In 1951, it emerged that the BBC planned to erect a 229-metre television transmitter at North Hessary Tor on Dartmoor. Lady Sylvia Sayer, chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, was incensed. It would, she wrote, be “landscape-slaughter on a more than usually impressive scale”. The “alien” presence would be “a perpetual reminder of that modern ‘civilisation’ which most people come to a national park to forget”.

Despite Sayer’s forceful rhetoric, her campaign against the mast – her “first major foray into activist politics” – failed. But although she had lost one battle, the war to preserve the landscape of Dartmoor continued: “From her stone cottage in a tiny Dartmoor hamlet, she orchestrated frequent campaigns that combined her verbal eloquence, combativeness and grasp of legal statute and planning processes, placing her among the most effective post-war environmental campaigners and lobbyists.” Branded a “militant conservationist” by the press,Sayer fought on valiantly until her death in 2000. And yet today she is a little-known figure. Matthew Kelly’s book attempts to give her the recognition she deserves, along with three other women who campaigned to save the English countryside: Octavia Hill, Beatrix Potter and Pauline Dower. Their activism has helped shape the modern environmental consciousness, as well as preserving landscapes and access rights across the country.

Some have argued that they were too successful. Since the 1970s when Kelly’s study ends, the loss of species and habitats has meant that the focus has increasingly turned to other threats, such as farming. The environmentalist George Monbiot has described the Lake District – the birthplace of the modern conservation movement – as a “sheepwrecked wasteland”. Upland landscapes have been reduced to monocultural green deserts. In the age of climate crisis, the talk is no longer of preservation but rewilding landscapes, as at the Knepp Estate in Sussex.

And yet, as Kelly demonstrates, the achievements of these four preservationists deserve to be remembered and indeed celebrated. His book spans a century and he begins with Octavia Hill, “a moralist and reformer of quite astonishing range and commitment”. She believed the public should have right of access to open spaces, and after she helped found the National Trust in 1895, she worked tirelessly to raise money to buy plots of land to preserve views (“salient promontories”) for all to enjoy – especially in her beloved Kent.

Beatrix Potter is, of course, famous for her children’s books. But she also became one of the National Trust’s most important benefactors. Like Hill, she believed in “purchasing to preserve”. She also believed in public access, though she “could be privately ungenerous about overweight women in unsuitable shoes”. When she died in 1943, she made what was the largest single Lake District bequest yet made to the Trust. The last of the four, Pauline Dower, was the longest serving and most senior woman on the National Parks Commission.

The Women Who Saved the English Countryside by Matthew Kelly 61MylMLIj1L

All of them shared a commitment to traditional approaches to farming, such as upland grazing, but they were not nature conservationists: “They tended to express their concern about threats to the natural environment in terms of aesthetic or cultural rather than ecological loss.” Though they all had privileged upbringings, each had to confront gender stereotypes; being the only woman in the room “could be isolating but it also gave the four licence to challenge existing mores and assumptions”. As Kelly puts it: “No glass of whisky in the avuncular atmosphere of the club brought these women into line.”

Kelly’s book is rich with insights into their motivations. Although at times the level of detail about land deals and committees makes for a rather dry read, an important part of Kelly’s argument is that the activism of these women involved precisely this kind of painstaking work to create and change legal structures, so that future generations could enjoy the rights they do today. As well as exploring their lives and activism, Kelly guides the reader through the landscapes that they fought to preserve. As he rightly says: “Each step we take today validates the work they did then.”

PD Smith is the author of City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age. The Women Who Saved the English Countryside is published by Yale (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at To buy a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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