International Women’s Day: celebrate the amazing women who shaped the British countryside

On International Women's Day, we're celebrating the amazing women who've helped shape the British countryside and achieved incredible feats of endurance.

Women's Land Army, Getty

To mark International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the women who’ve made fantastic contributions to the countryside, from women’s efforts during the First World War to the female farmers and thinkers shaping our rural lives today

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International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women worldwide, and is a call to action for gender parity. The first International Women’s Day (IWD) took place in 1911.

When is International Women’s Day 2021?

Every year International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8th March.

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Influential women of the British countryside

Saturday 8 March is International Women’s Day and to celebrate we look at some of the fantastic things women have achieved in the British countryside.

Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust

Arguably the saviour of Britain’s green spaces, Octavia Hill was a social reformer whose belief in the benefits of fresh air led to the creation of the National Trust. Thanks to the work of Octavia Hill, some of Britain’s most beautiful and iconic lands have been conserved for public enjoyment today.

Born in 1838, she was also a political activist who worked from the age of 14 to improve the lives of London’s poor.

After years working with people living in some of the worst conditions in the country, she came to the realisation that green sites were vital to people’s mental and physical wellbeing. She said the residents needed “a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made”.

With many of the built-up, industrial conurbations treeless and devoid of any real access to rural surroundings, she campaigned for the graveyards to be open to the public, for Parliament Hill to be protected from development and eventually set up the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest of Natural Beauty in January 1895.

She believed that the capital’s poor had just as much right to the city’s fast disappearing green spaces as the rich and that is an attitude that took hold and spread throughout the country.

Read about Octavia Hill

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1st October 1892: Octavia Hill (1838 – 1912) worked to improve housing conditions for the poor and co-founded the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty/Credit: Getty Images

Lucy Walker, Victorian mountain climber

Leaving behind a quiet life of croquet and cream teas, Lucy Walker became one of Britain’s finest early mountain climbers – conquering incredible heights while wearing a long skirt and defying social norms. Clare Roche tells her extraordinary story.

Read about Lucy Walker

Group of Victorian walkers
Lucy Walker with other climbers/Credit: Alamy

Beatrix Potter, author and farmer

The popular children’s author set many of her stories in the Lake District. She was incredibly fond of the area and her writing enthused young people about wildlife and the countryside.

Born in 1866 in London, Potter always had an interest in the outdoors, in wildlife and history. She would often collect fossils, study archaeological artefacts from excavations in the city and in later life came to examine insects and fungi. She would always draw and paint the items she collected and studied, a skill that would help her in later life.

Often holidaying in the Lake District or Scotland, Potter fell in love with the British countryside. As a result of her income from her books and an inheritance from an aunt, she bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a small village in the Lake District.

She was a big supporter of Octavia Hill’s National Trust and in the early thirties she worked with the organisation to purchase Lakeland farms in the Monk Coniston Estate. She became the estate manager for several years, before the Trust could buy the land back from her once it had become wealthy enough.

Upon her death in 1943, she left almost all her properties and her illustrations to the National Trust, ensuring her conservational interest would be carried on in the Lake District. Her assets consisted of 4,000 acres of land, sixteen farms – including Yew Tree Farm and vast herds of sheep and cattle. It was the largest donation the Trust had received at that point.

Read about Beatrix Potter

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Beatrix Potter posing outside with herding dog, probably at her home Hill Top/Credit: Getty

Mercedes Gleitze, swimming legend

In 1927, Brighton-born Mercedes Gleitze became the first British woman to swim the English Channel – and a star was born.

Born in Brighton to German parents in 1900, Gleitze was taught to swim by her father and developed a lifelong obsession with the sport.

Matthew Webb had been the first person to swim the Channel in 1875, but in the 1920s Channel swimmers became famous, thanks to the multiple crossing attempts being made by British and American swimming stars.

When Gleitze moved to London to work as a stenographer, she started to dream of swimming the Channel and spent her spare time training in the Thames, completing a 27-mile swim in the river in 1923. It was the beginning of a record-breaking decade for her.

Read about Mercedes Gleitze

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British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze (1900 – 1979) in the water/Credit: Getty

Nan Shepherd, author

One of the greatest books about Scottish mountains lay in a drawer for 40 years.

Her passion began in childhood. Born in 1893 near Aberdeen, Shepherd was happiest outdoors from an early age. A youth spent roaming the Deeside hills made her well accustomed to hill-walking.

