Magazine article The Spectator

'Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor --A British Landscape in Modern Times', by Matthew Kelly - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor --A British Landscape in Modern Times', by Matthew Kelly - Review

Article excerpt

Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor --A British Landscape in Modern Times Matthew Kelly

Cape, pp.484, £25, ISBN: 9780224091138

In his poem 'Eden Rock', Charles Causley conjures up a dreamy memory of a childhood picnic 'somewhere beyond Eden Rock'. He reported later: 'Somebody asked me the other day where Eden Rock is --I mean I have no idea, I made it up! "Dartmoor," I said -- that's always a safe answer.'

As southern England's largest expanse of unenclosed land, Dartmoor has always been a good place to lose things: dangerous prisoners, children on their Duke of Edinburgh's Awards, military manoeuvres. It has also swallowed up voluminous amounts of parliamentary time, ministerial reports, public enquiries and arcane legislation -- all of which centres on one simple question: what's it for?

Matthew Kelly's Quartz and Feldspar charts the response to this question from the late 18th century to the present day. If you live around the moor or are a frequent user of the A30, you will remember with a faint nostalgia the queues through Okehampton (dubbed the 'capital of the Devonshire Highlands') and the 20 years of highly principled discussion about whether or not the integrity of Dartmoor National Park should be compromised by the building of a bypass (it was). You may also recall a similar argy-bargy over questions of radio masts, reservoirs, artillery ranges, conifer plantations and commoners' stocking levels.

For the most part, however, Kelly's exhaustive case-study presents something rather more interesting. It proves how radically and how frequently our convictions have shifted when it comes to perception of landscape, and how reactions to such a tract of featureless moorland reveal more about the underlying values of each age than almost anything else.

After the antiquarians had laid their Druidic interpretation over the moor's archaeology and the Romantics had sighed at its craggy heights, the 'improvers' arrived. These mid-19th-century worthies looked at Dartmoor and saw something akin to a lost soul, in need only of a little injection of hard work to help it fulfil God's plan and yield benefits for the common good. Open moorland should be enclosed, soils enriched and planted with crops, herds brought in and a railway built, whose cost would soon be redeemed by profitable agriculture. …

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