Back in September, I spoke at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival on the subject of ‘Is the English countryside dying?’ Do London and the government understand what it means to live in the countryside rather than in a town? Is it right that green-belt land should be set aside for housing? And what is the impact of people owning second homes — although in Spear’s readers’ cases, possibly third or fourth — in country communities?
Inevitably it came down to answering the simple question: what is the countryside for? During the debate, there was a heated discussion about planning wars, arguments for and against HS2 and the morality of owning a luxury mill house in the Lake District when it is only visited for a week a year (if that) while the actual villagers cannot afford to buy homes.
This magazine has been at the forefront of the national debate on what sort of Britain we want to build (or develop) — issues of major concern to the 11 million people who live in the countryside who were scarcely mentioned during the Tory party conference. Yet these issues have the same deep roots today as they did when Clough Williams-Ellis published his caustic and bestselling manifesto of 1928, called England and the Octopus, railing against ‘ribbon development’ and market-forced building and architecture.
After the debate, I walked through the great park at Blenheim, laid out by Vanbrugh and now enjoyed by thousands of people each day — both locals and palace tourists — walking their dogs, running or just enjoying the sheer beauty of the Capability Brown-landscaped grounds and the 2,000-acre pleasure park. What struck me was that at no point during debates over such things as High Speed 2 or when planning minister Nick Boles recently called for development in our National Parks have any of our politicians stopped to consider that the ‘matchless beauty’ of the English countryside needs no justification.
What about the argument that so much of the countryside is beautiful in its own right? And that beauty has its own priceless value — a way of making people feel happier, more alive and inspired to work harder and feel better about themselves?
During my interview in this issue with the sculptor Emily Young (page 100) — who now chooses to live in Italy rather than her native Wiltshire because she finds the English countryside ‘too busy’ — I was delighted to hear her talking about the ‘redemptive’ power of the countryside and of figurative beauty. An unfashionable (almost sacrilegious) view in the Contemporary art world, perhaps — but she is surely right.
Another thought I came away with from my visit to Blenheim as I enviously cast my eye along the great armada of parked cars (not to mention the whale-like coaches lined up in battalions beside the Blenheim train stop) was that the great stately homes scattered across the country have now taken on a new social role for which they were certainly not originally designed. Namely, with their great parks, pleasure gardens, train rides, Great Avenues and sweeping wide drives that stretch towards the Big House like beaches, they have taken over from the old great Victorian seaside resorts.
While visitor numbers to places like Scarborough, Blackpool, Broadstairs or Torquay are increasingly down every year — hotels and guesthouses are boarded up and the old promenades dominated by fish and chip shops and cheap amusement arcades — visitor numbers to stately homes (especially for the retired and middle classes)have sharply risen in recent years. Indeed, with heritage tourism now contributing over £26 billion to the UK economy — £5 billion more than estimated even last year — it is about time that the government starts to understand that people love a day out walking around a great house and its park. Beautiful architecture and countryside exist so they can be enjoyed by the growing army of Britain’s ‘leisure classes’ — not exploited by developers.
Nowhere is this more aptly applied than at Houghton in Norfolk, where the ‘Houghton Revisited’ show, exhibiting Walpole’s paintings which were sold to Catherine the Great, has been such a blockbuster that it has been extended to the end of November. On the Saturday morning I went, I drove up to the gates at 9.45am (the gates open at 10am) to find a sprawling queue of cars stretching back half a mile, with various ultra-keen heritage tourists lined up in front of the gates like cars on a racing grid — revving their engines, ready to accelerate through the gates the moment they opened.
Cunningly, I also noted that the house itself doesn’t open until 11am, so the ‘early birds’ have little other choice than to sit and wait in the tea room, where business is brisk and highly profitable, as people wait for their ‘Treasure House’ (how the great statelies are known in the heritage visitor trade) journey to begin. Good idea, I had to grudgingly accept as I sipped my £2.75 latte and ate my Houghton shortbread.
William Cash is editor-in-chief and founder of Spear’s (firstname.lastname@example.org)