The good news of which I speak is the news that of late, bold and thrilling steps have been taken to ensure that England is able to preserve its sense of itself and secure a meaningful cultural legacy for those who will follow in our footsteps in the unknown mist of the future.
Perhaps the one that will cause most rejoicing is the news that England’s South Downs National Park Authority has finally been given legal powers. This marks the final step in a lengthy and difficult process to secure the future of six hundred square miles of beautiful countryside in the South of England. The area it will cover can be seen below:
Covering an area from Winchester to Lewes, Binsted to Beachy Head, the Park covers an indescribably beautiful, quintessentially English and irreplaceable landscape. The Guardian have done an admirable job of capturing the sheer beauty of the area in their album.
I have persistently argued (here and here, in particular) about the central and intrinsic importance of England’s countryside, wildlife and wild areas in informing our culture throughout our history, in shaping our national demeanour and underpinning our sense of ourselves as a nation and as a people. Alan Law, Natural England regional director for the South East, eloquently articulates the value of such places:
“People cherish the National Parks for their natural beauty, their wildlife, and their open spaces. That beauty – whether the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs, the wooded quietness of the New Forest or the open moors of the Dark Peaks and Dartmoor – speaks to each of us at a deeply personal level.”
But it is no museum piece. Law continues:
“The South Downs, which will be our fourth largest National Park by area at around 1625 sq km, is home to the largest population of any National Park. It is also one of the most visited with nearly 20 million people living within an hour’s drive. Besides being an iconic landscape, it is a place of work and is a valued resource in terms of recreation and ‘getting away from it all’.”
In areas away from the countryside, similarly valuable schemes have been undertaken to preserve other aspects of our history: particularly in terms of our seafaring heritage.
The people of Dover, truly partaking in people power, have voted in favour of attempting to buy the town’s historic port. Run as a trust since 1606 – making it substantially older than the US Constitution and contemporaneous in its extant arrangement with James I – the port was to be privatised until a group, led by local MP Charles Elphicke and Neil Wiggins among others, stepped in to try to save the port for local people. They seem to have succeeded- the most recent reports in the local media suggest that a decision will be made in the next few days.
The ‘gateway to the nation’ aside, a similar, barely reported case has yielded similarly good results. Sheerness Dockyard, an important dock for three hundred years until its closure in – predictably enough – the 1960s, and equally predictably, the site has since been seen as potential profit for domineering developers and vultures of the sort.
However, various trusts and charities, as well as locals, have fended off these dangerous advances admirably. In 2010, the BBC ran a lovely story on the brave protests against controversial schemes to decimate the historical buildings on the site in order to build more characterless flats. Just eleven days later, the plans were thrown out. Since then, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust has purchased six Grade II* and four Grade II listed buildings dating from the 1820s. The Trust plans to restore them appropriately and tastefully while ensuring they have a modern function – a combination of homes and offices.
Such a remarkable turnaround is a credit to the kind of people we have in this nation- effective protest mounted by an organised, motivated and noble group of local people who wish to ensure the uniqueness of the character of their home is retained for future generations. Theirs is the dedication with which links with the past are retained; theirs the courage and determination to ensure they make a real and positive difference to their area. And reassuringly, more and more such stories come to light as time progresses – and in spite of the selfish interests of big business, international capitalism and money-obsessed officials.
But it is not all good news. The Guardian reported a few years ago on the decline of several other endangered heritage sites that risk terminal decline or being substantially lost or lost altogether. Countless unlisted, unremembered, unloved or derelict sites risk a similar fate if we do not act soon.
Let us pause for a moment, though, to consider the infinite benefit for everyone in taking action to ensure that the irreplaceable remains with us for future generations. Let us revel in the achievements of our ingenious ancestors, and hope we can do their legacy justice.