The fight for beauty

Here is my column from June’s Countryman magazine.

Two terrific books on the history of landscape conservation have just been published.

I will write about 22 Ideas that Saved the English Countryside by Peter Waine and Oliver Hilliam in a future column. For those curious, the title owes a debt to an article in the Spectator which noted that CPRE was founded with 22 constituent bodies: “twenty-two – the length of a chain or cricket pitch, the unit of the square acre – is quite the most English of all numbers.”

The other book is The Fight for Beauty by Fiona Reynolds, who led in turn the Campaign for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust. It is a book fizzing with ideas and passion, the product of deep experience.

Perhaps wisely, Fiona does not attempt to define beauty. She quotes Thomas Hardy on the “sublimity” of his Egdon Heath, “in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are utterly lacking”. The everyday can also be beautiful – “idiosyncratic local features and odd scrubby corners, the elements E.M. Forster described… as ‘oddments and trifles, which decline to scheduled’”.

Beauty cannot be scheduled (though beautiful places can be) but it is important to recognise its importance to all our lives, and so to ensure that its protection and promotion underpins public policy. In the words of Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1926 pamphlet The Preservation of Rural England (which led to CPRE’s formation):

“The English countryside is undergoing a change… Is this inevitable change to destroy the existing aspect of the countryside or is it possible during the transition to preserve its character or even in places to create a new kind of beauty? It is at any rate a matter that cannot be left to chance.”

Abercrombie’s question should be asked more often. I have just returned from a visit of potential development sites around Sheffield. I heard inspiring ideas about the improvement development could bring, with proper care – but was depressed to hear that the sites I visited are likely simply to be handed build ‘anywhere places’. “As the Northern Powerhouse takes shape,” Fiona Reynolds asks, “why not match the focus on the engine of the economy with an equal plan to enhance the beauty of the north?”

This is not a gloomy book. It highlights success and progress, as well as threats and failures. Full of stories of politicians and officials who made a difference for good, it shows that politics matters. I hope it will inspire today’s leaders to fight for beauty.



2 Responses to “The fight for beauty”

  1. 1 Alice Crampin May 19, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Although I wish we would define, discuss, refine, research the concept of “beauty” a bit more, you have clearly got summer reading sorted for us!

  2. 2 Mike May 24, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Sadly I am not optimistic. The countryside I grew up around in the 70s and 80s is fast going, due in large part to the massive and unremiting growth of our population. I fear so much of the beauty and wonder I grew up will soon be mostly gone. I fear that people will not realise what is happening until it is too late. Once it is gone it is gone. RIP our English countryside and nature.

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