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In 1951 it emerged that the BBC was planning to erect a 229 meter television transmitter at North Hessary Tor on Dartmoor. Lady Sylvia Sayer, president of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, was furious. It would be, she wrote, “a massacre of landscapes on a more than usual awe-inspiring scale.” The “extraterrestrial” presence would be “a perpetual reminder of this modern ‘civilization’ that most people come to forget in a national park”.

Despite Sayer’s forceful rhetoric, his campaign against the flagpole – his “first major foray into militant politics” – failed. But despite losing a battle, the war to preserve Dartmoor’s landscape continued: “From her stone house in a small hamlet on Dartmoor, she orchestrated frequent campaigns which combined her verbal eloquence, combativeness and understanding of legal status and planning processes, placing her among the most effective post-war environmental activists and lobbyists. Described as an “ecological activist” by the press, Sayer fought 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, alongside three other women who campaigned to save the English countryside: Octavia Hill, Beatrix Potter and Pauline Dower. Their activism has helped shape modern environmental consciousness, as well as preserve landscapes and access rights across the country.

Some argued that they were too successful. Since the 1970s, when Kelly’s study ended, the loss of species and habitats meant that attention had increasingly turned to other threats, such as agriculture. Conservationist George Monbiot has described the Lake District – the birthplace of the modern conservation movement – as a ‘wreckage wasteland’. Highland landscapes have been reduced to monocultural green deserts. In the era of the climate crisis, we no longer speak of preservation but of rewilding landscapes, as at the Knepp Estate in Sussex.

And yet, as Kelly demonstrates, the accomplishments of these four conservationists deserve to be remembered and even celebrated. Her book spans a century, and it begins with Octavia Hill, “a moralist and reformer of utterly astonishing scope and commitment.” She believed that the public should have the right of access to open spaces, and after helping to found the National Trust in 1895, she worked tirelessly to raise funds to purchase plots of land to preserve the views (” salient headlands”) for all to enjoy – especially in his beloved Kent.

Beatrix Potter is, of course, famous for her children’s books. But she has also become one of the most important benefactors of the National Trust. Like Hill, she believed in “buying to preserve.” She also believed in public access, although she “might be ungenerous in private with overweight women wearing unsuitable shoes”. On her death in 1943, she made what was the largest Lake District bequest ever made to the Trust. The last of the four, Pauline Dower, was the senior and senior woman on the National Parks Commission.

The Women Who Saved England’s Countryside by Matthew Kelly review – Nature Guardians |  history books

All shared a commitment to traditional approaches to farming, such as upland grazing, but they were not conservationists: “They tended to express concern about threats to the natural environment in terms of aesthetic or cultural rather than ecological loss”. Although they all had a privileged upbringing, each had to face gender stereotypes; being the only woman in the room “might be isolating, but it also allowed the four to challenge existing mores and assumptions”. As Kelly puts it: “No glass of whiskey in the club’s avuncular atmosphere brought these women to heel.”

Kelly’s book is rich in information about their motivations. Although sometimes the level of detail on land deals and committees makes for rather dry reading, 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 the structures legal, so that future generations could enjoy the rights they have today. As well as exploring their lives and activism, Kelly guides the reader through the landscapes they fought to preserve. As he rightly says, “Every 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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