Musings on countryside, campaigning, railways and poetry

If you are a countryside campaigner, or a national treasure such as John Betjeman, how do you compare the Northamptonshire countryside with that of Berkshire for example?  Or with Lincolnshire?  How do current threats to the countryside compare with those of sixty years ago?  (You answer the last one in French: Plus ça change…)

CPRE Northamptonshire heard the following entertaining musings when we invited Oliver Hilliam, co-author of “22 Ideas that Saved the English Countryside” and staff member at CPRE’s National Office, to give a presentation to our last AGM on his book and on countryside issues in general.  This extract from his notes starts after he said some courteous things about his hosts, and went on to explain why he is so fond of our county.

The countryside is certainly prettier than the fens [in his home county of Lincolnshire], and less likely to be submerged by the sea in the next century.  Or perhaps it’s down to fond memories of my finest schoolboy cricket performance against Oundle School.

I think a lot of my affection for this county comes from that peculiar sense that it is the true heart of the English countryside – and Andrew Motion makes a very good case for why this is so, in Icons of Northamptonshire. I think anyone who spends some time here get’s a sense of that – there’s so much history and heritage here, and so much of your landscapes and villages retain the rural qualities my ancestors would have been familiar with 200 hundred years ago. And so much of that is due to your work.

The branch was formed here in June 1934, less than eight years after the creation of CPRE. Addressing that meeting, Lord Hanworth, the Master of the Rolls said: “The invention of the internal combustion engine had so altered our lives and pleasures that there was great danger of the countryside being mutilated beyond possible recovery.”

In 1935, a Mr Carey Wilson of Woodford gave an inspirational appeal for Branch support: “We are leaving in our wake a welter of almost unrelieved ugliness and vulgarity. If, in our search for prosperity we ignore the consideration of order, seemliness and decency, we stand self-condemned. For what use is prosperity if it did not give us an opportunity to build up a better civilisation than we have hitherto known.”

Those words give a sense of the ambition of the original vision of CPRE Northamptonshire. And your founders would certainly recognise that desire to build a better civilisation in your current work on litter, local food, good design and rural broadband.

The branch became highly influential in the 1930s, but as with many CPRE branches, the war took its toll, and normal activity would not be resumed until the mid-1950s. A few weeks ago, I took a call from the BBC that threw some light on this. They were finalising their recent Radio 4 programme on Betjeman, and wondered if I knew of his connections to CPRE.  Well, I pointed out that he was one of the heroes of ’22 ideas that saved the countryside’, with his support for our campaign against pylons. I also knew that he’d been on CPRE’s silver jubilee committee in 1976, judged a CPRE poetry competition in 1980, and spoken at a couple of branch AGMs in the 1950s.

What I didn’t know was that Betjeman had addressed this very AGM, sixty years ago! Digging out the Northants Evening Telegraph from November the 4th, 1957, I found a report of the AGM – described as the official revival meeting of the branch – at County Hall. Earl Spencer was elected as President and Chairman of the new branch, and said: “We consider that Northamptonshire is well worth preserving, though when I go about the county it seems to me that it is less spoilt than many other counties.”

Happily, the report also included many of the highlights of Betjeman’s speech, which I’m delighted to share with you now:

He described Northamptonshire as “this most beautiful but least regarded of counties.” And suggested that “the biggest enemy of CPRE is apathy, and its greatest friends are the eyes and ears of its members. Most people did not use their eyes and ears well enough, and raise protests when lovely valleys and villages are spoilt in the name of progress.”

“Another great enemy is the Central Electricity Authority, who seem beholden to no one but their own chairman. They spoil scenery in erecting poles and say there are technical difficulties in putting them elsewhere when people object, It is clearly simple to site those beastly poles so that they don’t mess up villages. But because of apathy, the siting is badly done.”

He continued: “I saw a bit of light industry sprinkled on the right of the road between Upper Heyford and Kislingbury and I thought: It shouldn’t be there, it’s too big”.

I wonder what he’d make of the mega-sheds on the M1 now.

Turning to more positive thoughts, he gave the following assessment of the counties landscapes:

“In England, I don’t think there is a county with better villages than Northamptonshire. I think the beauty comes about through the stone, the trees and the grouping of buildings, and also through there being nothing very vast and ostentatious in the way of the pastoral landscape.”

“It is such delicate country that it can more easily be wounded than obvious places like Dartmoor or the Yorkshire Moors. That is because the scale is intimate. The buildings are beautifully textured by time.”

