The Land Britain from Above


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The Land

Revealing the transformation of East Anglia, which found its agriculture and landscape quickly industrialised to cope with the changes of the Second World War.


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This vintage Tiger Moth first took to the air in the late 1930s

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and flew out over the wide, flat lands of East Anglia.

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70 years ago,

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this corner of England looked very different.

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Since then, what was once a quiet, rural backwater

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has been transformed... by a farming revolution

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that swapped men for machines...

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...By a transport revolution

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that brought airports and motorways...

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..And by changes in the way we live and work

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that have steadily been covering the land with houses and towns.

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This is a story of change that's common to much of rural Britain,

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but is seen most dramatically here in East Anglia.

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And most clearly from above.

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It is the story of how we have changed and continue to change

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this green and pleasant land.

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It's aviation that's given us a way

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to understand East Anglia's transformation.

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And there's one man who's watched it unfold from the air -

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Bill Ison - at 89, Britain's oldest flying instructor.

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My first flight ever

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was 1931.

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I was wearing my first pair of long trousers.

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And for half a crown,

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this gentleman offered to fly me round in the Gypsy Moth.

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Fascinating. I couldn't believe I was up in the air.

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A lot of green fields.

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Very little in the way of human habitation.

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Cambridgeshire was fairly, um... verdant, shall we say?

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Yes...

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I wouldn't realise at the time

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that things were gonna change as they have over the years.

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In the '30s, hardly anyone bothered to record the landscape from the air

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because there was little reason to believe it would change.

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It took a world war to give us the first comprehensive aerial record.

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Archaeologist Chris Going

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has discovered a unique collection of photographs

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that capture much of East Anglia from the air,

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taken by German bombers on their way to attack RAF bases

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at the start of World War Two.

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What they reveal, effectively by accident,

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is a vast area of the country that has no major city,

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no large industry or anything like an airport,

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no substantial road link to London and beyond.

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In fact, little except small villages and endless farms.

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By starting to take vertical air photographs in the late 1930s -

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'39, '40 -

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the German air force created for us an incomparable archive,

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a huge record of a landscape about to disappear.

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This is a lost world, frozen in time.

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But we can see how it functioned and why it had to change

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thanks to these -

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a unique set of beautifully crafted land-use maps from the early 1930s.

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These are just a few of the original 22,000 sheets,

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each one created by hand by a quarter of a million volunteers.

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Almost all of them were schoolchildren,

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sent into the countryside to record and describe

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every single piece of land in their neighbourhood.

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The entire project was dreamt up

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by geography professor Lawrence Dudley Stamp,

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a man obsessed with protecting Britain's agricultural land

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from urban sprawl.

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And what he created

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was, in effect, Britain's first comprehensive land-use survey

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since the Domesday Book.

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We were mapped by the Ordnance Survey,

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so we knew where things were,

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we knew where the towns, the roads and the railways and the woods were.

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But we didn't know about the white space on the maps,

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which is the bits in-between.

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It was the first time we really had a record

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at this level of detail of what every single field,

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every single parcel of land, was being used for.

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Dr Ruth Swetnam is one of Britain's leading experts on landscape change

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and has been studying Stamp's maps

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to see exactly how East Anglia's land was being farmed

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in the 1930s.

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Looking here at an area around Ely, on the edge of the Fens,

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and we'll put the jigsaw back together.

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of this astonishingly complex landscape.

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It really would have been

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a very much more mixed farming system than we would see today.

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We've got wheat, beet, potatoes, celery, mangolds, lettuces.

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Enormous variety of crops being grown,

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and they were all inter-leaved with each other.

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Very dense, complex pattern of land ownership

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and land use, really.

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The farms were very much smaller.

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They'd have one field here, another field over here.

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To modern eyes, it looks totally inefficient,

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and in many ways, it was.

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The village of Stuntney, in the Fens,

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was a typical 1930s farming community.

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This is the same village today,

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dominated, as it was then, by Stuntney Hall Farm.

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The first recorded owner of the farm was one Oliver Cromwell,

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in the 1640s,

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and by the 1930s, it hadn't really changed that much

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in the way it worked.

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This farm was, um...

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basically worked by vast numbers of people and horses.

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We would have been employing about 100 men and women on this farm.

