Interview: Dame Fiona Reynolds

Dame Fiona Reynolds (c) Antony Thompson / TWM

Dame Fiona Reynolds (c) Antony Thompson / TWM - Credit: Archant

Dame Fiona Reynolds has spent her career passionately fighting to save our natural and cultural heritage – as she details in her first book, The Fight For Beauty. Indeed, she tells Katie Jarvis, for all our sophisticated talk of ecosystems and economics, we’d be better focusing on that simplest of concepts: beauty

Dame Fiona Reynolds (c) Antony Thompson / TWM

Dame Fiona Reynolds (c) Antony Thompson / TWM - Credit: Archant

In any good argument, you first have to define your terms.

Good, better, best.

Natural, historic, beautiful.

Forgive me, Cotswold Life, for talking about the Lake District. But there’s no more pertinent an example than the recent furore over the National Trust’s purchase of 303 acres in Borrowdale, complete with flock of Herdwick sheep.

Let battle for England (and the Lake District) commence.

What the trust failed to do was to buy the farmhouse associated with this land at Thorneythwaite Farm, leading to accusations that it intends to turf off the sheep and turn it into a nature reserve.

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“Herdwick sheep are no mere accessories in the landscape of the lakes. They are integral to it,” thundered the Times. Beatrix Potter, who left the Trust 4,000 prime Lakeland acres, would be turning in her grave.

Equally angry were members of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association; and James Rebanks, the Cumbrian farmer whose autobiographical The Shepherd’s Life topped the Sunday Times bestseller lists.

But, hang on, others said. These stunning fells might bring tears to the tourist’s eye; but screw those same eyes up and look a little closer. These uplands, shaped by herbivores, are far from being fully-functioning ecosystems. Travel to Croatia or Slovenia, for example, and you’ll find similar contours inhabited by bears, wolves and lynx, as well as a skyful of varied birdlife, including eagle and vulture.

So there you have it. What is the Lake District at its better and best; at its natural and historic? A land where sheep can safely graze? Or a wilder place of dangerous predators, scrubby trees and wilful watercourses?

As Dame Fiona Reynolds’s book, The Fight For Beauty, exquisitely demonstrates, these are the sorts of arguments that have raged for years. Arguments that truly began, perhaps, when Wordsworth railed against the ‘spiky larch’, introduced into his beloved Lake District to satisfy commercial timber interests.

Or when John Ruskin – in the midst of a lecture at Oxford University – grabbed his paintbrush and swung to face a JMW Turner landscape of Leicester Abbey. Across the glass frame, he angrily daubed a great iron bridge, a polluted river and a choking haze of smoke. “That is what you are doing with your scenery!” he spat at his horrified audience.

Not only are we failing to save our natural world; we’re not even sure what it is any more.


“Did we lose beauty when we lost God?” I ask Fiona Reynolds, as we sit on the patio of her house in a village that’s on neighbourly terms with Cirencester. It’s a house, as it happens, that combines beauty and God: its sizable Cotswold-stone dimensions are flanked by pretty garden and stretching fields that once formed part of the Church’s income.

The Fight For Beauty – her first book – is not a eulogy to bucolic idylls such as this, though. It’s far more brutal. Forget Stephen King; some of the scenes she describes are so horrifying, there were times when I could barely read on. Within its pages are historic examples of destruction:

• In the 1790s, during a fashion-trend for feathered hats, fishermen at Clovelly in Devon collected 9,000 kittiwake wings in a fortnight;

• 97% of UK’s hay meadows were lost between the 1940s and 1980s, along with 27% of heather moorland;

• Since 1850, we have lost 84% of our fertile topsoil (and are still seeing erosion at the rate of 1-3cm per year, according to the government’s Climate Change Committee).

Let’s proceed to more recent times:

• Peat occupies only 3% of the world’s land surface but stores a third of global carbon: around 90% of peat bog habitat was lost in Britain during the 20th century;

• In 1987, large swathes of the Sutherland Flow Country – an internationally important blanket-bog habitat – were planted with conifers to take advantage of big tax breaks promoted by government;

• In 2010, David Cameron’s government proposed selling off the Public Forest Estate in England (18% of England’s woodland, including the Forest of Dean and the New Forest) – a decision only ditched after huge public outcry.

