‘The countryside’ – and the places we care about

Here is my column from the latest issue of the Countryman, available from all good newsagents.

When we talk of treasuring ‘the countryside’, we are generally thinking of particular places – places that have a significance in our lives, or special literary or historical associations.  Places, said G.M. Trevelyan, “have an interest or a beauty of association, as well as an absolute or aesthetic beauty”. He was referring to St. John’s College, Oxford, a home of the Royalist Court in the Civil War – “not mere stone and mortar, tastefully compiled, but an appropriate and mournful witness between those who see it now and those by whom it was once seen”. (From Clio, A Muse p. 26.)

A 70 home development would arouse opposition in any hamlet of 28 houses, but when that hamlet is Lower Bockhampton, Thomas Hardy’s Mellstock, the opposition wins international support. Adding 800 homes to any attractive Somerset village would be controversial – but when that village is T. Eliot’s East Coker (“In my beginning is my end…”) the fight has extra resonance. And anyone who has not had a sense of beauty bypass would want to protect the Slad Valley in the Cotswolds, but its association with Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie makes it extra special.

A wonderful new book, Literature and Landscape in East Devon by Peter Naysmith celebrates places and landscapes loved and immortalised by Sir Walter Raleigh, Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Beatrix Potter, John Betjeman and others (the link with Ottery St. Catchpole in the Harry Potter books is speculative but persuasive).

The book’s conservationist message is subtle. You see stunning photos of beautiful places, read what these places meant to some of our great writers, and draw your own conclusions.

This for East Devon, but there are eight other councils in Devon and hundreds more across the country, all dripping with literary and historical associations. Of course they will change and undergo development. But where change is necessary let us at least, in the words of John Buchan (launching CPRE’s Oxfordshire branch in 1931) “replace old beauty with new beauty and not with new ugliness”.

4 Responses to “‘The countryside’ – and the places we care about”

  1. 1 geoff lambert January 30, 2015 at 7:41 am

    Objecting to development because someone from the past lived there misses the opportunity to ensure real development does take place in a way that enhances the setting left by that person. We should enhance (and expand) the value of these places for all not preserve them for the few who can currently afford to live in them.

    • 2 sspiers January 30, 2015 at 9:25 am

      Geoff, I don’t think anyone objects to a development just because someone lived in or wrote about the place long ago. Indeed, in the case of East Coker, CPRE Somerset’s case was all about the housing numbers: it was careful to avoid saying ‘don’t build in East Coker because T.S. Eliot wrote about it, put the houses in some other village’.

      The debate is about the impact development will have on a place and whether development will unnecessarily damage the things that make that place special – beauty, of course, but also literary or historical associations. Often, as in the case of Lower Bockhampton, it is about scale. I don’t know if the hamlet would benefit from a couple of well-designed affordable houses, but it is hard to see how a development on the scale proposed – 70 new houses in a hamlet of 28 houses – could enhance the setting, however beautiful and well-planned. It would make it a totally different place.

      And CPRE’s interest is, of course, the value of these places for everyone, not for ‘the few who can currently afford to live in them’ (though their views should obviously be heard). I’ve enjoyed visiting all three places I mention, but have never lived in any of them. I would like to continue to be able to enjoy them, and think that others could do so for years and years to come.

  2. 3 Rachel Reeves January 30, 2015 at 11:32 am

    Simon Danczuk: “David, affordable housing is not mentioned once in your 3000 word submission. Do you contribute towards the provision of affordable housing on your developments?”
    David Gladman: “I probably have a slightly different take on it to my colleagues.”

    All that glitters is not gold….

  3. 4 CPRE Local Supporter February 3, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Shaun Spiers’s advocacy of a large increase in housebuilding – see blog of 12 Jan 2015, at
    is followed by this piece which stresses the damage that this very policy does to English villages. Inevitably his conflicting positions are going to be noticed.
    The serious threat to our viillages under the present planning system was far less, if there at all, during the period of Structure and Local Plans which lasted from the early 70s to 2007, the year when these were effectively phased out under the terms of the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act. That plan-led system protected villages well, unlike the earlier loose planning system in use from 1947 to 1967/68. It was 1967 Civic Amenities Act and 1968 Town & Country Planning Act that together first gave effective control to authorities to protect villages.
    Unhappily there was not a strong fight by CPRE at national level (under Shaun Spiers’s predecessor) to resist the 2004 Act or to save Structure and Local Plans.
    The comment on East Coker, Somerset, overlooks that ‘T S Eliot’s village’ was threatened in the past (during the earlier period of strong development plans) by developers. And that then campaigners were able to use the connection with the poet to arlly public support and resist housing schemes. LPAs at that time had clear policies and development against development in the countryside. Now they have been stripped of much of this power. This shows how the development plan system has been degraded.

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