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Virtually everything was hand work, a lot of what we call "piece work" -

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you get paid by the amount of work that you did.

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And the working day was a hard day.

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There was a lot of ditching work - that was done by hand.

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There was work...

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There was a lot of work.

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Among Chris Going's aerial photos, are a series which show

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quite how much time and effort went into a single harvest.

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The harvest has just taken place. There are three fields here.

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Here we've got, the shocks of wheat have been cut by hand,

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but they haven't yet been gathered into stooks,

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so that happened very recently.

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You cross the road and you can see a large hay cart

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and a horse in front,

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and it's slowly going round the field.

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You can see where they've gathered up all the shocks.

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Half of the field has been done. The other half remains to be done.

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There's another day's work, two days' work, to be done there.

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The landscape you're looking at here

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is a landscape that's being farmed in, effectively, a medieval manner.

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-DR RUTH SWETNAM:

-We'd gone through the industrial revolution

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but we hadn't really gone through the modern agricultural revolution

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at that point.

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Farming was not highly mechanised.

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There were very few tractors.

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I mean, in the early '30s, probably about only one in 15 farms

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had any access to a tractor.

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They were very rare.

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In the late 1930s,

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over a million people worked on the land as labourers -

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a fifth of the working population -

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yet farming was so inefficient,

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Britain still imported 90% of its grain, mostly from Canada.

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You have to remember, in 1930,

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that, um, we did still have a huge empire,

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and we were importing a large amount of our food from the empire,

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and there was no incentive at that time

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for farmers to invest in agriculture,

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because, for the United Kingdom, it was cheaper to import food

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from these large bread-basket nations,

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and so the agriculture in the 1930s was really at a very low point.

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And then everything changed.

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When war broke out in 1939,

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Britain suddenly found its essential food supplies

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cut off by German blockade.

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But beyond the propaganda lay a serious issue.

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If we were going to produce food in any new quantity,

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we needed more than allotments -

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we needed to change the nation's agriculture.

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And Stamp's maps showed precisely where to do it.

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The Government weren't really that interested when he first started.

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It was only when they found out that over 5,000 of these field maps

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had been called in by the War Agricultural Executive Committees,

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which were these bodies which were trying to improve agriculture at county level,

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that they suddenly realised how important they were

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and funded the publication of the whole series.

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While in towns and cities one and a half million people

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worked on their allotments,

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out in the countryside,

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over 300,000 unproductive farms were targeted for direct government aid,

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and, effectively, commandeered.

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An additional five and half million acres was identified

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as capable of growing crops.

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200,000 more labourers and 50,000 new tractors

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eased the workload.

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And in five years,

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food production almost doubled.

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Yet while the nation was trying to feed itself,

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there were new demands being placed on the land.

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To fight the war,

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Britain suddenly needed to build airfields.

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Between 1939 and 1945,

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600 new airfields sprang up almost overnight across the UK,

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and the greatest proportion of these were in East Anglia,

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because this was the largest, flattest piece of land

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close to the Continent.

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In 1942 alone,

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a new airfield was being started here every three days.

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Mostly for the newly arrived American air force.

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For three years, they used East Anglia

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as an unsinkable aircraft carrier

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to launch daily raids on the enemy.

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But the cost was extraordinarily high.

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One plane in six was shot down.

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And the ones that survived

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were often so badly damaged, they barely made it home.

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Those that did

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would often be diverted to one airfield in particular

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with an extra-long crash runway.

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It was called Stansted.

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Stansted's mile-and-a-half of concrete became the saviour

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for many thousands of American airmen,

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grateful to be home in, more or less, one piece.

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After the war, dormant airfields littered

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the southern half of Britain and East Anglia in particular.

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The question was,

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what to do with them.

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In the years that followed, some remained in military use.

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Many returned to their original farm owners

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to be ploughed back into farmland.

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But there was another obvious possibility -

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to turn some of these old wartime airfields

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into new peacetime airports.

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Among the candidates, Stansted looked just about perfect.

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With its super-long wartime runway, it was already capable

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of taking the new, large, post-war passenger aircraft.

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And in the first package flight boom of the early '60s,

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Stansted looked set to become London's third airport.

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By 1967, there were plans to expand into the surrounding countryside,

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and the villages and farms

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that would need to be bulldozed were identified,

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but the villagers and the farmers fought back.

