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Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment

Some Ideas On The Surrey Hills

Surrey for me was like looking at a landscape second hand, through someone else's eyes; your views sign posted, the sound of the wind described, the texture of pine needles related to you as a film, I wandered around dazed and confused by a fusion of model-rural and rural.

London's proximity seemed to me the over riding factor in interpreting the Surrey Hills, a rural environment in the shadow of a massive metropolis. There are many complex practical problems of landscape and people management due to this relationship, but my primary concern was with how we understand this 'rural' (sub-urban / sub-rural hybrid) landscape.

Today our images of ' Natural' rural environments are largely produced or imbued with meaning by an urban population; media, tourist industry, estate agents and advertising, reflecting the dreams and aspirations of that population, marketing products and lifestyles.

Which is why the 'Surrey Hills' is such an interesting place to look at, having had such a close interaction with London, it has been overwhelmed by an urban myth, to the extent that it has become the myth; a sub-urban model of rural Britain. A process continued by the constant migration from London, for those wealthy enough, which then propagates the myth and desirability of the escape to a place of peace, comfort and control.

The aesthetic of function
The aesthetic of the real

This is where my confusion lies as I walk around in the landscape; between the rural and the model rural. A rural landscape is one in which man's position in the landscape is largely dictated by the functionality of the land; how it works, a local, long term interaction of people and the land, governed by an external image of what the land is, much as early colonists often tried to model their new territories on those they had come from. But in this case it is more confusing as a quasi historical and largely fictional model is superimposed on the place it originated from. This is where the signs and meanings begin to float, drift and fuse, at the 'real ale pub', the display farm and the 'ye olde tea shoppe'. It becomes hard to distinguish between the model; self conscious in its mimicry of the rural image, and the 'real' rural landscape. I become unsure of the depth of function in the objects, signs and landscape around me, the image of authenticity becomes a commodity for sale in the purveying of images.

Hyper-real, hyper-rural

It seems that when we visit Surrey we are entering a strange space, two places sandwiched together; an urban and a rural image of Surrey. In more remote rural areas the poles are further apart and more distinct, but in Surrey the gap between rural and urban is so small that they seem to have fused into a strange hybrid, blurring the distinctions between model and rural.

A Floating Identity

Surrey's identity seems to float above its context, in the urban imagination of the rural. This means the landscape is subservient to image of its self, successful insofar as it is able to emulate, or can be made to conform to the model-rural (a new function for the landscape?). As this identity is not necessarily reaffirmed by, or responsive to the local environment, there is a great need to define and control the environment, to secure the rural myth. Nervous of its potential collapse, there seems to be a fear of anything that threatens the massive investment in the dream of escape to this rural Arcadia, crystallizing the defined rustic myth against a fluid interaction with a specific environment.

The identity of the Surrey Hills is of course far more complex than this argument, but I have tried to pinpoint what the primary influence on my perception of the landscape was. I should also say that despite the strength of this homogenized 'hyper-rural' image I could not help feeling the possibility of escaping to a more personal landscape behind it.