In 1932, Scots novelist and poet Nan Shepherd wrote to a friend to say she was off to London for a “sophisticated fortnight with theatres and new frocks to purge one of the lust for ice-cold peaks”. This was a lust, however, never to be purged. Her love affair with the Cairngorms in north-eastern Scotland lasted until her death in 1981 and inspired her masterpiece, The Living Mountain.

Read about Nan Shepherd

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Image by kind permission of Erlend Clouston

The Land Girls

While men were fighting for Britain on the battlefield, the women were fighting for Britain in the fields and factories. Without their fundamental contribution to the war effort, Britain would have ground to a halt.

In both World Wars the efforts of women around the country helped to break down some of the barriers that faced them in everyday society, forcing a male dominated society to accept that women were just as capable, intelligent and determined as themselves – and in many cases, more so.Starting in 1915, The Women’s Land Army set to work in the fields, threshing, ploughing, harvesting crops, tending cattle and doing much more to keep the nation fed as enemy troops tried to cut supply chains to the islands.Towards the end of the First World War there were over a quarter of a million women working as farm labourers, around 20,000 of those were in the WLA.The WLA was resurrected in 1939 in order to protect Britain against starvation during the Second World War. 80,000 women joined as volunteers and later, conscripts.These women carried out vital work that got Britain though some of the darkest periods in its history. They not only shaped the countryside during those times of conflict, but helped shape a better society.
Landgirls at work
Land Girls working in the beet fields of Lincolnshire during World War II/Credit: Getty

Lumber Jills

By the end of 1941, 3,800 women from the Women’s Land Army were working in woods and forests.

Their work was so important that, in April 1942, the Women’s Timber Corps was established; by the following year, 8,500 women were working for the Forestry Commission and the timber trades. .

Women's Timber Corps, or Lumber Jills, working at Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, 1945 (Photo by: Forestry Commission)
Women’s Timber Corps, or Lumber Jills, working at Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, 1945 (Photo by: Forestry Commission)

Most were felling trees, using large axes and two-handed saws. Once felled, trees had their side branches removed (snedding) and were cut into lengths and stacked ready to be taken by lorry to the sawmill.

The trees were used for pit props, telegraph poles, chestnut railings or tracks (some used during the D-Day landings) and aircraft construction, including the Mosquito. Women were trained for a month before starting work in the woods. Those good at mathematics were selected for forest mensuration, including choosing the best trees for felling and devising extraction routes

The 10 key moments in Women’s Institute (WI) history

While the first WI was set up in Canada in 1897, it only reached British shores in 1915. It was initially established to encourage women from the British countryside to grow and preserve food in a bid to increase food supply in a nation that was ravaged by war. The first British WI met on Anglesey in North Wales on September 16th 1915.

Read more about the history of the Women’s Institute

 

1922:  Members of the Women's Institute manning a West Country produce stall.  (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Hope Bourne

A love of freedom and wilderness inspired Hope Bourne to fend for herself in a remote valley on Exmoor. There, she scraped a living by writing about life on the rugged moorlands.

At the age of 52, when some of us are beginning to slow down, Hope Bourne began her greatest adventure. Seeking a self-sufficient life surrounded by nature, she moved into a caravan at burnt-out Ferny Ball Farm in the wilds of Exmoor; and there she stayed for 24 years.

Read about Hope Bourne

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Nature-loving Hope Bourne/ Credit: Chris Champman Photography & Film

Award-winning farmer Joan Bomford

The 83-year-old beef farmer and winner of Countryfile’s Farming Hero 2015 Joan Bomford discusses ploughing with steam engines, Dutch elm trees and the importance of get-up-and-go.

Read the interview with Joan Bomford

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Award-winning farmer and Countryfile Farming Hero 2015 Joan Bomford

Jasmin Paris, champion ultrarunner

Trail-runner Jasmin Paris has smashed endurance race records, making headlines around the world. The Montane Spine Race – an astonishing 268-mile route from Edale to Kirk Yetholm across the rugged uplands that form the backbone of northern England was Jasmin’s longest non-stop run. Her subsequent victory made headlines worldwide. 

Fiona Russell finds out what inspires her to such astounding feats of mental and physical stamina.

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Read about Jasmin Paris

Jasmin Paris and a male runner
Jasmin only had three hours sleep during the three days of racing/Credit: Mick Kenyon (Racing Snakes)/Montane Spine Race