From the archive: The late Sir John Keegan on the peculiarly English sense of belonging created by the War Graves Commission.by John Keegan / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
I wouldn’t mind,” I heard a woman’s voice sobbing at my elbow, “I wouldn’t mind if my son had been killed if he could have lain here.” Tears streamed down her kindly face. She clutched my elbow. “I wouldn’t mind.” There was a scent of roses and mown grass, the reflection of sunlight from white Portland stone, a cool and gentle Mediterranean breeze, the promise of heat to come. “I wouldn’t mind.”
We were two English people in a primal English setting: greensward, shrubs, flowering perennials, paved walks with saxifrage rooted in the cracks, low walls, statuary and masonry-an English enclosure far from England. “Remember, green is a colour,” advised Gertrude Jekyll, inventor of the modern English garden; and here below the hillsides, arid after a long summer drought, green was a brilliant, almost overpowering colour.
The landscape beyond the garden was ageless, with that Mediterranean quality which has captivated English travellers since they first began their journeys to rediscover, 300 years ago, the classical world their ancestors had done so much to overthrow. But the garden was timeless, belonging neither to the present nor the past, but to an arrested moment existing only in the English imagination. It is a moment suffused by classicism, inspired by the temperate wilderness, but transcending both; a moment when man’s work comes into equilibrium with the beauty of nature and an ideal landscape is brought to perfection.
Where are these landscapes? Some are accidental tracts of the English countryside—an artificial creation 4,000 years old in parts—where contour and woodland combine with plough and pasture, hedge and wall, to form a vision the English call England. The English vision is particularly present in the Cotswolds west of Oxford, in the South Hams of Devonshire, in Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, along the Welsh marches of Herefordshire and Shropshire, in Beatrix Potter country above the Cumbrian lakes, in the Kipling territory of remoter Kent and Sussex. Yet that vision is also present wherever population is sparse, rainfall heavy and agriculture intense, but with tracts of ancient forest land making a patchwork of settlement and emptiness, the familiar and the mysterious.
Many are not accidental at all, but the work of great landlords and the artists they employed to beautify what was already beautiful, in a manner quite alien to the environment. England is natural broadleaf forest land, with deep topsoil in which stone is hard to…