Monday, 31 March 2014

A little herd of England’s timorous deer…

The National Trust’s Charlecote Park is one of my favourite places to wander around: especially West Park – home to the main breeding herd of fallow deer. There is a grandeur in the mature tree-lined avenue down to the west gate, on the Stratford Road; and, the last time I was there, a great deal of mystery, until the fog – that had covered everything in a damp monochrome shroud – eventually lifted.

The contrast between West Park, and the rest of the estate, is quite marked; and is exemplified by the two groups of deer that populate each. In the main grounds, the deer are less timorous, and even quite approachable when in the right mood (usually during or after feeding); whereas those to the west – where the ground is more natural and wild – retain more of their essential character: especially as the presence of fawns makes the mothering does protective, and the fathering bucks permanently on-guard. Should the presence of the occasional human get too much – and they are a much rarer sight than the deer, on this side of the park – the herd also has the deer sanctuary to retreat to.

In the more visited areas, to the east and north of the house, the deer – bucks of all ages: kept, I think, mostly for decoration; and to make flesh of the legend of Shakespeare’s supposed poaching (and supposed retribution in his portrayal of the fusspot, Justice Shallow) – are outnumbered by both visitors and the wonderful flock of splotchy Jacob sheep. The sheep behave as sheep always do: grouping stochastically together, mimicking and following each other’s actions, intent on munching on as much grass as they can. Whereas the deer have become more domesticated: the presence of those strange upright creatures who seem intent on photographing their every move not being quite so alarming.

If you sit on a fallen tree, for instance, close to the ground where food has been scattered by their keepers, even the younger ones will quite happily – although occasionally glancing at you with barely concealed forbearance – wander within feet of you: not at all bothered by the constant clicking of your shutter; their simple minds intent, like the companion sheep, on filling their gullets.

Approach them when they are sated, or basking in the sun, and you will soon know when you have overstepped their boundaries. The less brave will rise, stand and stare – getting to their hooves in reverse order of fearlessness. The last to do so, though – if he can be bothered; and with a disdainful eye aimed towards your camera – will always be Boris: a large leucistic buck, with a face that bears witness to many rutting duels and skirmishes.

Why “Boris”? Well, with his pure white coat, and obvious leadership status – combined with his slightly ‘interesting’ facial features – there was no real alternative! He also seems keen on communicating; and I have seen him lower his head, ever so slightly, and walk purposefully, but slowly, towards those too curious to appreciate his personal space. It’s a message that is always read loud and clear (I believe that he is actually pretty chilled – he’s just become accustomed to bossing others about…); and I have never seen him concede the smallest amount of ground, unless he, and his cabinet, are majorly outnumbered – and then they will saunter away, prompted more by a desire to be left alone, rather than any concern for their safety. (If you have Boris defending you, there is probably very little that bothers you!)

The thick fog appeared to have left me with the park to myself – although, as the sun emerged, a scattering of other visitors appeared. However, I was alone, initially, when I popped into the Orangery Restaurant for my usual brunchfast of warming soup (which is always served with a very large chunk of fresh bread), moist treacle flapjack (there is none better), and steaming Americano.

The previous time I was here, I had the company of one of Charlecote’s resident, and characterful, cats: sitting, nuzzling, on my knee: occasionally staring intensely at his image, reflected back, on my iPhone. “Is this me?” However, Jasper – who had been an almost permanent gatekeeper for the restaurant: often trying to sneak in for warmth, company, or food (when, really, he knew better…) – died, a few days later; and the Orangery is a sadder place for his absence.

It is such individuals that make Charlecote – the humans: volunteers and staff alike; as well as the wild- and not-so-wild-life – as much of an attraction as it is the landscape and architecture. And they are a large part of the reason I return again and again: watching how the seasons affect them; making each visit different – whether a quick stroll to and from the restaurant, or a longer walk around the parkland. And, if I leave, with venison in my bag, like young Will, then it is probably only in the form of sausages, acquired legally, from the local produce shop in the Pantry!

Politics, politicians, and political service…

A bad politician disappoints his constituents; a good politician disappoints himself.

I’m sure this has been said before – and in many different (and possibly cleverer) ways – but, after an (ongoing) discussion with my wise friend, Duke Senior, about what we should expect from those that we – a decreasing minority, it seems – elect (supposedly) to serve us, it seemed a pithy way of encapsulating everything I feel about the ‘service’ I have received – compared to the service I have idealized, expected, wanted, needed – from various professional politicians over the course of my mid-length life.