In 22 Ideas, we talk about Betjeman’s longing for his beloved Berkshire home, while stationed in Ireland during the war. But, in 1957, he went as far as to say “Berkshire is not so good a county, scenically, as Northamptonshire”. And for such a well-known devotee of rural railways, it was high praise indeed when he said that “the rail journey between Northampton and Peterborough is in my opinion the most beautiful train journey anyone could take in England”.

Typical that this line would be closed by Beeching in the sixties, although I’ve enjoyed many a great day on the Nene Valley Railway section, nearest Peterborough.

Betjeman concluded with a powerful defence of the people who are now tarred as Nimbys, but in Betjeman’s time were insulted by a different term:

“People who are keen on preserving rural England are attacked and told we are romantics. If things were as we would like them there would probably be no tarmac roads, no wires in the sky, no masts, no conifers where there should be beeches, oaks and elms, no brick where there should be ironstone, and certainly no concrete anywhere, in any form!  But are we unreasonable in having that dream? I don’t think we are, because anything that is really made with love and affection and is local is something we like and want to save.”

Betjeman always said that “There are two kinds of defacement, the negative kind of taking away things which were beautiful and the positive kind of putting things up which were hideous.” And one of the central themes of our book is that it is our poets and writers who are so often the first to notice beauty disappearing, or ugliness encroaching. And, of course, they can put things beautifully. We talk about urban sprawl – but Wordsworth, the first person to note the phenomenon, writing about Manchester in 1814, said:

At CPRE, we tend to have the poet’s eye for detail, but we don’t always have their ability to articulate why these things matter, or to be able to talk about our love and affection for special places. That’s why poets and writers tend to make such good ambassadors for CPRE – most recently in the form of Andrew Motion. Our technical knowledge, and their powers of language is a great combination. 

Andrew’s great gift to CPRE was his idea of the countryside as ‘our great collaborative masterpiece’ and ‘our greatest gift to the world – greater even than the works of Shakespeare’. In those few words – which he repeated in almost every speech and article – he makes us think about the landscape as something we all have a stake in; as something which should give us a sense of local and national character; as something our ancestors helped create, and therefore a heritage we should be proud of and want to pass on to the next generation.

To help us focus on the importance of the integrity of the whole countryside, Andrew developed the Shakespeare metaphor to suggest that “we should no more tear bits from the countryside than tear bits out of the first folio.” In other words, losing one green field is a damaging as losing a page of Shakespeare – we lose a crucial part of a bigger picture. Developing that theme, Andrew was always keen for us to look beyond the idea of the landscape as simply a ‘view’. He argued that the beauty of the countryside was in its richness, and that we had a better chance of conveying the value of the countryside if we celebrated the tiny details within the bigger picture. The microscopic wildlife, the hidden signs of human influence, the hushed sounds of tranquillity, all of which adds up to his idea of the ‘sense sublime’ – or being able to connect intimately to a landscape, and become part of it, rather than passively looking at it.

Of course, Andrew’s attention to detail was itself hugely inspired by another poet. A Northamptonshire poet, who I’m sure you still claim as your own, despite local government boundary changes. John Clare, of course – another hero of 22 Ideas, who we should probably have given far more space to, as probably the world’s first environmentalist, and symbolically, I’d argue, the first CPRE member. He certainly had the combination of ‘eyes, ears and heart’ that Betjeman talked about, and the ability to convey what was being lost, and raise the alarm. So really, the combination of pastoral poetry and preservationist instinct that flowed through Wordsworth, Ruskin, Morris and Housman, and created CPRE, and the whole environment movement, started in Northamptonshire.

And it is testament to your work in that tradition that Andrew Motion could write in his foreword to your own wonderful book. “There are parts of Northamptonshire that allow us to approximate his experience better than anywhere else in England. Spiritually, this is still Clare’s county. It is still possible to move under cover of trees, behind thick hedgerows and down empty green lanes, to find the kind of secret hiding places Clare craved.”

In the foreword to our book, Andrew suggests that the 22 Ideas as falling into three areas: those that physically protect the countryside, by designating protected areas or removing eyesores – from litter to pylons; then there are the less tangible conceptual ideas – like the ‘Green and Pleasant land’ - that permeate our national psyche, and make us more likely to protest at things like the public forest sell-off; and finally, there are the initiatives that inspire people to explore their countryside, and develop a sense of pride in it.