But what’s particularly striking is this.

In Victorian times, when visionaries first truly awoke to the notion that the countryside needed saviours, they constantly used the word ‘beauty’; what’s more, they inextricably linked that beauty with the notion of God. It’s a connection Fiona Reynolds highlights time and again. Such as in John Ruskin’s epiphanic moment, watching a storm gather in the Chamonix Valley:

“Spire of ice – dome of snow – wedge of rock… a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold – filled with light and clothed with the peace of God. And then I learned… the real meaning of the word Beautiful.”

So that’s why I ask. When science nudged aside religion, did it push beauty out, too?

“God and beauty are very related,” Fiona agrees. “Though I wouldn’t say we lost beauty when we lost God. I think, for people today, beauty almost is – I wouldn’t say a substitute; but it fulfils a need that, in the past, religion filled. So when you see thousands of people going out to National Trust properties, and walking in the countryside, I’m convinced there is a spiritual dimension to that which, in the past, might have been met by going to church on Sunday.”

In fact, the point she is making in her book is a more subtle one: it’s almost as though we are in danger of losing our most stunning landscapes through sheer embarrassment. We might think of the Victorians as all starched pinafores and stiff upper lips; yet their lack of inhibition in talking about religion was mirrored by their willingness not only to feel beauty but to enshrine the word in law.

They wanted to save landscapes from industrialisation; they were horrified that farmland was being covered with houses, factories, workshops and railways (John Burns, MP, warned Parliament in 1908 that 500,000 acres had gone in 15 years).

Fiona’s point, beautifully illustrated throughout her book, is that ministers in the 21st century will freely talk about economics when they stand up in the House; but woe betide any who use the unscientific concept of sheer loveliness…

Instead of rolling hills, purple heather and meandering streams, today’s England is made up of ecosystems, sustainability, biodiversity and money.

“Yet beauty was once confidently written into legislation. It was used in public policy explicitly set out to protect beauty; there was no embarrassment or inhibition about it at all, and the book traces some of the reasons why,” she tells me.

“Oliver Letwin is the only politician who has ever seriously tried [to incorporate the concept of beauty], in a speech he gave in 2005. And he fully acknowledges that people thought it was odd.”

The Victorians were not only unafraid of emotive words; they also intuitively knew things we’ve subsequently used science to prove. Ruskin (again) saw no division between beauty, justice and moral virtue. No prizes, therefore, for studies concluding that ugly surroundings breed crime.

“They were all onto something, and they certainly got it in the middle of the last century. There’s a quote by Lewis Silkin [the minister who introduced the National Parks Bill in 1949], saying that it’s as important to have people out in the hills as to build hospitals because that will do them as much good.

“We think we’re so clever, waking up to wellbeing. But one of the things I find most poignant is the way we use these horrible techno words to describe beauty today, like ecosystem services or natural capital. It’s as if we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that there is a completely valuable and conscious subjectivity to all of these things.”

If we can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.

“Whether it’s a road-building or power stations or some other economic progress, they always trump beauty.”

Indeed, Fiona Reynolds maps our current health crisis alongside that very ‘beauty’ crisis – particularly in relation to children.

“There’s a lot of evidence that the deprivation children are experiencing, of nature but also of the outdoors – getting muddy; exploring; all of those things - can be linked to problems around childhood obesity, mental health, even Vitamin D deficiencies. We don’t let children run around unsupervised or have the experience of taking risks so they can learn to protect themselves. Children no longer eat dirt so they are becoming resistant to antibiotics. There are so many problems related to lack of experience of the outdoors.”

In her various chapters, which cover such topics as farming, cultural heritage, urbanisation, planning and the creation of National Parks, (alongside at least one real success story, thank god: of how we have protected Britain’s coastline), highs and lows are interwoven with stories of the organisations and individuals who have worked so hard to save field and fell, mountain and marsh, cathedral and castle.