Had I not a condition that makes everyday existence a challenge, I would seriously have considered (local) politics as an option in my enforced retirement: as I have more than enough causes to propel me (from disability, to housing design and distribution, and the meaning of modern democracy). I would, though, have been more in the mould of Tony Benn or Jack Ashley than Tony Blair and Jack Straw – i.e. motivated by sincere and heartfelt principles; and of a conviction that would serve others, rather than any attempted scurry up the ladder of power and infamy. (Cue Kenneth Williams.) In summary: either completely unelectable; or, once elected, in a completely powerless minority of one.

I want my questions answered by an alert and experienced politician, prepared to be grilled and quoted - not my hand held by an old smoothie.
– William Safire

What I’m trying to get at – always naïvely hoping that others will try and live up to the expectations I have of them: because I would expect nothing less of myself (i.e. the curse of the idealistic perfectionist) – is that those curiosities (or nonpareils) who are voted in because they really do want to deliver what their constituents want and need, will always feel that – whatever public and private good they actually deliver – they are not doing enough; and what they are doing is not to a high-enough standard. Whereas, with those who are in it for fame, glory, money, power – and with the passing of Tony Benn (possibly the last great conviction MP), I fear this is now both the majority and the accepted fashion; and that we are suffering a pandemic of only thinking of (and paying lip-service to) the hoi polloi when an election approaches (and where there isn’t an insurmountable majority); leading to the making empty, populist promises: often with a vicious undercurrent of hidden agendas (that fail ever to be fulfilled…) – it is the electorate which feels that insufficiency.

It is no wonder, therefore, that, currently, so many people feel so disenfranchised – especially when such is the level of engagement shown by the elected with the electorate.

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.
– Khalil Gibran

In The Guardian, on 20 March 2014, Esther Addley described how Hilary Benn paid loving tribute, in parliament, to his late father:

[He] had loved parliament, but not idealised it, said Benn, taking his inspiration from the words of a Salvation Army hymn his own father had sung to him as a child: “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known.”

“If we are not here to do that,” asked Benn, “what are we here for?”

In the past, when I was having to fight for my disability benefits, I was fortunate that the two MPs in question didn’t just take an interest in my plight; but took action – either directly, or through delegation to well-trained and expert staff. Although, initially, I was surprised at both the amount of involvement and the amount of contact, I know that this is what I should have expected – and not just in an idealized world, but in the pragmatic, real one… – as it is in their job descriptions. I know, from talking to others, though, that I was extremely “fortunate”. Many people – and in need of much more help, more support, than I – have been fobbed off, or simply ignored.

If politicians – at all levels: from parish councillors to prime ministers – want (and they should…) to be held accountable, then they should not either need – or mind – being reminded of this, from time to time. They also should not act as if any contract they have with their voters ends the moment they gain power.

In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.
– Charles de Gaulle

Friday, 28 March 2014

Bard & Tew (Part 2)

With Mike Sanderson

The skies were leaden again. Rain teemed down. Again.

“See, it’s the climate changing!” said Tew. He was dashing, head down, and ran smack into the Bard. “That’s the trouble these days: everyone’s always rushing. Where has that timeless quality gone that you see in the pictures in the Tysoe oral history project? These qualities only flow from having a link to events and associations with other times,” muttered the Bard, emptying his wellies. “So what can we do about it?”

A mischievous wrinkled grin (much like a smiley) spread across Tew’s face. “Well, it’s simple really. We’ve known since there were only 3.6 billion people on the planet, that diversity makes our environment stable. This ’ere Neighbourhood Plan gives us our opportunity. We can designate things that are important to the village consciousness, that give us our diversity (the well-heads in the centre de ville, the allotments, playing fields, churches). We can also state that the design and form of buildings must have an alternative heating source to oil. Oh, I forgot, and be faced with local stone.”

“You’re suddenly very eloquent,” replied the Bard, with a frown. “But I agree. If we’d used our collective noggins, all those years back, then maybe we wouldn’t need an FSD! I know solar panels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea; but they could have made such a difference, long-term, if everyone had them. Even if some think it’s now too late, we should do our best to have a low-carbon future; and insulation, triple-glazing. In the long run it would help with people’s bills, too.”

