John Davies


Rural Transitions

Re-written text from the essay "The modernisation of the village centre", published in  "Sequences / Paysages" revue de L'Observatoire photographique du paysage - 1997 (ISBN 2 85025 582 3). The 18 photographs included in this publication were commissioned jointly by the Commune of Saint Benoit-du-Sault, Indre and the Ministere de L'Environnement, Paris, France. A selection of this work was also published in the monograph Temps et Paysage in 2000.

John Davies visited the Canton of St Benoit on seven occasions from April 1994 to April 1998.

I am the product of my cultural, social and historical influences. My mother's family belonged to the last of many generations of farmers including the Colling brothers, who bred the famous "Durham Ox" in the 18th C., the ancestor of modern cattle. My father was last in a generation of coal miners.
This marriage may seem an odd mix but is symbolic of Britain's early success at industrialisation: large farms intensified food production to feed the workers of the Industrial Revolution. This background has influenced my depiction of the rural and urban development of the landscape.
I see strong similarities between France and Britain. The changing nature of French rural villages reflects what has long since taken place in many parts of Britain. Farms have grown bigger and specialised to become more productive and competitive.
Like many places in France the population of rural communities has been decreasing in recent years. The communes within the Canton of St. Benoit are also going through a transition. The landscape is a patchwork of small fields and woods, it is difficult to see how they are economically viable. As the traditional farming village population leave to find work in industrial areas and cities, the rural villages become more attractive to people wanting a retreat from city life.
The new autoroute being built to the west of St. Benoit has had an immediate impact on the communes that surround it. Government grants are made available to the local communes to re-landscape the area around the motor way. The farmers are often taking this opportunity to remove hedgerows to make larger fields. At the same time some villages have been transformed by road widening schemes for the speedy passage of traffic. The new motor way will continue to affect the area with the growth of tourism and the economic possibilities of service and light industries already emerging.
There are other structures that have a significant presence in these small village communities: war memorials, crucifixes, cemeteries, schools and maries (town halls). These monuments are not always sacrosanct. I have seen a war memorial transported from the village centre and relocated near to the local super-market.
Sources of water have played a central role in the traditional rural community. A feature of the communes surrounding St. Benoit are the numerous village ponds, wells and hand-pumps. As villages change so these icons of rural life become romantic symbols of a by gone life style or are simply removed.
It is often the village church that is the most significant and dominant land mark in a small community. Like the sources of water, such icons in the landscape represent an historical as well as spiritual relationship between people and the natural world.
It is fashionable to claim that we live in a post-romantic age but at the same time we do not want to loose our symbolic links to the natural world - this is where conflicts in re-landscaping and modernising a village centre arise.
John Davies April 1999
A selection of eight 66x99cm prints were first shown in the exhibition, "Le Temps Vite", at the Pompidou Centre, Paris in January 2000. These prints are now available from Gallerie Vu, Paris.
other essays :
San Gottardo (Switzerland)

The River and the City - Florence

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Photo and material Copyright John Davies 1976-2011