Defining bioregions in these islands II

Johnny Appleseed

‘The necessity for scores of bioregional Johnny Appleseeds’

– Kirkpatrick Sale, ‘The Birth of Dartia’, Schumacher College journal #3, (Summer 1992)

It was good to see my last post on this topic receive attention on social media, it was shared widely and garnered some useful comments – this follows on from that and is best understood having read it beforehand. Shortly after publishing that post I saw Kirkpatrick Sale’s line about the ‘necessity for scores of bioregional Johnny Appleseeds’ and was heartened that perhaps we were seeing that flowering now, both with the Bioregional Learning Centre‘s Community of Practice and with a wider cohort of wild re-seeders – we still need more Joni Appleseeds too though.

Nick Turner, based in Stroud, engaged in communication about defining bioregions in these islands:

Nick: If the bioregion is to become meaningful as an organising category then perhaps there needs to be some thought as to the functions that it needs to facilitate. Perhaps that would include non-motorised transport, goods and food distribution. The Severn river basin where I live is too large for some of these functions so a more meaningful designation is the Severn Vale ‘management catchment’ or even the Frome and Cam ‘Operational catchment’ areas according to the gov environment data.

I’d be really interested if James or anyone could point to any introductory conceptualising questions to help frame my own thinking about this
James: Good thinking. I think the bioregion considered at ‘morphoregion’ scale may be a pointer here (See Kirkpatrick Sale’s Dwellers in the Land for where the concept is introduced. I mention it here:  and point towards Mark Burton’s work on Manchester/Mersey bioregion here. These won’t necessarily provide answers but might begin to shape the edges of the question space!
Nick: Thanks for the links James. Interestingly, my local operational catchment area (morphoregion perhaps) seems very closely aligned with our district government boundaries. Perhaps a historical connection to the concept.
James: Yeah there’s quite a lot of that – if you trace the Saxon heptarchy through to the shire system in England and then on to ceremonial counties – with district and parish subdivisions there’s a fair amount of biogeographical boundaries – although rivers often form edges – counter to the bioregion v.1 sense of watersheds/ridges as edges. My county, Essex, is primarily – South border: Thames, West border: River Lea, North border: River Stour, east border: North Sea

hackeny brook
Engraving by MA Gliddon showing Hackney in 1830 with Hackney Brook in the foreground (via London’s Lost Rivers)
Hackney Brook walking map

Les Moore, based in Hackney, east London shared my original blog on the Hackney Permaculture Network Facebook page and noted:

Les: The Hackney Brook defines our local ‘micro-region’, it used to flow through Clissold Park (north), the boundary wall of Abney Park Cemetery, across Stamford Hill at the Cemetery main entrance, meandered through to Rendlesham Road and under the railway embankment west of Hackney Downs. Through Pembury Circus, Amhurst Road, adjacent to St Bartholomew’s Church, down to Well Street and along Wick Road and into the River Lea.

In these fragmentary bits of discussions I see connections between the places described and patches described by others – a map of the Archipelago, in which Nick’s catchment area can be seen between Anthony Melville’s Upper Thames watershed, and the area that Thom Forrester’s Forest of Dean Wum Land Party claims for ‘independence betwix Severn and Wye’ – all them in relation to the Independent Mercia championed by Jeff Kent and others as ‘an autonomous and sustainable bioregion with a confederation of English regions’ (encompassing Bioregion Birmingham?), the areas of the Wessex Regionalists, Mebyon Kernow and the independence movements of Wales and Scotland, a Manchester-Mersey Bioregion, or to Dartia (pdf) – the Dart Valley Bioregion, Ed Tyler’s Kintyre, Paul Channey’s Lizard Exit Plan, or the Dengie. Tim Robinson’s Connemara or the West Meath bioenergy region. I see Les’s Hackney Brook micro-region flow into the Lea Valley Bioregion outlined by OrganicLea. The seeds of a patchwork have already been spread, with some areas proving more fertile to growth than others – how I wonder might we accelerate succession, respond and adapt to the particularities of different niches, use successful projects as nurseries to advance progress elsewhere?

I am wondering about the utility of these words: Morphoregions and microregions, to describe distinct areas. These beginnings of a (or rather the extension of Sale’s) bioregional typology are certainly useful for granular specificity, but the language is a bit ungainly – perhaps it’s just due to unfamiliarity, but it doesn’t aid communication outside the circle of those already interested. It’s no wonder that the familiar forms of governance areas have a gravity to them however ecologically incoherent they may be, aided as they are both by the force of well-acquainted language and of history. Also as Nick notes, many existing government boundaries match biogeographical edges, they are ecologically coherent – and a bioregional consideration of the structures of England’s shires, hundreds, manors/tythings/parishes would itself be illuminating.

The on-going value of these traditional divisions were discussed by Joshua Toulmin Smith, one of the leaders of the mid-19th century radical Local Self-Government movement in the United Kingdom (and founding member of the Anti-Centralisation Union), who looked back to the Anglo-Saxons to find appropriate forms of self-government.

