If you ever needed to select an image to represent north Devon then this could be it. It’s a river valley, the Torridge in this case, surrounded by fields and bordered by trees and hedges as far as the eye can see. In the foreground, two dairy cows are grazing. James Ravilious took many photographs around Beaford and Dolton, it was an area where he spent much of his time; an area and a landscape he loved. Looking at this image you just know it was taken by someone who loved the beauty of the landscape. His preference for using black and white film immediately removes what would be our first association with a rural Devon landscape – the colour, the green of the fields and trees. But it still captures, perhaps even further emphasises, the shades and shadows, and so makes the shape of the land even more apparent.
How different would this image, or any river valley image be today? Would we see as many hedges, or trees? Would we even see cows outdoors, grazing the grass?
A network of hedges and trees run through Devon’s pastures and agricultural land and it’s recognised that they provide an essential haven and route for wildlife. Millions of trees have disappeared from hedgerows across the country in the last 30 years and a campaign was launched in Devon this spring by the Devon Hedge Group to try and encourage landowners to plant new hedgerow trees and protect and encourage existing ones.
At the time Ravilious took this image, in 1980, north Devon was going through a time of major changes in agriculture. Rural studies academic Martyn Warren would say it was a ‘dynamic’ time for farming, with a lot of money coming in to farming through the European Community. In previous writings about the photographs of Ravilious, Martyn described his skill as an artist, but he also noted, “What gave a focus to his work was a determination to preserve an image of something he saw as dying under the influence of change. He was capturing, before it was lost, something precious.”
Is this image one to be taken for granted, or might it change? How much has Devon’s landscape changed since the time Ravilious was taking his photographs.