More Rad than Trad The Council for the Preservation of Rural England has a quaint ring to it, but in its day it blazed a trail that many direct-action groups have followed, says Jane Brown
More Rad than Trad
The Council for the Preservation of Rural England has a quaint ring to it, but in its day it blazed a trail that many direct-action groups have followed, says Jane Brown
LET’S BEGIN WITH the bearded socialist William ‘Topsy’ Morris, whose fabric and wallpaper designs still fill our magazines and houses. Morris believed in beauty: he married the Pre-Raphaelites’ muse Jane Burden and, in the 1870s, he took Janey and their young daughters to spend their summers in the ancient stone manor house beside the Thames at Kelmscott in Gloucestershire.
He called Kelmscott his ‘earthly paradise’, but he was engaged in so many interests, in Icelandic travel and Norse sagas, in his writings and fine-press printing, his textile company and, increasingly, in socialism, that he found little time for Kelmscott, which assumed the role of paradise denied: he died in 1896, but his daughter May lived there until 1938 and it’s now the Morris shrine.
Denial is an important element in our love for beautiful places — Housman’s ‘land of lost content’ where we ‘cannot come again’ — unless they can become convenient. Morris’s anointing of Kelmscott changed the Cotswolds from an impoverished agricultural countryside into a smart place to live. He and his friend, the architect Philip Webb, founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to revive and foster the traditions of stone and timber buildings, and their followers set about restoring the once wool-rich but now crumbling (and cheap to buy) town and village houses.
This Arts and Crafts movement was one of the brightest moments of English creativity, sweetening the aftertaste of agricultural depression throughout the stone building belt stretching from Yorkshire to Dorset and Devon and in the sandstone country of Surrey and Sussex. Socially responsible architects and builders found themselves relevant and lovable as never before (nor since), building village halls, schools, banks, post offices, shops and story-book houses with huge roofs and narrow windows in the home-grown, vernacular style.
This idyll was crushed in the Great War. Geoff Dyer, who wanted to see for himself and wrote The Missing of the Somme in 1994, sought out an unusual word: ‘What happened in the Great War,’ he wrote, ‘remained incommensurable’. The architects and craftsmen who were left built memorial halls and crosses up and down the land, shrines of silence.
The Disappeared — though we did not call them that — had left their dreams of home, images that tumbled from words and music: Rupert Brooke’s honey teas at Grantchester but also his native, adored Warwickshire, ‘the heart of England’, Edward Thomas’s Old Man, ‘the hoar-green feathery herb’ growing with lavender and rosemary in his garden at Steep, the shell-shocked Ivor Gurney’s ‘violets of pride, Purple from Severn side’, Housman’s ‘loveliest of trees’, the cherry blossoms that the lads from Shropshire would see no more.
Homes, and sweethearts, denied were implicit in the tunes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and in Blake’s Jerusalem set to music by Hubert Parry from Gloucestershire, the men from the ‘dark satanic’ mill towns were remembered. That was it, the country was a matrix of beloved places. England owed them all.
This is how the outrage at the despoliation of the landscape in the 1920s was born. Housman lived to see his ‘loveliest of trees’, the cherry, emerge as the most popular street tree for the Roads Beautifying Association, trying to ameliorate the effect of arterial roads streaking across the best agricultural land, roads lined with ribbon development, a clutter of Las Vegas-style hoardings and garish eyesores, all ‘unplanned’.
Of course, the cherries did not hide anything. The great and good climbed on the bandwagon: Lloyd George spoke of ‘a task of supreme importance’ to foster appreciation of ‘the treasures of our neglected countryside… to make its store of potential health and enjoyment available to all’.
The upshot of it all was a masterwork of democratic representation which cost the government almost nothing — the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) was born in 1926, supported by subscriptions and branches in most English counties, with an offshoot in Wales.
Around the Council headquarters’ table were gathered the spokesmen and women for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (as it was), the county councils, district councils, the National Trust, the Commons Society (the oldest amenity body), the Ramblers, architects, planners, the AA and RAC, the Boy Scouts, Women’s Institutes, Forestry Commission, the Generating Board, the landowners, the National Farmers’ Union — forgive my omissions, but everyone had a voice. This powerful consensus (though not always agreeing) fought for the green belt around London and other cities, prepared for the legislation for town and country planning (initially called restriction of ribbon development) and put forward the proposal for national parks.
In 1960, fresh from secretarial college, I arrived at the CPRE’s terraced house in Hobart Place. By then the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was going strongly, and after the 1951 Act the first national parks (including the Lake District, the Peak District, Dartmoor and Exmoor) were created. The CPRE’s founding general secretary, now Sir Herbert Griffin CBE, ruled his devoted, hard-working staff with a fiery temper and melting charm; we were seven or so, and we called him ‘Sir Puffin’ behind his back.
The phone and doorbell never stopped ringing, we had the postbag of a pop star, and it seemed to me that Sir Herbert could, and did, pick up the phone to anyone in England — his reach and influence were phenomenal. My fast shorthand meant I was taken as an under-under-secretary to the biggest and most important meetings, often in Whitehall. Those meetings were calm deliberations, but there were still furious battles and great passions, and it was a privilege to hear Lady Sayer’s defence of her beloved Dartmoor, which was still imprisoned in military use, one formidable woman versus the Ministry of Defence. I spent hours getting to know the backgrounds from huge, unwieldy files, reams of correspondence on battles won and lost.
In retrospect my experience of the CPRE was of the last flourish of the old amenity movement: Sir Herbert Griffin retired after 50 years of campaigning, though his was a brief retirement and he remains an unsung hero. Soon everything was changed: the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace made direct action the normal way of protest, and successive governments have somehow dismantled that democratic consultative structure on which the CPRE was founded.
But, if the ghosts of protests past are stirring, we should remember what England owes them.
Jane Brown is the author of the Omnipotent Magician
Photography by David Rookwood