Sunday, 22 December 2013

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be…

In yesterday’s Guardian, Ian Jack discussed nostalgia. “Nostalgia used to be considered an illness. A word with a refreshingly certain etymology, it was coined by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 joined together two Greek words, nostos for homecoming and algos for pain or ache, to describe ‘a neurological disease of [an] essentially demonic cause’.”

In light of this week’s decision by Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s Planning Department to recommend approving the development of 80 houses on Oxhill Road, by Gladman Developments – albeit with a slightly modified design – I found myself becoming increasingly nostalgic about a field that is still there; unchanged, as yet; and only a frequent five-minute walk away from my front door.

It is, of course, the Planning Committee that makes the actual decision – at a meeting to be held at Kineton High School, on 8 January 2014 – and they will be fully informed, by then, of course, of the reasons for refusing outline planning permission on the grounds that it is not sustainable. So you could say that my nostalgia was a little premature.

However, it appears that Gladman will appeal, should the proposal be rejected; and it therefore feels right and proper to try and collect my memories now, in an attempt to preserve them.

The first time I walked across the field, this summer gone, I was greeted by an inquisitive group of bullocks: who seemed eager for my company – following me en masse wherever I went, at a respectful distance; and then clamouring at my departure.

When I returned, the next evening, they were slightly less curious; and, eventually, after just a few evenings retracing my steps, just proffered dismissive glances in my direction, before returning to the much more important task of grazing.

Time passing probably means little in their short lives; as with the people and objects who pass through them. But they, as a group, meant a lot to me – as, having worked amongst cattle (in what seems like a past life – and one which I am increasingly nostalgic for…), I do not fear their massing – which surely stems from instinct – nor their need to investigate – to ensure that I am not a threat. I actually have rather a soft spot for cows; and pity them for the way they are often treated. These, at least, were free(ish) to roam, for a while; and appeared to make the most of it.

Despite their weight, and the undoubted sharpness of their hooves, they also did little, if any, damage to this familiar, ancient, corrugated landscape – one perhaps shaped by their ancestors, oxen, attached to medieval ploughs.

In the Middle Ages, this field would almost certainly have been owned by the lord of Tysoe Manor; and farmed by his peasant tenants, using the open field system. Each such farmer would rent a number of strips – probably not together, but scattered around the manorial fields – his medieval plough (probably shared with others) turning the soil over and over, year in, year out. And, with his neighbours ploughing in the opposite direction, over time, this gradually moved the increasingly fertile earth inwards, from the edge of the strip (the furrow), causing it to build up in the middle (the ridge). And, as this creates such regular ditches, it seems likely that this process was also used to improve drainage for the farmers and their crops. 

These great open medieval fields were worked by the peasants as a community, though; and, at certain times of year – such as harvest – the whole village would come together. (Maybe there’s a lesson here…?) Although, in the end, of course, little could be done against the powers of the plague, and then enclosure – where landowners, with the full backing of the Government, could ‘enclose’ their land, and bring it into profitable use (such as build a dense collection of unsuitable houses on it, perhaps…).

I refuse to feel powerless, though – just yet. Nostalgia – especially for something that still exists – has its motivations, its positives; as well as its limitations, its negatives, its bittersweet pain.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

A poem from a long time ago…


Your name strides
Sculpted on my landscape mind,
Its racing arches rooted firmly
In that host of thoughts
Which we have christened…
Memory –

And wide, vast nothings
Echo round those blocks
Of chiselled retrospect,
And suns set beneath them –

Whilst crescent moons paint blue…
The conscious Memory.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Beyond the Wild Wood…

“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please.”
– Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows

I am a Mole, by inclination; and prefer the company of just a few very close friends and family members – and myself – to that of the general throng. I am, I suppose, socially, quite timid by nature (and probably somewhat eccentric, in other people’s eyes…): expressing myself better with written, than spoken language; and often keeping my thoughts to myself (or at least rehearsing, before uttering them…).

Grahame’s words – and the way of life he paints – seem all too apposite, currently. I don’t want the “Wide World” coming “Beyond the Wild Wood”, thank you. I chose to live in Tysoe, partly (mostly?) because of the lure of its isolation. I choose to stay here because of its isolation; its utterly wonderful, large moat of countryside; its intrinsic, unique sense of community and identity. (Those words again.)

I don’t know if it really is “the most rural village in Warwickshire”, as has been claimed – it certainly feels it, sometimes (thank goodness). What I do know is that I don’t want to be walking down Oxhill Road, with a future small grandchild in hand, explaining what the field that then holds 80 houses was; what it meant. (However, I presume all grandparents have many such sad epiphanies.)

But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.

I apologize if this sounds pessimistic (“For my life, I confess to you, feels to me today somewhat narrow and circumscribed…”): but the new speed limit signs on Oxhill Road, and especially their positioning, represent to me (and others I have talked to) stakes in the ground; territory being claimed and marked out; nails in a coffin… – and it’s hard not to jump to such conclusions. I have a feeling that, suddenly, the village (made animate) feels fatalistic and hopeless.

