I greatly enjoyed reading George Monbiot’s critical consideration of the Lake District’s bid for World Heritage Status: http://www.monbiot.com/2013/09/02/obstinate-questionings/
However, I cannot help thinking that further critical reflection and analysis of what ‘Lake District Heritage’ is – or can be – can take us a step further.
While the National Trust, Natural England and English Heritage form a powerful coalition that is seeking to have the region recognised by UNESCO, George Monbiot quite rightly recognises the poverty of many of their headline claims. While describing the Lake District as ‘one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe’, competing with ‘the chemical deserts of East Anglia for the title of Britain’s worse-kept countryside’ might perhaps sound rather shrill, Monbiot’s basic point – that the Lake District represents the epitome of many of the contradictions that lie within the British conservation movement – is well articulated. While there is a pretence of the Lake District as a romantic and ecologically varied place where a harmonious interaction between people and their environment have sustained a democratic and quintessentially ‘national’ landscape, Monbiot points towards the conflict between a monolithic and industrial-scale system of hill farming on the one hand, and the ideal of a thriving ecosystem on the other. Monbiot asks us: “why should Wordsworth and Ruskin govern our tastes beyond the grave? Why should the culture they mythologised be treated as if it were the only current and possible culture?”
I agree with much of what Monbiot says, but it strikes me that in critiquing the present form of the Lake District as ‘wrong’, Monbiot implies that there is some sort of ‘authentic’ landscape out there, which requires our ‘protection’, if only we realised it. Taking a more processual viewpoint on heritage can shift our attention away from any presumption of there being an authentic and original ‘landscape-out-there’, and points us toward the notion of ‘Lake District heritage’ as an on-going and open-ended achievement. As ugly (or as beautiful) as the Lake District is, it is actually quite a good example of where a constructed sense of the past is actively used in the present to suggest an imagined sense of destiny for the future. This is something to be purposefully engaged with, not something to preserve (or not). Monbiot quite rightly points us towards taking a critical standpoint that seeks to unpick some of the power relations that are actively in operation within the Lake District – for instance, see the work of Divya Tolia-Kelly and Mike Crang (‘Nation, race, and affect: senses and sensibilities at national heritage sites’, Environment and Planning A, 2010). Rather than simply castigate the Lake District’s claims to ‘world heritage’, therefore, we should critically engage with what the heritage of the Lake District is – and what it can be.