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In a rare success for the protesting public,

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the Government unexpectedly changed its mind

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and Stansted was abandoned as London's third airport,

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at least for the time being.

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Meanwhile, East Anglia's farmers were being encouraged

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to do some expanding of their own.

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During the war, this country, and the rest of Europe as well,

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very nearly starved because of the U-boats.

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So immediately after the war,

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all the politicians in Europe, including British politicians,

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went out to farmers and said, "For goodness' sakes, never again

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"are we gonna be dependent on outside sources for food - grow more food!"

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The farmers said to the politicians,

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"Hang on, we're not as dumb as we look.

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"We know perfectly well

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"that if we have a big harvest and produce more food,

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"the price is gonna go down."

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To which the politicians said,

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"Relax, chaps, that will never happen,

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"because if it does, we, the Government, will guarantee

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"to buy those surpluses from you at a price that gives you a profit."

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For the first time ever,

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farmers could afford the cost of mechanisation.

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In the three decades following the war,

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investment in farm machinery rose tenfold.

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And as a result, food production increased by a further 200%.

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But in all this endless industrialisation,

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the land itself had to change.

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To accommodate the fleets of giant machines,

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average field size tripled.

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And to make way for bigger fields,

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more than 12,000 miles of hedgerow were grubbed up.

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And there was also a human cost.

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In the space of a single generation,

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tens of thousands of farming jobs disappeared.

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For this reason, not everyone embraced the revolution.

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On their family farm near Ely, the Morbeys resisted modernisation

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for as long as economics would allow.

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We've had people working on this farm, and their families,

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going back generations.

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The Fretwells, the Murfitts,

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the Veneys, the Ramseys.

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All these names, they're all repeated back.

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If you looked in the school records, you'd find, you know,

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you'd find those family names going back several generations.

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There is a sense of, um... loyalty, if you like.

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It took Anthony Morbey's father until 1967

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to finally bow to economic pressure

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and become one of the last farms in East Anglia to mechanise.

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They still keep 16 horses, but they're only for show.

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And where they once employed an entire village-full of people,

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the Morbeys now have one single full-time employee

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and a few local contractors to work the same 3,000 acres.

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By the early 1980s,

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the old way of life in East Anglia had finally disappeared,

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and not everyone mourned its passing.

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We used to employ, when I was a little boy, 80 farm workers.

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They lived in all of our cottages.

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They didn't have running water, they didn't have indoor toilets,

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they had terrible pay,

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the conditions they worked in were vile -

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dust, cold, hot, outside in all weathers.

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And therefore in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s,

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the one single ambition of anybody who worked in agriculture,

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in the good old days,

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was to get the hell out of agriculture,

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into any job, any factory job,

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because it was preferable to working on farms.

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For 40 years after the war,

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the working countryside of East Anglia effectively emptied.

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Many smallholders simply gave up,

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and their old farmhouses disappeared

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to make way for more grain production.

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Meanwhile, outside in the wider world,

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other forces had been at work,

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bringing new people into East Anglia -

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city people.

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MAN: 'The town was now unhealthy and crowded.'

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After the war,

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the Government had recognised a new threat to the rural landscape -

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the endless urban sprawl from the big cities, especially London.

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'In fact, our town has turned into a monster!'

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The clever solution they came up with

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was to create a green belt around the city

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and then plant brand-new towns in the open farmland outside.

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Flat and sparsely populated,

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East Anglia was the perfect place

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to begin the great post-war rehousing experiment.

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Harlow became East Anglia's flagship new town in the early 1950s,

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taking 80,000 grateful refugees

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from the smoky misery of bombed-out London.

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Peterborough, Stevenage and Basildon were all modelled on the same idea -

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a carefully planned, self-contained community

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with its own industry, infrastructure,

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and above all, the promise of a bright new future.

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MAN: 'A great effort was made

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'to provide prospects as well as present jobs.

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'Provision was made for the individual of moderate means

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'to start on his own from scratch.

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'For the enterprising, the chance was there for him to take.'

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But these new towns were just the start

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of East Anglia's urban invasion.

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Because at the same time,

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another force was growing that would bring even more people -

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the rise and rise of the motor car.

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In the last 60 years,

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the UK has built 60,000 miles of new road network,

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connecting all its major cities and opening up the rural landscape.

