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Back to the future: a vision for our countryside

Friday 15 May 2009

MONDAY morning is not my favourite time of the week – a feeling no doubt shared by millions – but this Monday started in the pits and went down as I continued to read the never-ending-saga of the rape of the Mother of Parliaments by the very people whose job is supposed to be protecting her honour.

Desperately flicking through the paper looking for items of news – any news – not connected with the moral corruption of our political classes, I came across a boring picture of rape in another context: a woman walking through a field of what I took to be oil seed rape, the relatively new crop which now turns swathes of the English countryside a livid yellow every summer.

Children Playing

Children: a vision for the suture of the English countryside

Cowslip meadow flower

Cowslips: memories of times past and perhaps those to come again

On closer inspection, however, it turned out that this lady is a farmer who grows – wait for it – cowslips, presumably for their seeds or perhaps the plants themselves to feed England’s ever-growing desire for wild cottage gardens.

But cowslips for goodness sake! When I was a lad, every valley bottom meadow was alive with them, not thousands of them but millions, stretching for miles. I can still recall a rather forward little girl who told me the first “risqué” joke I ever heard: “Why did the bull rush? Because the cow slipped.”

The sad fact of the matter is that mono-culture farming has virtually wiped out the humble cowslip – and the bulrush too for that matter, which used to stand guard around almost every pond in almost every grazing pasture.

The ponds – meant to water the livestock – have gone, too, filled in to make way for prairie fields where heavy machinery can work. The hedgerows that surrounded those fields have largely gone, too, grubbed out by the thousands of mile – thanks to grants paid out for such vandalism by the old and unlamented Min. of Ag.

The picture of the cowslip lady was in the paper because the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) had chosen Monday to launch a vision of what our countryside will look like in the year 2026, when the campaign will celebrate the centenary of its foundation.

And although the launch did not get the publicity it deserved – all the media’s attention was focussed laser-like on misdeeds in Westminster – the CPRE is determined not to join the doom-and-gloom brigade and wring its hands over climate change, building development, pollution, intensive farming and all the other ills which the professional environmentalists seem to accept as inevitable.

“England can be a greener and even more pleasant land,” the CPRE insists. “Beautiful countryside is the key to better times and living the good life.” And it goes on to suggest a whole set of proposals which, to me, seem a bit like going back to the future.

It goes on: “2026 – A vision for the countryside - pictures a countryside that is used and valued by everyone, helping create a healthier, less stressed nation where people are in tune with the environment and aware of their impact on it. A beautiful and living countryside, accessible to all, has always been valuable; in tough economic times, and with people facing growing stresses in their lives, it should be priceless” Says Shaun Spiers, CPRE Chief Executive: “There tends to be an unrelenting pessimism that our countryside won’t survive the pressures it faces from built development, climate change and the impacts of globalisation.

“There is worryingly little confidence that the countryside can actually be improved – that it can become more beautiful and richer in wildlife, with well designed and well planned developments that contribute to both its appearance and its vitality.

“But that is our vision and we are confident that with the right political and civic leadership and a consensus on how we should value and safeguard our rural heritage, this vision can be achieved.”

In laying out in details how such a vision can be achieved, the manifesto outlines a series of programmes which I have suggested in these columns time and time again. Some of them take be back to my own country childhood, like efforts to replant wild flower like the cowslip.

Much more of the farming will be done in 2026 with environmental concerns in mind for wildlife, plants, and unpolluted rivers...

But the CPRE also believes in children with dirty knees, children – particularly urban children – who have not just been allowed but who have been actively encouraged to go out into the countryside to play. To me, that brings back haunting memories of climbing (and sometimes falling out of) trees; making bows and arrows; damning streams and yes, even grazing those dirty knees.

Much more of the farming will be done in 2026 with environmental concerns in mind for wildlife, plants, and unpolluted rivers. These measures will be supported by Government but – which has not been the case in the past decade – those farmers will be valued as a key national asset by Government. And we shall all be eating more of that locally grown food.

There will be more houses for low-paid local folk, a truly independent planning system controlled by local councils (which is totally against present Government policy) and less light pollution so that we can once again see the stars.

And finally – a thought that makes the cynical old heart bound – the countryside and the rural tranquility it represents shall be valued and enjoyed as the huge national asset that it is.

Bravo, CPRE, good luck and God speed your vision. A few weeks ago, I would have thought such a grandiose vision for the countryside would have little chance of becoming reality considering the urban-domination of England’s political class. Now, we might get people in power dedicated to protecting the national assets rather than their own – and the English countryside is an asset beyond price.

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