War with rude nature

The remaking of the countryside.


This stretch of railway at Chat Moss was designed by George Stephenson and built through a bog.
NRM/Science & Society Picture Library

As the railways spread they despoiled the countryside and brought urban, industrial society to the heart of rural Britain.

Railways were resisted by landowners, some of them motivated by greed and self-interest, and by early environmentalists, many of whom were inspired by the Romantics’ love of nature. Proposals to build lines in the Lake District prompted vociferous complaint from William Wordsworth and John Ruskin. But once they were built rural railways made the poets’ dramatic perspectives accessible to the wider public.

Proposals to build lines in the Lake District prompted vociferous complaint from William Wordsworth.

The railways transformed the wider rural landscape, too, by changing agricultural society. For instance, farming in the Fens intensified as expanding railway links ensured that farmers could provide fruit and vegetables for London, rather than local markets. Rural industries, too, particularly mining and mineral extraction, expanded rapidly with the coming of railways. When the main lines reached Blaenau Ffestiniog in the 1860s, for example, Welsh slate was sold across the country and an entire mountainside was destroyed.

The experience of the train journey also changed travellers’ perceptions of landscape. They no longer encountered it at first hand, moving slowly along lanes and byways, but viewed it at speed, framed by the carriage and partially obscured by smoke. For early train travellers this often proved strangely dislocating, as they became accustomed to what one observer called the ‘evanescent landscape’.

So railways remade the countryside, but perhaps their greatest impact was on the cityscape.

Background: Class 87