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This is the stretch of farmland reaching north

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from London into East Anglia before the war.

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And this is the same stretch today -

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the M11 corridor connecting the region to London and beyond.

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What's clear is that this is not just a road through a wilderness.

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The M11 has become a main artery into East Anglia,

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stimulating development

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and bringing a new, wealthier breed of resident...

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..The commuter.

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When I was a little boy,

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we used to own 80 different cottages in the surrounding villages,

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and if somebody offered you 100 quid for them,

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you were happy to get rid of them,

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because they were a pain in the neck to maintain.

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Today they're lived in by commuters, minimum price £300,000,

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and they all leave in their Rovers and Jaguars at 7.30 in the morning

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to go off to the City of London.

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Of course, all the commuters wanted to live in the same kinds of places,

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East Anglia's nice old villages and market towns.

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And in the last 50 years, many of these have burst their banks

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under the sheer weight of new housing,

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driven by a regional economy which itself is in transformation.

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Nothing shows this more clearly than Stansted Airport.

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Stansted handles 23 million passengers a year,

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a tenth of Britain's total,

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and has now, finally,

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become London's third international airport.

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Having emerged from nothing before the war,

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finally overcoming objections along the way,

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today it occupies a site of more than 3,000 acres

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on what was once prime farmland.

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3,000 acres is only the size of a single arable farm,

0:22:420:22:47

and Stansted directly employs 12,000 people -

0:22:470:22:52

rather more than any arable farm ever did.

0:22:520:22:54

Today, there are plans for a new runway and further expansion

0:22:540:22:59

to 35 million passengers a year.

0:22:590:23:02

And as East Anglia's economy grows,

0:23:070:23:09

currently faster than any other region in Britain,

0:23:090:23:13

the pressures on housing grow with it.

0:23:130:23:15

Green belts are now restricting the sprawl of towns and villages.

0:23:180:23:22

So to fit everyone in,

0:23:230:23:25

the planners and developers are returning to an idea

0:23:250:23:28

from 50 years ago -

0:23:280:23:30

the new town.

0:23:300:23:32

This is Cambourne.

0:23:350:23:39

Where ten years ago there was a 1,000-acre farm,

0:23:390:23:43

there are now 3,000 brand-new houses for 6,000 brand-new inhabitants.

0:23:430:23:50

And when the town's finished,

0:23:500:23:51

there'll be roughly half as many again.

0:23:510:23:54

Though Cambourne is a fraction of the size

0:23:570:23:59

of predecessors like Harlow, the intention's just the same -

0:23:590:24:03

to give people a new life in the country.

0:24:030:24:06

MAN: 'And as each house was built,

0:24:060:24:08

'even before all the services were working,

0:24:080:24:10

'the young pioneers moved in

0:24:100:24:12

'to be neighbours to dust and noise.'

0:24:120:24:14

But where 1950's government sold a vision of a new town

0:24:140:24:17

for a brave new world,

0:24:170:24:19

Cambourne is selling something subtly different -

0:24:190:24:22

all the comforts of the modern world in what feels like an old village.

0:24:220:24:27

Cambourne is based on old English settlements,

0:24:300:24:33

and we've taken here, with a blank piece of paper, the, um...

0:24:330:24:39

benefits of the past, all the good things of the past,

0:24:390:24:43

and the benefits of today's planning and lifestyles.

0:24:430:24:49

We're certainly not creating here an urban, town lifestyle.

0:24:490:24:54

It is very much more akin to a rural lifestyle.

0:24:540:24:59

It's the rural lifestyle,

0:25:010:25:05

or at least a modern version of it, that's the magnet for people here,

0:25:050:25:09

and its pull is getting stronger.

0:25:090:25:11

In the next decade,

0:25:140:25:17

half a million more people are expected to move to East Anglia

0:25:170:25:21

in search of the good life,

0:25:210:25:23

which means East Anglia will need a massive increase in housing.

0:25:230:25:27

There are already plans

0:25:340:25:35

for a neighbouring development to Cambourne just a few miles away.

0:25:350:25:39

And along with the houses will come more roads

0:25:390:25:42

to connect them to new industries,

0:25:420:25:44

which will bring in more people in search of work

0:25:440:25:46

who all have to live somewhere.

