In a recent piece in The Guardian, Melissa Harrison argues, as she takes us on an intriguing tour through modern literature, that the car has ruined our love of the countryside. She writes:
Travel was once a way to understand topography, but the modern road network often disengages us from it. Most of the time, all that’s visible from a motorway is fast-moving embankment or a half-mile strip of field. On the dashboard, the satnav tells us nothing about the physical characteristics of the land we travel through – only that we are on the right route.
Whilst her point could easily be true for those who use their cars merely for commuting purposes, as a means of getting from A to B as quickly and effortlessly as possible, I find the complete opposite to be true for those of us who consider ourselves recreational motorists.
One of the things I’ve taken to doing on my day off on Saturday is to load up my young sons in the back seat with some books and toys and head off into the North Pennines or the empty spaces of Northumberland to explore the backroads. Part of the reason I do so is to enjoy both my car and the act of driving in places where I can open it up a bit more, navigate twists and turns, and let my ‘ultimate driving machine’ do the sort of thing it seems to have been designed to do.
But it is not just the car that comes alive in places like this; my senses do as well. The kind of recreational motoring I do at the weekend has given me a fresh love for rural Britain. The moorlands and hills of County Durham and Northumberland are beautiful places, and I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to spend some time admiring the countryside. Whether it’s coming round a sharp bend and seeing a stream tranquilly cutting its way through the moors, spanned by an old stone bridge, or cresting a hill and watching a wide expanse unfold before me, I drive to take in the land and its physicality as much as I do to enjoy the car. More, I begin to feel its contours, its rises and falls, through the vehicle as we traverse the landscape (and this becomes even more true, perhaps, in adverse weather conditions).
The fact that I stop rather frequently to take photos of the places we drive through (much of which ends up on my Instagram feed, a few samples of which are posted here) is, in part, a testament to that. It puts a smile on my face when my 5-year-old son, learning to appreciate the world around him, will look out the window and say, ‘Daddy, look, it’s so pretty!’ And every once in a while we step out of the car to simply be in the place, to hear the sound of the wind and the babbling of the stream, to watch the way the sunlight casts its rays across the hills and vales, to take in the silence, before we continue on to discover the delights that lie round the next bend.
Harrison suggests that beacuse of the car, we now have ‘a much more detached way of looking at the countryside’, and concludes,
We all exist beyond our world horizons now. Yet for me there’s still no way of understanding a landscape without walking it: without using, as generations have before me, feet and body and breath. To belong somewhere – or to write about it well – we need to step out and seek thing-experience, too.
As someone who enjoys walking, I don’t dispute the merits of the activity. But if the car detaches us from the countryside, it’s only because we allow it to do so.