And the third one is particularly important for CPRE, because, if anything, the apathy that Betjeman talked about 60 years ago is still with us. And that’s why your Icons of Northamptonshire was such a tremendous achievement – easily one of the top two books about the countryside in the past five years.  Andrew Motion hoped it would be seen as “a catalogue of the treasures we must aspire to save and enhance for future generations”, and it’s so important for CPRE to celebrate what has been saved, as much as mourn what has been lost. In fact, in our founding manifesto of 1926, Patrick Abercrombie made a strong case for every county to make its own catalogue of treasures – so that local people could decide what was important to them. A handful of branches did produce these County Surveys in the 30s, so it’s great that you did something in that tradition, and attracted some fine contributions – even one of the stars of Strictly Come Dancing, I believe!

The Apathy we might find today, in terms of recruiting new members, is not simply because people don’t care about the countryside. A government survey of 2015 showed that, among all age groups, the countryside is what makes us most proud to be British. Part of the problem is that we are doing our job too effectively. Most people just don’t feel the countryside is under genuine threat – they take it for granted that it is being looked after, because CPRE has done such a good job in promoting ideas like National Parks and Green Belts. The nature of countryside loss is so gradual, and piecemeal, that it is difficult to create a sense of urgency – especially when there are so many competing causes for our time and donations.

The amount of bad development that sneaks through is often just enough to make people grumble, but not enough to make them climb the barricades. It’s often only when we take the long view, that people can see how much their country has changed.

Even though the amount of countryside being lost has been shrinking, thanks largely to CPRE and our ideas, around half of the urbanisation and development that has ever happened in England has happened since 1926. A map of urbanisation of England in the past 90 years would shock most people. And yet, if we produced another map showing how the country would have looked today without CPRE and our policies, it would be totally unrecognisable. We have saved more countryside than our founders could have expected, given the impact of population growth, and ever-growing dominance of the car – which, as Lord Hanworth predicted in 1934, has changed the face of the country more than any other trend.

Working on the book gave me an insight into how the early CPRE dealt with apathy. And most of our effectiveness in rousing the passion of people and politicians came through the work of another figure with a connection to this county. Clough Williams-Ellis considered himself a proud Welshman, so not many people realise that he was born in Gayton, and spent the first five years of his life in Northamptonshire. Williams-Ellis was an architect best known for designing and building Portmeirion in North Wales. But he was effectively CPRE’s Head of Propaganda from 1926 until the outbreak of war.

His ‘England and the Octopus’ of 1928, was a huge influence on writers including DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. But it also convinced our politicians that something must be done about the changes the countryside was undergoing.  Williams-Ellis achieved this through the power of his prose, and the anger which he directed at his targets. Unplanned settlements (symbolised by Peacehaven); ribbon development along our roads; roadside advertising – all these things were depicted as ‘national disgraces’ and ‘affronts to decency’ by Williams-Ellis.

The extreme language he used certainly stirred up public feeling, and made the countryside a cause celebre, meaning that these issues dominated the press and parliamentary debates for years at a time, and becoming widely accepted viewpoints. Within seven years of the book’s publication, we’d gained legislation on Town and Country Planning and Ribbon Development which gave CPRE the platform for all its future successes.

Now, there are no shortage of modern-day national disgraces afflicting the countryside. We’ve recently raised attention to the plight of small farmers – it must be a travesty in anyone’s eyes that farmers are paid less than the cost of production. We’re also doing a lot of work to highlight the dearth of rural affordable housing, and the unfairness of inflated housing targets being imposed on communities. All of which are becoming front page issues which our decision makers are failing to address. Perhaps we need to add a touch of Williams-Ellis anger to our lobbying. 

But as the CPRE of his era did, we must continue to promote positive examples of the development we want to see. We will continue to promote urban regeneration as a positive alternative to building on green fields. And I know that your own design guide has inspired some thinking at national office on a campaign for better quality development.

In fact, working on the book has shown me just how central CPRE’s branches have been to the success of the 22 ideas. In many of the campaigns – just as you do now – our branches led the way. For instance, the legendary CPRE Sheffield and Peak campaigner, Ethel Haythornthwaite, helped national campaigns for Green Belts and National Parks.

I remember Neil Sinden once saying that without local case studies, CPRE would just be a series of abstract policies. And the book is full of examples of how local campaigning helped achieve national policy success. Because branches are much closer to the action, you are often able to be much more responsive to changing circumstances, and much more innovative in your campaigning. That local innovation has been vital to the 22 Ideas, and will continue to be vital. So before I finish, and give you the chance to ask questions - or even better – suggest new ideas for campaigns.  I just want to pay tribute to some of your recent work…