22 Ideas that Saved the English Countryside

Here is a slightly longer version of my column in the July Countryman.

22 Ideas that Saved the English Countryside by Peter Waine and Oliver Hilliam is a reminder of why people care so much about the countryside and how it has come to be “saved” – saved, at least, from a much worse fate than it has received. Each of the 22 ideas is supported by stunning photographs that show as clearly as words that our countryside is the product of human decisions, as well as of nature. The most beautiful rural scene owes something to human intervention, and in many cases is enhanced by it.

Human intervention cannot be avoided in as small and crowded a country as ours. Change is inevitable, and inevitably something will be lost (most of us like the countryside we remember as children, or think we remember). The point is to seek to minimise the damage that changes bring and maximise the benefits.

Too often the advocates of progress are heedless of its consequences, so the book is in part an anthology of splendid rage against Philistines and Gradgrinds – despoilers, disfigurers, Treasury officials. It is a sort of ‘greatest hits’ of conservationist entreaty and invective. Wordsworth is here, of course (“Is then no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?”) and Ruskin raging against London’s sprawl (a city “clotted and coagulated; spots of a dreadful mildew, spreading by patches and blotches over the country they consume”).

William Morris, disgusted by the ugliness of advertising hoardings, rejoices “at the spectacle of the middle classes so annoyed and so helpless before the results of the idiotic tyranny [of private property rights] which they themselves have created”. G. M. Trevelyan warns that if man continues destroying natural beauty, “he will cut off his own spiritual supplies, and leave his descendants a helpless prey for ever to the base materialism of mean and vulgar sights”.

Anyone reading the book or just looking at the pictures will understand why people care so much for the English countryside. But the book makes clear that it is not enough just to care for the countryside, as millions of viewers of Countryfile or Springwatch care for it: you also have to be prepared to fight for it.

There is an important role for blood-minded defence – I am not embarrassed that CPRE is an organisation that is not afraid to say “no” – but it is not enough just to fight for the countryside. You also have to come up with credible solutions, to show how change can be accommodated in ways that limit damage to the countryside and, as far as possible, improve it.

This combination of caring deeply for our beautiful countryside, fighting for it whenever necessary and, whenever possible, coming up with constructive alternatives to prevent damage has characterised CPRE for 90 years and comes across strongly in the book. We were set up “to arouse, form and educate public opinion” in defence of the countryside, and that is what we will continue to do.

22 Ideas has something interesting or beautiful or both on every page. It covers CPRE’s history well, but it also has a lots on many other organisations and individuals. I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who cares about the countryside and is interested in the conservation movement.

UPDATE: CPRE members are entitled to a 40% discount on the price of the book: http://www.cpre.org.uk/magazine/features/item/4292-22-ideas-that-saved-the-english-countryside


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