‘An examination of the most authentic records shows that the Parish is the original secular division of the land; made for the administration of Justice, keeping of the peace, collection of taxes, and the other purposes incidental to civil government and local well-being. There were by no means, originally, churches or priests to every parish. These were things of much later introduction. The Parish, being already in existence and active life, was simply the obvious and natural territorial division to which separate churches were allotted, when the piety of the wealthy led them to build and endow these.’ – Joshua Toulmin Smith, The parish : its powers and obligations at law, as regards the welfare of every neighbourhood, and in relation to the state; its officers and committees; and the responsibility of every parishioner (1857)

The interest in the old divisions of England persisted across the 19th Century and was picked up by the Fabian movement as part of their vision of municipal socialism, hence a book series released under the over-arching title of The New Heptarchy referencing the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England prior to unification in the 10th Century. The echo of this thinking can be seen in both the flawed and failed attempt at English devolution proposed under the Blair government (through eight newly created Regional Assemblies), and in the current vogue for the ‘city-region’. [also see the Young Fabian’s Devolution and Local Government Network and the mysterious Facebook group Restore the Heptarchy]

‘In order to bring the New Heptarchy into existence it will be necessary to create by legislation the preliminary power of creation. Even the business of widening the boundaries of a municipality can only be done at present by an Act of Parliament for each case. A bill for this purpose may be thrown out for some petty local reason, over-riding for the moment the real interests of a divided community, which for municipal purposes ought to be a unit. Liverpool and Bootle, Manchester and Salford, Birmingham and the surrounding borough and urban district councils – not to speak of London, with its belt of corporations and district councils, which ought never to have been called into being as entirely separate and independent bodies – all bear witness to the want of guiding principles in English local government, especially in relation to area.’

William Stephen Sanders, Municipalization by provinces : Report of the Committee of the Society appointed to consider the reform of local government, The New Heptarchy Series No.1, (1905)


While any biogeographical determinism for the boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy remains to be evidenced (but a basic comparison with major river basins is useful), the rising interest in the philosophies of local government and devolution in the 20th Century certainly did encourage consideration of the role natural features might play.

‘If any… division of England is to be satisfactory, it must be based primarily on geographical considerations. Many other series of considerations are necessarily involved — historical, administrative, financial, and so on — but the basis of any such division into provinces must be the geography of the country. The results of the division of Revolution France into a series of purely artificial departments, designed to secure as much uniformity as possible irrespective of any natural geographical relationships, and the modern revolt agains that division in the regionalist movement in that country, offer a warning that should not go unheeded. Any attempt to secure an artificial uniformity of area or population in our provinces would inevitably give rise to corresponding evils. And the weakness of a division based entirely on party interests has also been shown by the rapid and complete disappearance of Cromwell’s divisions of England. A strong local patriotism is essential to good provincial government under democratic conditions; and this can only be developed if the provinces are closely related to natural divisions of the country. Hence the question to which this book attempts to give a tentative answer may be stated as “What are the Major Natural Political Divisions of England?” ‘

C.B. Fawcett, Provinces of England; a study of some geographical aspects of devolution, (1919)


I remain uneasy about starting from these large regions however, or being too tied to boundaries determined in other times for other purposes. I’m reminded of H.G. Wells’s comments written at the time New Heptarchy thinking was fashionable amongst his circle:

‘The areas within which we shape our public activities at present, derive, I hold, from the needs and conditions of a past order of things. They have been patched and repaired enormously, but they still preserve the essential conceptions of a vanished organization. They have been patched and repaired first to meet this urgent specific necessity and then that, and never with any comprehensive anticipation of coming needs, and at last they have become absolutely impossible.’ – H.G. Wells, Mankind in the Making, (1903)

Wells goes on to be dismissive of ‘local government areas’ which ‘represent for the most part what were once distinct, distinctly organized, and individualized communities, complete minor economic systems’ preserving ‘a tradition of what was once administrative convenience and economy’ adding that ‘To-day, I submit, they do not represent communities at all, and they become more wasteful and more inconvenient with every fresh change in economic necessity.’ Here I begin to differ from Wells, who wrote in an era of rapid globalisation and empire, in our era of energy descent ‘complete minor economic systems’ seem more appealing. The skill is to learn from the past but not necessarily to repeat it, a spiral dynamic perhaps.

‘Parish Map’ of Blaenau Ffestiniog by the artist David Nash (1985)

Graham Shackleton writing for Common Ground about their parish mapping project, noted:

‘Parish’ is offered not to define but to describe the scale at which people feel a sense of familiarity and ownership in their place: home place, your own familiar territory, the neighbourhood to which you feel a sense of belonging, the locality which ‘belongs’ to you. Many have defined their own edge, but others have used the Parish Boundary and indeed discovered much of history and nature by so doing.’

I think this represents something of the creative re-interpretation we might do of past forms in order to meet present and future needs. This post feels a bit of a mess, I’m exploring these ideas in public and they could do with more work to make them more coherent – but I think it’s good to get them out there, see what others think, what others can add (or take away).


2 thoughts on “Defining bioregions in these islands II”

  1. At a time of climate/environmental/politico/economic emergency this come across as frivolous, patronising displacement activity, out of sync with contemporary realities, and I suspect that was the view of HGWells


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s