And the moral of this tale? Well, unlike the NPPF ministerial foreword, which focuses on making our lives better, now: “we can be optimistic about providing our children with a way of life psychologically, intellectually and aesthetically more satisfying than our present one” (Ecologist, 1972).

– Originally published in the Tysoe & District Record (April 2014: no.743)

Architecture with heart and brains…

Do you believe that art has the power to move? Do you believe that architecture is art? If no, please leave now (and don’t forget to turn the lights on, on your way out). If yes: can it therefore move you to tears…?

Opening the ‘Properties’ section of this week’s Herald, I was astonished and delighted to find a house listed there – although not yet built – that so captures the essence of imagination and environment; that is so sensitive to the ideas of suitability and sustainability; that I actually cried, with joy.

This is what the architect, David Sheppard, has to say about his creation – inspired by the historical fabric of the place it will soon (I hope) become a key part of:

We aspired to make Hedge House to be both exceptional and innovative in terms of the material choice and how it is made: a holistic approach using only two materials, wood and brick. This means, in the literal sense, using wood and brick as our only palette of materials; to all walls, floors, ceiling, inside and out achieving a rigorous consistency and longevity to the building fabric. We see the building evoking a sensual almost sacred atmosphere within, with the purity of line, geometry and simplicity of space with natural light enhancing these material characteristics.

Are we, as a village, as a community, brave and intelligent enough to learn from this?

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

That’s all he wrote…

Thank you for your communication.

I shall be arguing strongly for Gladman’s Appeal to be dimissed.

An open letter to Councillor Chris Saint, leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council…

Dear Councillor Saint –

Proposed development of land south of Oxhill Road, Tysoe [13/02515/OUT]

As you will be aware, Gladman Developments have formally appealed against the unanimous vote of Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s Planning Committee (East), on 8 January 2014: which rejected the proposal for outline planning permission for an estate of eighty urban-style houses on the edge of Tysoe – and a Public Enquiry will therefore be held at Elizabeth House in the near future.

I am writing to you, therefore, to ask what help you and the council will be giving to the inhabitants of Tysoe – particularly the Tysoe Residents (Neighbourhood Planning) Group (TRNPG) – both in the run-up to this inquiry, and during it: especially in light of the staunch support Gill Roache provided for the initial hearing.

In a meeting you held with one of the members of the Steering Committee of the TRNPG (of which I was then a member), just before Christmas, last year, you stated that you did not want to see this particular development happen; and that you were happy to be quoted in saying that Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC) would defend the decision if the committee voted to reject the application and Gladman then appealed – as they now have.

Additionally, in last week’s Stratford-upon-Avon Herald (20 March 2014), Peter Reading, vice-chair of Friends of a Rural and Sustainable Environment (Forse), detailed the following – from “a public meeting in Long Itchington”, where you gave “a compelling insight into [your] beliefs relating to to planning development and the preparation of SDC’s emerging core strategy…”:

He told us that there is no point in having isolated housing with no bus routes or employment and that communities should develop in an organic way which is sustainable. In response to a question, he assured us that he wants to keep boundaries around settlements and not join them. He said he is actively looking for opportunities for community identities and character to be maintained and will only allow development if villages have the existing infrastructure to support them.

Further, he went on to promise that our rural landscape is safe because special landscape areas are being introduced; that he wants the characteristics of that landscape preserved, not to have any houses built on it, and will resist any planning inspector who suggests otherwise.

While I do not doubt either the sincerity or the passion behind these pronouncements, nor your integrity in making them, I am keen – as they are all pertinent (and parallel) to Tysoe’s existing defence against Gladman’s proposals (as detailed in the TRNPG’s briefing paper to the planning committee, Sustainable Tysoe?) – to learn:
– how you and the council plan to implement them;
 when they will be put in place; and
 what the legal basis is for their foundation.

As the Planning Inquiry is imminent – with written submissions having to be received by the Planning Inspectorate before 1 May 2014 – I would also like to know what part these statements – and their enaction – will play in your support of our village at that event; and what resources (e.g. monetary and manpower) the council will provide to enable us to successfully oppose Gladman’s wholly unsustainable and speculative proposals. Additionally: do you plan to be proactive in your/our defence; or do you intend to be reactive, and therefore led by the TRNPG?

