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Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment

Location: Surrey Hills AONB

Artists: Stephen Plaice, Roger Polley, Simon Read, Sandra Stevens, Ian Whittlesea, Tommy Wolseley, Pip Woolf

Landscape Assessment Team: Chris Burnett, Gill Binks, John Dyke

Countryside Commission (now Countryside Agency): Jenifer White


The Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment, carried out in 1996–97 for the Countryside Commission in partnership with Surrey County Council and the Arts Council of England, included an Artists’ Perception Project. Seven artists were commissioned to collaborate with the selected consultants, the Centre for Environmental Interpretation (CEI). They were asked to respond to the landscape of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in whatever way they chose, recording their responses in ‘workbooks’. The artists’ perceptions helped analyse landscape character and the sense of place. The work was published as ‘The Surrey Hills Landscape’ (pub. Countryside Commission, 1998). This report has subsequently informed the work of the Surrey Hills AONB Officer, both in the draft AONB Management Strategy, where aspects of the artists’ insights are reflected in proposed objectives, and in community and ‘place-making’ projects to which artists are bringing focus and vision.

Landscape Assessment

The Countryside Commission (now the Countryside Agency), the Government’s adviser on landscape, commissioned the landscape assessment for the Surrey Hills AONB, one of the last of a sequence of similar studies covering the AONBs in England and Wales. Landscape assessments are intended to identify and map landscape character as the basis for a more detailed management strategy which will reinforce local distinctiveness by conserving special landscape qualities. The Commission has aimed to devise a brief for each assessment tailored to that area’s particular needs. It has always recognised the importance of sensory impressions and cultural associations in our experience of landscape, and an appraisal of historical culture is woven into the landscape assessment briefs, alongside requirements for scientific and historic evidence.

To address the very rich cultural legacy of Surrey which includes world famous garden design, architecture and applied arts, Jenifer White of the Countryside Commission took a more adventurous approach to the brief for the landscape assessment than had ever been taken before. The brief asked consultants to allow cultural associations and perceptions, both historic and contemporary, to shape the study, rather than the technical aspects (topography, land use, geology and so on). The Commission asked consultants tendering for this assessment to include ideas for developing landscape perception as an element of landscape assessment, and the brief indicated a willingness to consider commissioning artistic work to aid this approach.

Project Brief

The brief was put out to competitive tender and was won by a team from CEI on the strength and freshness of their ideas. The team included Gillian Binks, CEI, John Dyke, Department of Architecture, Landscape and 3D Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Chris Burnett from Chris Burnett Associates, with Vicki Berger from Art Project Management to lead the artists’ perception element. Their proposal was to put together a mixed discipline team of artists, including visual artists, writers, musicians and other art forms to work on the team with them and inform their research study from the outset. Before the study could begin, an additional grant of £5,000 was secured from the Arts Council of England to match the sum earmarked by the Countryside Commission for the artists’ fees within the overall project budget.

Artist Team

The team of seven artists were selected by the consultants’ team from a long list drawn up by Vicki Berger from her own knowledge and professional contacts, with final selection based on the artists’ interest in the project and their portfolios of work. They included Pip Woolf, painter, Roger Polley and Simon Read, photographers, Tommy Wolseley and Ian Whittlesea, mixed media, Sandra Stevens, poet, and Stephen Plaice, writer and poet. Their brief asked them to take on board the aims of the landscape assessment and to record their responses to the landscape in whatever way they felt appropriate. The emphasis was on raw responses, vitality of reaction and expression. The artists were not expected to produce completed work. They were then asked to share their thoughts and work at a presentation to a small invited group. Their contracts, for a minimum of 5 days work each, began in summer 1996 with two days of long walks in the Surrey Hills with the consultants, countryside officers, planners and elected members from the AONB steering group. They were then asked to complete their ‘workbooks’ in the following four weeks.

Artists’ Insights

A large volume of work was produced in a variety of media. Some of the artists concentrated on a purely aesthetic response, drawing attention to details such as framed views and re-interpreting the visual significance of features such as eroded paths and horse-related structures which are usually seen as problematic. Others responded to the landscape from a socio-political perspective, commenting on what the landscape represents to residents and visitors, and how it is used, raising competing issues of landscape management, visitor information and control, and the freedom to roam.

The artists’ insights did not attempt to offer solutions but they did highlight issues, details and emphases which would have been missed in a more conventional landscape assessment, informing and sometimes shifting the principal consultants’ assessment of landscape character, and sharpening their sense of place. The artists’ presentations to a small group of the consultants, the Countryside Commission and officers and members of local authorities, were exciting and stimulating. They often challenged the thinking of those present and were felt to be an important part of the landscape management process.


The consultants’ report to the Countryside Commission, and the subsequent published document, ‘The Surrey Hills Landscape’, intertwines perceptions of landscape with the factual data and appraisal, and identifies management issues which have clearly resulted from the artists’ responses. The artists’ role and contribution is acknowledged throughout the text, and some of their work is included as verbal or visual illustration. The Commission had hoped to match the innovative process of research with appropriate presentation of the findings, within the constraints of the Commission’s publications house style, but ultimately additional funds were not available for this.


Those involved in the project felt that it was successful and worthwhile. For the Countryside Commission, the artists’ responses challenged perceptions and stimulated a fresh look at the landscape, and the methodology will be used again. CEI reports that the project presented an important learning opportunity which has significantly influenced their approach. The artists welcomed working in a team and relished a brief that asked them simply to respond creatively. There was disappointment that the artists’ contracts were not longer, that the publication design does not reflect the creative approach of the project itself, and that the budget could not extend to an exhibition of the artists’ work at the launch of the publication.


Rob Fairbanks was appointed Surrey Hills AONB Officer in mid 1998 to draft and implement a management strategy for the AONB based on the landscape assessment, including initiating and co-ordinating a variety of targeted projects. The Management Strategy Consultative Document, published in late 1999, proposes a framework for the work of the Surrey Hills Office based around six strategic initiatives to meet the management objectives of the main land use interests, including farming, recreation, community and the local economy. These initiatives, and the actions associated with them, indicate opportunities for a continued role for artists and craftspeople, especially within the Community Action and the Access & Interpretation strands of the strategy. There are also plans to create a display of the artists’ work to promote discussion at public meetings.

Ongoing Work

Several creative projects have already taken place or are being planned. Jackie Wills was poet in residence in the AONB for six months in 1999, part of a national Poetry Society scheme. As well as writing her own poetry, she ran several schools workshops, and sessions with planners, countryside officers, National Trust wardens and farmers. The latter workshops aimed to produce expressions of personal experience and also to show the potential for creative writing work with visiting school groups to engender understanding. The AONB Officer now plans to produce an informative colour poster for schools about the farmed landscape including poems produced during the residency.

Norbury Park is one Surrey’s historic parkland landscapes and falls within the AONB. The Norbury Park Art and Landscape Project, set up in 1991, aims to establish a contemporary creative identity for the Park through a series of artists’ commissions and projects. The most successful of these have been commissions involving local residents along the Mole Gap Way. It has recently been agreed to integrate the Norbury Park programme within the overall AONB management strategy as part of the Community Action Initiative, with a new part-time post to assist local community groups to commission artists and craftspeople in projects which celebrate their place.

A proposal was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the development of a project to re-create viewpoints lost to scrub and tree encroachment along the North Downs Way and the Greensand Way. The proposal envisaged practical restoration of the viewpoints coupled with imaginative interpretation and management strategies, including artists’ commissions, to ensure the viewpoints are valued and used in the long term.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000