Celebrity gardener defends nimbyism as he, Simon Schama and Fiona Reynolds discuss the ‘spirit’ of the British landscape

Nimbyism isn’t such a bad thing, celebrity gardener Monty Don told an audience at the Guardian Hay festival yesterday evening: after all, “if we can’t care about our back yards we can’t care about anything”.

Speaking with historian Simon Schama and National Trust director general Fiona Reynolds about the “spirit” of the British landscape, Don admitted that one of his personal “bugbears” was criticism of nimbyism – the largely middle-class not-in-my-back-yard phenomenon of local protests, often against wind farms.

“We’re passionate about the places we live, where we know the flowers and the stones and the neighbours,” said Don. “And we should fight for it and defend it.”

Asked by a member of the audience about his views on onshore wind turbines, Don said he was “torn betwixt and between” on the subject. “They can be beautiful. They’re probably necessary. But they can be very intrusive,” he said. “It needs to be a case by case basis [and you need to] situate them with care, with respect to place.”

Reynolds agreed. “It’s all about scale and location. I wouldn’t say no. Smaller-scale, single turbines can fit very well but big horizontal landscapes are ruined by wind turbines,” she responded. “It upsets me that it’s seen as a dichotomy. If you’re against wind turbines you’re against anything green, when there are so many alternatives – wood fuel, for example.”

Don, Schama and Reynolds all agreed that there is something uniquely British about our relationship with the landscape. “Not many places in the world respond as we do, in such a possessive way,” said Don. “I think it’s because we are the most sophisticated post-industrial society, and we’ve lost our peasant sensibility … I went around the world and the thing that struck me was that by a long chalk the Brits are more interested in gardening than anyone else, and technically better at it … We value the process, we value the skill of gardening. We have this obsession with expertise.”

Reynolds agreed: “there is something almost urgent about our need for beauty, and beauty as expressed through landscape” – while Schama, like Don, linked the strength of feeling about the British landscape to the industrial revolution. “It was a hugely traumatic experience, the enclosure, the displacement of millions of people from what they still imagined to be the ancient cycles of the seasons … into new industrial towns,” he said, adding that the “saving grace” of what happened was the establishment of allotments and parks in towns.

“We had town parks before lots of the rest of the world,” said Schama. “And despite the fact we’re over-sophisticated, leading a televised life, there is still the sheer physical immediacy of sticking your hands in loamy stuff. And, god, it’s better than a glass of whisky.”

Schama also attributed the British love of a May garden to the desire for rebirth after troubled times. “It’s about getting out of a bad place into a place of fruitfulness, and Britain has gone through a lot of trouble – the industrial revolution, two world wars. The two things that soldiers were supposed to dream about in the wars were their mother and their garden. There was a sense that, however much [badness], there still was a May garden. When there stops being a May garden, it stops being England.”

But Don insisted that we need to fight to maintain our landscapes because “they don’t just hang around and defend themselves”. “They need to be defended. They still are [disappearing]. The countryside and the landscape are under threat all the time,” he said. “But I think there’s a shift I’ve recognised literally in the last year – that that’s enough. That because of the expenses scandal and the financial crisis, there’s a sense that none of that’s good. But some things are good.”

“It’s a redefinition of what riches are,” agreed Schama. “They can be a bloody stock portfolio or you can be watching your raspberries mature. I know what I’d rather have.”

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