Planning Practice Guidance
I am also curious to discover what role you think the new/revised planning guidelines have to play in the above: particularly the improved protection of Green Belt (which obviously echoes your pronouncements); and the reinforced arguments concerning prematurity – i.e. answering “In what circumstances might it be justifiable to refuse planning permission on the grounds of prematurity?”.

As far as the latter is concerned: although Tysoe’s Neighbourhood Plan is only just getting off the ground (i.e. is barely “emerging”), would you agree that the council’s Core Strategy is well-advanced enough “to refuse planning permission on the grounds of prematurity” because “the development proposed is so substantial, or its cumulative effect would be so significant, that to grant permission would undermine the plan-making process by predetermining decisions about the scale, location or phasing of new development”? If so, would you then also be prepared (in both theory and practice) “to indicate clearly how the grant of permission for the development concerned would prejudice the outcome of the plan-making process”?

[As you may know: in January – before the new guidelines were announced – David Wilson Homes dropped plans for a legal challenge to an emerging Neighbourhood Plan in a village governed by Harborough District Council: which I believe had been detailed as one of the reasons for not giving planning permission. Admittedly, the plan was at the final referendum phase; but this does show, I believe, that prematurity arguments can be made to hold water. I also think that, at some stage (preferably soon), these planning guidelines will have to be tested; and that the Tysoe Planning Inquiry would provide a good opportunity to do so.]

Defending the district
Finally, it is obvious from the content of the Herald over the last few months that more and more bodies are springing up, throughout SDC’s jurisdiction, to fight what Nadhim Zahawi has described as “rapacious developers” – e.g. SHAPE, in Ettington; as well as Forse, and the TRNPG.

Although some of these groups (for obvious and comprehensible reasons) appear to be opposing the district council, as well as local development proposals, do you feel that SDC has a part to play in bringing them together – perhaps in alliance with our MP – to help them in their fight for true localism and truly sustainable development (which, of course, is the “golden thread” running through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF))?

If so: how? If not: why?

[I, for one, do not blame SDC for the position we find ourselves in – as you can read on my blog – but I sympathize strongly with the plight of those that do.]

Thank you for taking the time to read this lengthy and complex missive. I look forward to receiving your detailed and comprehensive answers to my questions.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Joseph Ashby’s submission to the Planning Inspectorate…?

A few days ago, I wrote that I could “only imagine” what Joseph Ashby – the agricultural trade unionist; and Tysoe’s most famous son – “would make of… the threats [the village] faces from developers”:

I believe he would have fought such menaces, though: as he always did so keenly for the causes he so strongly believed in – with “an economy of indignation… saved up for the big things and kept turned in the right directions.”

Well, reading Joseph Ashby’s Victorian Warwickshire, edited by Anne Langley – which features extracts from “a series of delightful articles” from the Warwick Advertiser – I began to uncover his views, and make some of those imaginings concrete. (I therefore hope that a visit to Warwickshire County Record Office, where Anne is a volunteer, will help me fill in some of the gaps, and build a more complete understanding.)

His description of Tysoe – echoing his daughter’s; and demonstrating the love he had for his own village (although attempting to be objective and fair…) – sets the scene:

The village of Tysoe, seen from the Edge Hills, forms part of one of the finest landscapes in Warwickshire. There below us ancient farm homesteads and cottages have been nestling among the old elms for which the village is famous, for centuries. The village, though scattered over a mile of road and greensward, is seen from end to end from the Edge Hills. It is such a picture of quiet beauty and peace that but little fancy is required to make the scene before us a pastoral Utopia. How rudely such a conception is dispelled when one is face to face with the life and struggles of people.

It is a shame that the heritage (and environment) represented by the old trees that so characterized our village – especially the “great hollow tree in which a dozen men can stand” in Upper Tysoe – disappeared with the invasion of Dutch Elm Disease; but we should be proud – however intent this present Government seems to be on reversing the process… – that “the life and struggles” current villagers face are no longer, on the whole, as dangerous, squalid, or poverty-stricken as those then “lived by the labouring poor in the villages of Warwickshire” (as well as remembering, of course, that Ashby himself contributed a great deal to such improvement…).

Discussing “The enterprise and industry of the villagers of Broadwell”, Ashby also – and we must remember that he was the very model of a nonconformist, working-class, autodidact (not unlike myself!) – explains why he thinks some villages are so successful:

I am inclined to attribute [the enterprise and industry] to the activities generated by the healthy rivalries of the different, though tolerant, convictions and opinions by which they are actuated. There can be no mistake as to the fact that activities of thought, however seemingly opposed, have a desirable effect upon the material condition of any village. It is those villages in which independent thought is suppressed, or upon which the evil spirit of apathy has settled, and those villages only, where the general condition of the people is not improving.

