, good schools and green Wellingtons.
Richard Mabey's achievement, almost single-handed, has been to rescue England's modern countryside from myth, and enable us to look at it afresh. It is a very different place to the one that poets such as Edward Thomas knew: a land of industrial farming, tightly- managed nature reserves and ever-encroaching suburbs. But much still is wonderful, if you know where to look.
Mabey made it come alive in a series of original and much-lauded books, beginning in 1972 with Food For Free, his beguiling guide to edible wild plants. He has been able to do so because he found a new voice. …