But what strikes me is this – a point highlighted by that very argument currently raging over Borrowdale: People such as Ruskin and Wordsworth; illuminati like the historian WG Hoskins (of whom Fiona is a devotee), and the social reformer Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust (“a complete inspiration) were lifted and inspired by the ‘natural’ and indigenous. The problem is, the more of that we lose, the more we don’t understand what it is we should be fighting for.

“Exactly. And that’s a David Attenborough point: No one will protect what they do not first love.

“The statistics on nature-loss are the most shocking in the book. Ever since we’ve protected nature, things have got worse. We have not succeeded and, as a result, people see nature less often. My mother talks about how, as a child, she would see clouds of butterflies and swarms of caterpillars. If we see a single butterfly flying round today, we’re lucky. What we’ve lost is that sheer abundance of nature and the sense of glory – and I do use words that have religious overtones quite consciously because I think that there is a link between the two.”

Who knows what further challenges Brexit will bring. Fiona Reynolds is an optimist:

“But we are in a parlous state.”

I think, for a moment, about the factory worker who, in 1902, sent two shillings and sixpence towards the National Trust appeal to buy Brandelhow, near Borrowdale, saying, “All my life I have longed to see the Lakes… I shall never see them now but I should like to help keep them for others.”


Fiona Reynold’s own epiphanic moment came at the age of seven, when she climbed her first mountain. She, her father, and her older sister set out, just as dawn broke over Cnicht, in the hills of Snowdonia. They took all morning to ascend Cnicht’s 2,250 feet of ridges and mini-summits: “But the moment when we reached the top has never left me.”

As they looked down on the surrounding hills and mountains; on the remains of mining communities; on the blue of Cardigan Bay and the sandiness of Harlech, something changed forever. “I had never before seen such beauty, never before felt the shiver of nature’s exquisite perfection…” she writes.

Perhaps that moment sowed the seeds for a career in which she would ascend another sort of mountain: up the slippery slopes of a male-dominated world; through the hierarchy of organisations such as the Council for National Parks, the Campaign for Rural England and the Cabinet Office; to the heights of the National Trust, where she served as director general for some 12 years, slimming down its board of trustees and moving it from costly central London to the outlier of Swindon and a whole new environmentally-friendly HQ.

“I’ve never thought: I want to be this; I want to be that,” she says, as we sip coffee made for us by her youngest daughter (returned, this morning, from a university trip to Borneo). “And, if I had, I would never have imagined in a million years I would be director general of the National Trust; I still sort of think: ‘Did that really happen?’

“It was just a mixture of getting lucky – my first job after university [Cambridge, where she achieved a first in land economy) was that extraordinary chance to go and work in the heart of Whitehall, campaigning for National Parks.”

She laughs. “It paid nothing. All my friends were going into the city and earning a fortune and here was I running around Westminster and Whitehall, lobbying. But I couldn’t believe my luck.

“Without that break, I don’t think I would ever have been what I am today.”

That, and the father, Jeff Reynolds, to whom she has dedicated The Fight For Beauty.

“I had this amazing childhood and an extraordinary father. He instilled in me so much of the passion that I feel,” she says.

Although home is Cirencester, term-time is spent in Cambridge, where she now works – as the first female master of Emmanuel College. Wherever she is, she’s often up by 5am to give herself time to think – and time to appreciate the natural environment she loves.

“I’m an obsessive walker. When I am at home, I can walk in any direction for a long way, which I do. In Cambridge, I get up early and walk for an hour and a half, up the river one way and down the river the other. It’s my big thing.”

In both worlds – Cotswold country and Cambridge city – there is enormous loveliness…

And then we pause our conversation for a moment, interrupted by an outbreak of twittering. Above us, in the stone eaves, a swirl of swifts is busy, raucously expressing a noisy love of life.

“Aren’t they beautiful!” we exclaim.

The Fight For Beauty, Our Path to a Better Future, by Fiona Reynolds, is published in hardback by Oneworld, price £16.99