And I don’t think it is too far a leap to claim that it is our lack of – or emergence from – that “evil spirit of apathy” – combined with (as I have said before) our fortune to have so many knowledgeable, independent-thinking, and hard-working residents – that has helped Tysoe develop its unique community feel and spirit; and has so far helped us fight the current spate of “speculative development”.

In some ways, though, nothing changes. (And then, nothing changes again.)

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
’Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war…

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss
– Pete Townshend (The Who): Won’t Get Fooled Again

Describing new houses being built in Stockton by “the Lime Burning Company of Nelson and Co”, Ashby writes:

These cottages are of the usual size of modern cottages, and built in the usual manner in which new cottages are built in the villages. The great fault of these cottages is that they are placed too near each other. In the case of many of them they are placed in a long row which must always be a most objectionable feature in the erection of new cottages.

And of Ryton on Dunsmore – hinting strongly at ‘subtopia’ (as well as the issue of commuting…), almost sixty years before Ian Nairn coined the word:

There is no glare of the modern red brick which somehow or other is one of the leading evidences of “the march of progress,” which, taking the whole of Warwickshire villages into consideration, means for most workmen a daily “march” into the bowels of the earth, or the stone quarries.

I think Ashby would have been more concerned with the conditions of the insides of any new houses, though, than their architectural aesthetic (however important); and the facilities they provided for his (as he saw them) kindred village folk – especially those less fortunate. His strong hint at the lack of “greensward”, though, and the density of new housing – because of its effect on “the whole social surroundings of the rural community” – is still relevant over 120 years later (as well as being the driving force in the delivery of ‘The Promised Land’ of allotments, which Ashby himself fought so hard for); as is the obliteration of productive agricultural land.

From the following excerpt (and many others – often to do with the affordability of rents, and the attitudes of landlords), it is obvious that Ashby – as an extension of his deeply-felt concern over villagers’ living conditions, and the local environment – was also extremely conscious of (and concerned with) both “social well-being” (a term he uses in his description of Southam) and sustainability (a word only adopted in the late twentieth century): echoing our current anxieties with flooding, drainage, water treatment and capacity. And it is sad that nothing much has changed in this respect, either. [It will take another wet winter, I fear, to see whether Severn Trent Water’s latest works, at Oxhill – I was going to say “attempt at a solution” (sorry) – have been successful.]

The most painful aspect of life in the village of Oxhill is that of the water supply. Passing through the village a few days ago I was informed that, excepting the water gathered out of the holes of a brook, which passes near the village, which have been scooped out by the changes in the course of the stream… there is no water in the village for man or beast. Of the quality of such water I need not stop to speak…. Whether the water be as clear as a stream can be in April, when the excess of winter’s rainfall has rippled in tiny streamlets and rolled with increasing force in its progress to the sea, and before the cattle, driven by flies and heat, have converted it to a stream of mud, or whether incessant rainfalls give the stream an almost dangerous volume, or drought dries the bed of the streams bare, this stream alone appears to be the only available source of water. I am bound to say, too, that not two miles away, is the village of Tysoe, a village of 900 inhabitants, the whole of the sewage of which comes into this stream. To put the matter briefly, the sewage of about 250 houses, and perhaps half as many pigsties, and several farm yards, directly or indirectly, flows into the water which the people of Oxhill have to drink.

Travel – and the condition of what passed for local roads – of course, wasn’t such a problem in the 1890s. Most villagers rarely strayed from their place of birth; with only occasional forays to the local market town. Even Joseph Ashby – with his extensive tours of the local villages for his Warwick Advertiser articles “by train, penny-farthing bicycle and on foot”; and as a travelling lecturer in one of the English Land Restoration League’s ‘red vans’ – didn’t venture much beyond the county boundaries.

