Sunday 9 February 2014

Soft Estate

Last Thursday, I went to Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre to see Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts talk about their book Edgelands. I was pleased to hear they actually wrote the book together in motorway service stations – something it has in common with the Meg and Mog books, which were composed by Helen Nicoll and her illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, at Membury Services on the M4. Their talk formed part of a series of events tied up with Soft Estate, an exhibition of the work of Edward Chell and other artists who are interested in motorways, the areas around them and other types of edgeland.

Soft Estate is the Highways Agency term for the landscape around motorways and trunk roads which offers a refuge for wildlife. As long ago as the late 1960s, conservationists began to realise that the motorway verges could serve as nature reserves, particularly in the arable south where pasture was disappearing rapidly. When the M1 was finished in 1967, the conservationist Michael Way coordinated a botanical survey of the entire roadside verge between Hendon and Leeds and discovered that, just like the railways, the motorways were eco-havens. Pollen and seeds hitched a ride on car bumpers or blew along the wind tunnels created by moving traffic and roadside cuttings. In 1974 the nature writer Richard Mabey – who contributes an essay to the Soft Estate book - calculated that there were nearly half a million acres of roadside verge in Britain, an area of land bigger than the statutory nature reserves. By now the UK had joined the Common Market and prairie farming was about to grow fat on European subsidies and the Common Agricultural Policy – so more hedgerows vanished and nature again retreated to the roadside verges.

In fact, the roadside verge is really the modern equivalent of the hedgerow – although it has yet to acquire its Edmund Blunden, the poet and conservationist who in 1935 misquoted King Lear’s fool to foretell that ‘when there are no more English hedges, and the expedient of barbed wire has carried the day everywhere, “There shall the realm of Albion / Be brought to great confusion.”’ We normally think of verges as the motoring equivalent of a screensaver, an endless green sward interrupted by the occasional abandoned tyre or stray plastic bag. Yet as Mabey showed, it was part of an ‘unofficial countryside’ that was valuable almost because it was so unnoticed and unloved. The roadside was deceptively diverse, cutting through every type of landscape and geology, and including not only the grass embankments but also the balancing ponds and settling pools needed to drain the carriageway of rainwater, which often attracted wildlife. It was the dogged, unlovely nature of the roadside - from the rare fungi and algae that thrived in the drip-zone under crash barriers to the wild flowers that flourished on the poor-quality soil of the verge – that made it ecologically important.

Edward sent me a copy of the book of the exhibition and there are some beautiful-looking things in it, including his own paintings of roadside verge plants made with road dust, and some lovely oil-on-shellac-on-linen paintings of motorway service stations. I’m still hoping to get along to the exhibition, which has a couple of weeks left to run. Details are here:


  1. Glad you made the talk last week Joe. I hope you can make the exhibition which ends next Sunday. A much smaller version then travels to Spacex in Exeter. The edgelands walk we did last weekend is reviewed here:

  2. Thanks Bryan - I love Gerry Corden's blog as well.

  3. I really like your writing style and how it involves the reader! Like seriously! Wish you could have included the picture that you discussed in the end

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