Contributor: Ken West

I have no data to prove it but Friars Cliff, like Avon Beach, seems to have grown in popularity in recent years. It is a place to relax, to chill. At such times, amid glorious scenery I can readily rhapsodise on the beauty of England. All that art, poetry and literature wash over me and I am aware that William Gilpin was similarly inspired by our countryside and termed it picturesque. He was the noted vicar at Boldre and interred in the village churchyard in 1804. The picturesque is a scene that is visually pleasing, perhaps vivid. It does not have to be entirely natural and can reflect the hand of man. With Gilpin’s insight, I can look across to the quarried summit of Hengistbury, to rows of beach huts, moored boats and the engineered coastline and perceive it as attractive, as a fine place to live. This is why the affluent pensioner lives here and why property prices are so high. The picturesque sustains us, intellectually; it is soft and pretty yet without that wildness or remoteness that leaves us feeling intimidated. We also love the romantic, the dreamy world of our poets and our wealth and education allows us the joy of idle reflection. Lord Bute, on his first visit to Highcliffe, was similarly entranced when he thought it the fairest outlook in England.

Our pre history

As a writer interested in prehistory, I have mused over what drew the first people here in 10,000 BC, after the last Ice Age. These hunter gatherers walked here, over generations, from the Ice Age refuge in what we know as the Basque country. England was joined to Europe in those days. For certain, these people did not have a word equivalent to picturesque and neither could they conceive of idle musing on fair views. All they sought was the utility in the view? That utility would be the advantages offered by the proximity of the coast and that of marshes, the richest environment they know. The coast was much further out and the utility of Hengistbury was as the perfect look out. These nomadic hunter gatherers carved out a living here for 6,000 years and then a massive cultural change occurred. Around 4,000 BC, farming, more properly called horticulture, was introduced.

Today, we ignore the utility of the soil. Then, to be useful it had to be light and fertile. The heathland soil in Friars Cliff is light but, being gravelly and acidic, is infertile. The silt soils along the rivers, perhaps even streams like the Mude, are more fertile. These are soils people with basic tools made from wood, bone and antler can use to grow crops. They have no horses or oxen and must do all the work manually. There must have been times of despair but, on average, harvests were assured. The fertile heavy clay and loam soils of most of Britain cannot be worked at this time. 

These people grew corn and plants because they could. A further utility then was that the harbour began to fill with water as the glaciers continued to melt. Water was their highway and they could trade with Europe and move up and down the River Avon and Stour. It was a time in which the utility of the landscape was ideal for people. That was reflected in a food surplus and it was this that powered the building of Stonehenge.

The utility of the soil is something we can ignore. We affluent pensioners buy a property, pay masses of attention to the interior yet rarely assess the soil in the garden. We don’t care whether it is fertile or otherwise because we have the ability to put that right. We can ship in soil or add compost or fertiliser simply because our wealth shields us from the utility in the natural world. Sadly, this is short term gain because the oil based fertilisers we use actually damage the structure of the soil. To add insult to injury, we can also bring in non native plants and entirely change the appearance of Friars Cliff. Consequently, acid loving magnolias and camellias flourish much as they might in Asia. Then, as global warming increases, we add in palms and mimosa and, rather smugly, consider ourselves sub tropical. The floral display in Friars Cliff each spring and summer is a great delight; I might even call it picturesque.

Ken West’s book ‘My Pagan Ancestor Zuri – A Parallel Journey: Christchurch to Stonehenge’ was published in August 2019, available at Avon Beach shop, Bookends and on Amazon Books. See his blog: www.christchurchpensioner.com

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