Regardless, Joseph Ashby’s life was remarkable – in many ways. We should therefore be prepared to learn from him, his beliefs and his actions, as we gaze out at Tysoe from atop his erudite giant’s shoulders. Like him, we must build on our history, our context, our roots. We must defend those causes we know he would also have fought for. We must therefore not lay down our arms easily, assuming – as some did with the initial planning hearing – that – because Gladman have appealed (although they in no way can be described as actually being ‘appealing’), and a public inquiry is being held – all is yet lost. Instead, we should respect his memory, as well as the village he left behind, by championing his values, as they apply to our times.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Gladman are back…

Although I know that many other residents of Tysoe will have received the same information, here is the body of an email I received today from Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s Planning Department, concerning Gladman’s appeal (lodged on 12 March 2014) against the refusal for outline planning permission:

I wish to inform you of an appeal that has been made against the decision of Stratford-on-Avon District Council.

The appeal is to be dealt with at a Public Inquiry that will be conducted by an Inspector appointed by the Planning Inspectorate. The Inquiry will be held at The Council Offices, Elizabeth House, Church Street, Stratford upon Avon, CV37 6HX. The date for the Inquiry is still to be arranged so I will write to you again when the date is confirmed.

As an interested party if you wish to make additional comments on this appeal you may send them to the Planning Inspectorate at the following address:

Robert Wordsworth
The Planning Inspectorate
Room 3/05a (Kite Wing)
Temple Quay House
2 The Square
Temple Quay

Tel: 0303 444 5608

Please ensure that any comments you wish to make on this appeal are received by the Planning Inspectorate before 1 May 2014 otherwise they will not normally be seen by the Inspector and will be returned. The Planning Inspectorate also states that three copies of any comments must be sent to them.

Alternatively the Planning Inspectorate have introduced an online appeals service which you can use to comment on this appeal. You can find the service through the Appeals area of the Planning Portal – see The Inspectorate may publish details of your comments, on the Internet (on the Appeals area of the Planning Portal). Your comments may include your name, address, email address or phone number. Please ensure that you only provide information, including personal information belonging to you that you are happy will be made available to others in this way. If you supply information belonging to a third party please ensure you have their permission to do so. More detailed information about data protection and privacy matters is available on the Planning Portal.

Please quote the Planning Inspectorate reference number [APP/J3720/A/14/2215276] on all correspondence.

Any comments you made to Stratford-on-Avon District Council at the application stage have already been forwarded to the Planning Inspectorate and to the appellant.

The Planning Inspectorate will send a copy of the decision letter to you provided you specifically ask for one.

You may attend the Inquiry (personally or through a representative) and, at the Inspector’s discretion, present your views on the proposal. If you wish to speak at the Inquiry you should notify the Planning Inspectorate as soon as possible.

Copies of the appeal documents, including the Notice of Decision and the appellants Grounds of Appeal are available for inspection at the Planning Department, Elizabeth House, Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon during normal office hours. They can also be accessed from the Councils website at Written evidence which is to be submitted to the Inspector at the Inquiry by the main parties should be available for inspection about six weeks from the date of this letter.

You may obtain a booklet, free of charge, entitled A Guide to Taking Part in Planning Appeals from the Planning Portal website at

Thursday, 20 March 2014

A steady spirit, regularly free…

It is not the entwining ivy, the golden jasmine, the clinging honeysuckle, and the trained rosebushes, with their delicate perfume, to which I desire to introduce the readers of the Advertiser, but the real life lived by the labouring poor in the villages of Warwickshire.
– Joseph Ashby: Warwick Advertiser (24 December 1892)

I have in front of me a book that has existed as long as I have; written and signed by an author whose very roots spiral deep into Tysoe’s soil – (Kathleen) MK Ashby, the daughter (and biographer) of Joseph Ashby of Tysoe 1859-1919: A Study of English Village Life.

Just opening it – and breathing in that musty-but-sweet perfume so redolent of old pages, old literature, old lives – instantly connects me more firmly to the land I live on, the village I live in (as well as whisking me back to the libraries of my childhood; the encumbered shelves of my parents and grandparents). Reading it – and admiring the wonderful, insightful, unique narrative and style – I am immersed in the history of our village: seen through the eyes and experience of a man whose knowledge, wisdom, understanding, ambition and graft – and importance – I can sadly only appreciate from afar: as he was born just over a hundred years before me (and his biography).

He would, though, I am sure, have made a good, lively and true companion, wandering and riding around the highways and byways of his village… – although what he would make of its current manifestation, and the threats it faces from developers, I can only imagine. I believe he would have fought such menaces, though: as he always did so keenly for the causes he so strongly believed in – with “an economy of indignation… saved up for the big things and kept turned in the right directions.”