All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, Those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.

But this is still Tysoe. My Tysoe. And nothing can take that away. All we can do is fight; and, when the battle is won or lost – when the war is over – know that we did our very best to protect what is ours – even if we, and the village, lie scared and scarred, bruised and bewildered. (And never have I come across such an intelligent, invested group of weary foot-soldiers – “This happy breed of men” – as those currently trying to hold the ground for future, current, and past, generations. We find ourselves fortunate in so many ways.)

“Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it now is, there was a city – a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever.”

In the scheme of things, we are but little tadpoles in a roaring ocean – of both space and time (and bureaucracy…). (To quote the original Bard again: “Small show’rs last long, but sudden storms are short…”.) The field, though, has not changed in hundreds and hundreds of years; and our ancestors would have seen what we see now. Surely “This blessed plot” is therefore worth the fight?

Tuesday, 26 November 2013


As with the well-known elephant test, ‘sustainability’ can be somewhat difficult to describe; but the chances are that “you’ll know it when you see it…” – although, of course, if there are six blind men involved, all bets are off…!

Actually, on second thoughts, it may be its absence, or its obverse, that you notice first – unsustainability (which I mentioned in my last post) – as it seems to be all around us – and growing day by day – despite supposed moves towards the greener part of the political spectrum….

To get back to basics, for a moment, sustainability itself is a noun: which is defined as “that which is capable of being sustained [which is a little circular in its reasoning]; and, in ecology, the amount or degree to which the earth’s resources may be exploited without damage to the environment”.

In a way, both of these aspects are important when it comes to assessing how a new, large housing development may affect the village; and – although the current government’s green credentials may be evaporating (in a pile of crap) before our eyes – should both, therefore, be at the heart of major legislative requirements. It is the latter definition, though, which moves me most….

To try and capture the strong feelings in the village, and couch them in terms of ‘material considerations’, a letter was drafted by the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group, that could either simply be signed by residents who objected; or adapted by them to help them register their opposition. This was immensely successful – as hundreds of submissions were received by the district council.

Here are a few of the included pertinent grounds for objection:

The development is unsustainable: in that it is disproportionate in scale; and would increase the number of houses in Middle and Upper Tysoe by over 20% – causing undue harm to the character of the local landscape, the community, and its important environmental and historical assets.

The council’s Core Strategy states that developments should cause no significant increase in traffic on rural roads: and yet a sudden influx of 80 households will inevitably include a large proportion working outside the parish. This is inherently unsustainable: as it will generate a large increase in commuting and service traffic, through both Oxhill and Tysoe – especially as the local bus service is infrequent. The local roads are narrow and unsafe, and are already blocked at peak times. Such an increase will affect not only existing traffic – including a large number of agricultural vehicles, crucial to the local economy – but cyclists, horse-riders, and pedestrians (including parents and small children on their way to and from Tysoe Primary School and Tysoe Pre-School). 

The village’s surgery is already at full capacity: and, therefore, there would be no healthcare facilities for the large number of incoming residents. Local sewage and surface water management are already over-capacity; and the part of Tysoe under consideration – like much of the village – is already subject to frequent flooding.

There will be a detrimental effect on local heritage and environmental assets, including Tysoe Manor: a Grade II* listed medieval building, on land immediately adjacent to the proposed development. Not only will the new houses also be visible from the Edgehill escarpment – which is part of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) bordering the village – but it will form a major incursion across the village boundary into the countryside – in contravention of the council’s Core Strategy policy, which states that any development proposals should avoid such high-quality land as the ridge-and-furrow field the development will replace: land that is of ecological and archaeological value, locally and nationally. Access to the development will also involve loss of hedgerow.

I keep coming back to those two words: “community” and “identity”, though. They, too, can be hard to define (yet also utterly recognizable) – but my largest worry at the moment is that they, too, will be unsustainable in the onslaught of such an overwhelming addition to the built environment (and probably in a style more suited to the urban than the rural), and the huge population increase (again, probably more suited to the urban than the rural) this will entail.

To finish: sustainable development (which is what we obviously want for our village – as we know we have to keep on growing…) itself is defined in many ways – but probably the most frequently cited is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

I think we may need to get this printed on a few T-shirts….

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Light and darkness…

A couple of nights ago, Jim Al-Khalili’s new two-part documentary, Light and Dark, aired on BBC Four: exploring how humanity has uncovered the secrets of the universe by using and manipulating light. According to Professor Al-Khalili, “The central premise of this series is that what the human eye can see is only a fraction of the vast amount of matter and energy that exists…”.

Deep stuff indeed from my favourite science communicator; but I have pondered similar matters, recently, when returning home – in the near darkness – from neighbourhood planning meetings.