0:25:460:25:48

DAVID CHARE: You've got to find the right location,

0:25:500:25:53

close to roads and networks,

0:25:530:25:55

and up and down the country,

0:25:550:25:57

there will be other agricultural fields

0:25:570:25:59

where you could sacrifice those for housing.

0:25:590:26:03

The housing has got to go somewhere.

0:26:030:26:05

Today, East Anglia's farmland is under pressure.

0:26:050:26:10

In the course of his career,

0:26:180:26:19

Oliver Walsten has seen the fortunes of Britain's farmers change

0:26:190:26:23

out of all recognition,

0:26:230:26:24

from the intensive heyday in the '60s and '70s,

0:26:240:26:28

when he made big profits from his big fields,

0:26:280:26:30

through the '80s when supply outstripped demand

0:26:300:26:34

and food prices fell,

0:26:340:26:36

to the point where setting aside land for conservation

0:26:360:26:39

paid better than actually growing food.

0:26:390:26:42

For the last 20 years,

0:26:430:26:44

we've been getting poorer and poorer and poorer,

0:26:440:26:47

and for three out of the last five years, this farm's lost money.

0:26:470:26:50

I'm not telling you that cos I want you to cry,

0:26:500:26:52

I'm just telling it to you as a matter of fact.

0:26:520:26:56

Fertiliser doubled,

0:26:560:26:58

cost of my agrochemicals doubled,

0:26:580:26:59

cost of the fuel that goes into the tractor tripled etc.

0:26:590:27:02

Yet just when we might feel tempted to shed a tear for the farmer,

0:27:020:27:08

the situation's changing again.

0:27:080:27:10

This time, it's not a world war, but a world food shortage

0:27:100:27:14

that's making its presence felt across East Anglia.

0:27:140:27:18

But just like the days of "Dig For Victory"

0:27:180:27:21

it promises to breathe new life into farming.

0:27:210:27:24

Now, all of a sudden, things are looking a lot better,

0:27:240:27:28

and this field here is now worth, I don't know, £150 a tonne -

0:27:280:27:33

very nearly double what it was 18 months ago,

0:27:330:27:36

so all of a sudden, wheat farmers like me are happy.

0:27:360:27:40

Underlying fact will remain -

0:27:400:27:43

the world will need more food than it did last year

0:27:430:27:46

and people will still be saying to me, "Grow as much wheat as you can."

0:27:460:27:49

So the competition for East Anglia's land is intensifying,

0:27:530:27:57

and East Anglia is typical

0:27:570:27:59

of the challenges facing the rest of rural Britain,

0:27:590:28:02

in balancing a set of competing and growing demands

0:28:020:28:06

on a very finite piece of land.

0:28:060:28:08

As farming competes with housing,

0:28:100:28:13

with airports and roads,

0:28:130:28:15

and what remains of any natural wilderness.

0:28:150:28:19

It has been a long journey from the '30s,

0:28:230:28:26

when this was a backward, undeveloped corner,

0:28:260:28:29

but now East Anglia is defining how we see the future of our...

0:28:290:28:34

green and pleasant land?

0:28:340:28:36

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:530:28:57

Turning back time and drawing on previously unseen archive footage and photography to focus on the dramatic transformation of Britain's cities, landscape and industry. Focusing on the period since the Second World War, Britain from Above explores the greatest period of change in the nation in the last 200 years.

Nowhere shows the transformation that has swept the British countryside in the last 60 years more than East Anglia. Aerial photographs taken by both the RAF and the Luftwaffe before the war show an isolated rural landscape of small fields, hordes of labourers and horse drawn ploughs. But all that changed. Sparked by the war itself, East Anglia became the crucible of a land revolution as its agriculture was industrialised faster and on a larger scale than anywhere else.

Today hedgerows, horses and farm workers have all gone. While the number of people working on the land has collapsed, rural villages have grown, bursting through their old boundaries as commuters arrive. New roads and new employers such as Stansted Airport have heated up an already fast growing economy and the impact on the landscape can be clearly seen from above.

Using hitherto unseen land-use maps of the 1930s, together with wartime aerial reconnaissance photos, the programme reveals how and why East Anglia, and by extension Britain's rural landscape, has been shaped the way it has. Today we see a landscape under ever greater pressure from new housing, crowded roads and the sudden surge in food prices which makes farmland ever more valuable.