Coun­try Mouse Giles Wood

The Oldie - - NEWS - giles wood

His­toric Eng­land’s pub­li­ca­tion New Life for Eng­land’s Old Farm Build­ings (2015) was a life­line for strug­gling farm­ers in the red. We know of sev­eral farm­ers who have ben­e­fited from changed plan­ning laws to ex­tend per­mit­ted de­vel­op­ment rights, so farm build­ings can be con­verted into homes.

Well-in­ten­tioned, highly ed­u­cated men of sound char­ac­ter – such as Squire Hud­son at Wick, Worces­ter­shire, in the heart of Eng­land – have em­ployed ‘her­itage ar­chi­tects and builders’ – and spared no ex­pense to re­tain the ver­nac­u­lar tra­di­tion of their re­gion. Hud­son meanwhile has di­ver­si­fied with the labour-in­ten­sive Real Flower Pe­tal Con­fetti Com­pany, a laud­able change of land use that pro­vides em­ploy­ment for the ru­ral work­force. Blocks of pas­tel colour, pho­tographed from the air, en­liven the pages of tabloids and even broad­sheets dur­ing the Silly Sea­son.

But con­vert­ing re­dun­dant farm build­ings can, in the wrong hands, be a dis­as­ter.

At this time of year, I take to my moun­tain bike and, in full cam­ou­flage jacket, I like noth­ing more than to search for barn owl pel­lets in out­ly­ing re­mote barns. Owls swal­low their prey whole. Af­ter di­gest­ing the flesh, the in­di­gestible fur and bones are re­gur­gi­tated as com­pact pel­lets.

Re­turn­ing home­wards to foren­si­cally in­spect my haul, my gim­let eye was drawn to­wards a dis­creet, A4 lam­i­nated, green sheet at­tached by string to a field gate. The words – ‘DE­MO­LI­TION of ex­ist­ing barn and con­ver­sion to dwelling house and erec­tion of ad­ja­cent cart house’ – shat­tered the peace of my book-lined, ru­ral idyll.

As a for­mer mem­ber of The Hawk and Owl Trust, I con­fess I loathe barn con­ver­sions as do barn owls and bats, un­less spe­cial pro­vi­sion is made for them. I dis­like the plate-glass pic­ture win­dows, against which passer­ines will hurl them­selves as they con­fuse the re­flec­tions for open blue sky or green bushes. I dis­like the cav­ernous in­te­ri­ors, with their Per­sian car­pets, un­fit­ted kitchens and witty al­lu­sions to pre­vi­ous build­ing use, eg ex­posed beams.

This is not to men­tion the jazzy gar­dens that usu­ally come, too, laid out with all the for­mal­ity of chess pieces on a board, where once there were this­tles and may­weed to at­tract goldfinches and painted lady but­ter­flies. And as for he­li­copter pads, se­cu­rity lights and the con­stant move­ments of Ger­man cars…

It’s not that I am en­vi­ous that the barn could be con­verted into an as­set worth mil­lions. Un­like Ken­neth All­sop in 1970s Dorset, I do not mind if my end of Wilt­shire is ‘swamped by stock­bro­kers’, since th­ese are some of the very peo­ple who might buy my daugh­ter’s paint­ings. Like my­self, she is a land­scape artist; though more pro­duc­tive and less likely to be dis­tracted by dis­place­ment ac­tiv­i­ties, such as ob­ject­ing to plan­ning out­rages.

But it’s a phrase of All­sop’s that I have to thank for em­bold­en­ing me to write a 737-word ob­jec­tion, based on a buzz phrase, coined by him: lo­cal dis­tinc­tive­ness.

He wasn’t the first writer to jeal­ously guard his lo­cal patch. He stood on the shoul­ders of Richard Jef­feries, John Clare, Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins and Al­fred Wil­liams along with Peter Fuller, Fraser Har­ri­son, Richard Mabey, An­gela King and Su­san Clif­ford. Left­ies to a man, and mid­wives to the en­vi­ron­men­tal char­ity Com­mon Ground, the first char­ity to cel­e­brate the com­mon­place.

Com­mon Ground’s pub­li­ca­tion of 1985, Hold­ing Your Ground, is any­thing but com­mon­place. It is an ac­tion guide to lo­cal con­ser­va­tion and a balm to the fur­rowed brows of those brave souls fac­ing for­mi­da­ble and ar­tic­u­late op­po­si­tion from men in bo­gus tweed jack­ets, Tat­ter­sall shirts and game fair ties who give their pro­fes­sional opin­ion that the scene can only be im­proved by a new build.

There are still re­as­sur­ing num­bers who are will­ing to give of their time – which, in my own case, means in­come for­gone – to con­test the wreck­ing of Eng­land’s green and pleas­ant land or, in Hop­kins’s words, ‘the sweet es­pe­cial ru­ral scene’ – from ‘Bin­sey Po­plars’, one of the first green ink po­ems.

All­sop wrote, in one of his qui­eter mo­ments, ‘To earn the right to love a place, you have to learn about it bit by bit.’ I knew lit­tle about this Glouces­ter­shire barn, since it is on pri­vate land with no ac­cess, owned by a Welsh squiress in her twen­ties.

Now I know the barn is clad with weath­ered and bleached elm boards. The last of the elm. A non-re­new­able re­source. Why has the barn not been listed? Why was the lam­en­ta­ble de­ci­sion not to re-thatch it taken? A cynic might aver that this was a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to de-grade what might have been re­garded lo­cally as a much cher­ished land­mark by mak­ing it less pic­turesque.

To prove that this barn is a land­mark is the cen­tral theme of my ob­jec­tion let­ter. The pro­posed run-of-the-mill barn con­ver­sion is not even a pas­tiche of the orig­i­nal.

Do I have the stom­ach for the fight? At the present rate of brain cell de­ple­tion, I wor­ried that the word ‘land­mark’ might have only a nau­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion and reached for the Shorter Ox­ford Dic­tio­nary. I was pleas­antly sur­prised to find that, not only can that word be used fig­u­ra­tively, but also that God is on my side. ‘Cursed be he that re­moveth his neigh­bour’s land­mark.’ Deuteron­omy 27:17.

‘Can’t you give the dummy mouth to mouth with­out get­ting ro­man­ti­cally in­volved, Mrs Wilks?’

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