Tysoe, currently, is quite a dark place at night – lit only by the very occasional streetlight; residents’ scattered welcoming front door lamps; the odd glowing window; and infrequent passing cars and bicycles… – hinting only slightly at the many lives that collide and separate; that help glue the village together and make it what, uniquely, it is. It is therefore not unusual to see folks wandering to and from the pub, for example, with torches; or using the LED flashes on their smartphones to help walk their dogs. To be honest, nothing else, really, is needed.

However, last night, I was lucky to have my one-mile walk home – from Lower Tysoe, through the churchyard – lit by an almost full, waning gibbous moon. I had no need for the torch I routinely carry; nor for the rude interruption of sodium street lighting. The sky was so clear that the light was pure and white, and cast crisp, strong shadows. It also meant, of course, that an uncountable number of stars were visible: with my favourite constellation, Orion, rising majestically over Old Lodge Hill.

Our ancestors must have revelled on such nights: appreciating that there were greater powers at play – but not, perhaps, understanding them – but probably worshipping whatever they believed those ineffable powers to be. Nowadays, we take the night sky – that is, when we can actually see it… – for granted; and, arrogantly, assume that we know how it ‘works’, and that there is no longer any need for awe, humility, or even simple appreciation.

At a recent Parish Council meeting, the chairman complained about the number of requests for additional lighting that are made (which the council, sensibly, turns down…); and I fear that the development of a large estate to the west of the village would produce a glow of light that would wipe the scene I witnessed forever from the eyes of a large number of both existing and arriving villagers.

A large part of the argument against such a development is its unsustainability – and I would argue that not only is there the smog of the many additional car and supply vehicles’ journeys into and out of the village to take into account (as well as the detriment to the environment of building so many houses all in one place, and at one time…); but that the resulting light pollution would also play a role in removing our children one further step from the nature that Tysoe is so intertwined with.

What makes Tysoe special (for me…)

Just about three years ago, our car broke down in Stratford-upon-Avon, on our way to somewhere completely different. Whilst our car was being repaired, we wandered into town, and spotted a picture of the house we now live in, in the window of an estate agent.

I’m not entirely sure what drew us to it – in fact, I was particularly reluctant, initially, to be drawn at all! – but, eventually (having agreed that we were going to move back to Wiltshire, from north London), we compiled a list of properties to look at, local to Stratford. This was the only one we fell in love with.

Objectively, there is little that is ostensibly remarkable about the house. Admittedly, for a building of its age, it has character – but the garden is smaller than we would have liked; and it doesn’t have a garage! One thing it does have going for it, though, is that it is in Tysoe.

Having lived in a small village, before, I knew how important the post office and shop would be; how fundamental it is that there is a pub, a village hall, a doctors’ surgery; how you soon get to know your neighbours – and trust them. What I hadn’t expected was the amazingly strong – possibly unique – strength and sense of identity and community the “three hamlets… of Over, Church and Temple Tysoe” jointly possess: something that continues to become more apparent (and amaze) with each passing day.

The current campaign to fight the development of eighty houses on Oxhill Road – of which I have suddenly found myself a crucial part – typifies this; and I must admit to being overwhelmed by the sense of purpose, unity and duty that drives those motivated to “do something about it”. It seems I am not the only one who finds this place so very special.

At the opening night of Richard II, at the RSC, recently, it struck me that John of Gaunt’s final “this sceptred isle” speech – a dying man’s prophesy; an old man’s rant – could be about our village: “This earth of majesty… This other Eden, demi-paradise… This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm…”. This Tysoe.

And, just as the fight “Against the envy of less happier lands” gathered pace: as the deadline loomed for objections to be submitted against the planning proposal for those eighty houses, I realized (nay, was devoured by) the enormity of the task; and, Lear-like, headed out into the dark, the pelting rain, and howling winds, to try and gain some perspective.

But, in that “night’s storm I such a fellow saw”, hunched up, like me, against the “foul weather”; but, despite the air of foreboding, he uttered a friendly and welcoming “hello”. Just one word – and yet containing so much of what is special about this place.

For various reasons, I spend as much time as I can walking (badly, encumbered by a stick; and sometimes my camera) – whether it be by Shakespeare’s Avon; or through his supposed poaching ground of Charlecote. But, whatever the undoubted attractions of those places, I prefer just to wander around the local byways – maybe up to the windmill; or to Upton House; or across the fields to Oxhill. But I am at my most content, just sitting in the churchyard, knowing this is my village – and that this is where I will stay. To paraphrase Touchstone: “When I am at home, I am in a better place.”

A random bit of poetry…

Plough and scatter

Impossible perspectives,
to eyes trained on more rugged climbs:
gouged strands of tilth
that race, but never touch,
scarred by the ferrous digits
of a lifeless claw,
before a backdrop
of both bird and bough –
a euphony for all my senses;
a concrete palimpsest;
a manuscript complete.