Time showed in fact that Tysoe men could not be won for vast schemes; they wanted this wrong righted, that foul spot cleared, and reasonable scope for a man’s activity. They had, the best of them, wise inherited attitudes outlasting the occasions of learning…. But though they were sceptics, they saw that there were good men in all ranks and grades, and moreover, that in all but the worst time, everybody, just and unjust alike, contributed something: the foolish amused and the wicked instructed. They saw men as members one of another.

Early in her book, Kathleen Ashby describes the situation of Tysoe in the mid-nineteenth century: the small world her father emerged into (fatherless) – not that so much of our topography has changed… – setting it against its neighbours:

Compared with all these Tysoe had some high distinctions. It was large, and composed in a rare way. Its trinity of hamlets, Upper, Church, and Temple (or, as the old maps had it, Templars’) Tysoe were large groups of houses strung along the foot of the Edge Hills. These, with their minor clusters and lanes, stood on small brooks flowing down parallel courses some quarter or half mile apart. The hills themselves were unique and, moreover, sacred. They looked high and straight, fully their six or seven hundred feet. From their ridge, they are seen to be the edge of a plateau, not straight but a series of curves, forming great amphitheatres, suitable for giant Roman dramas and spectacles, but no one in Tysoe thought of those. For [many of the villagers] they were biblical hills – steadfast, a glimpse vouchsafed of the foundations God has laid, the bastions he has built; yet sometimes skipping like lambs, while clouds that are the skirts and fringes of God’s raiment sweep along them.

Such beautiful, expressive, poetic prose (anything but prosaic): which she also implements in fluently and naturally capturing the villagers’ argot – and without any fuss, pretentiousness, or exaggeration. It rings real and planted; consistent and true… – although she knowingly contrasts this “local mode” with her grandmother’s use of “book language”, when required! She also builds foundations for her writing on those of her parents’ possessions important enough to her sentiment and identity, but essential to the verisimilitude of their lives – such as Joseph’s first personal books: bought in Banbury with three shillings wisely and affectionally gifted by his mother, Elizabeth, from the family’s scant harvest gleanings – delving for documentary evidence; handling them affectionately and with reverence: much as I now do with her creation (and which, with her scrawled dedication, produces similar significance and interconnection).

In a recent post, I asked of our forebears…

How did those people live and work? Why did they stay – or move away? What attracted them? What made it hard for them? What made it hard for them to stay or move away?

…and Kathleen’s A Study of English Village Life goes a very long way to answering that: stretching back centuries in a precursor to – and analogue of – Ronald Blythe’s wonderful, immersive Akenfield: another book that I believe is fundamental to understanding the evolution of rural life; and its frequent foundation in poverty, as well as in tilth.

When her father was alive, the Act of Parliament that was passed in April 1796 “for the enclosure of the open fields of Tysoe” – almost the last parish in the area to succumb: and, therefore, with little apparent resistance – was a recent and living memory; the end of an era (with even the “Red Horse itself… penned up within hedges, without even a footpath past it”). Many of the pre-enclosure rituals were still enacted at harvest, though; and many villagers were still aware of the location of their family’s ‘lands’, or ploughing ridges – a passive, subtle, but behindhand rebellion against “a visible sign and symbol that rampant family and individual power had gained a complete victory over the civic community.”

“Enclosures would have done good if there had been justice in ’em. They give folks allotments now instid o’ ther rights – on a slope so steep a two-legged animal can’t stand, let alone dig!”

But Joseph, as he ripened each summer, with the crops, was also interested in the wider world:

Three things came to him in this period; some idea of how events elsewhere affected his own home and village; some knowledge that other communities produced other manners and other men; and then the sense, to describe it as best I can, that under the wide acreage of grass and corn and woods which he saw daily there was a ghostly, ancient tessellated pavement made of the events and thoughts and associations of other times. The historical sense he shared with many of the men he met about his work. Their strong memory for the past was unimpaired by much reading or novelty of experience, and yet their interest had been sharpened by the sense of rapid change.

In many ways, Joseph – with his political understanding, cultural immersion and regular contributions to the (then very) local press – was the original Bard of Tysoe: more social and forthcoming than I, though; and with a more monumental and commanding presence – an organizer of men and causes, as well as of words and ideas.

Although “talk was his medium… he was a lifelong writer of one kind of thing and another.” Sadly, though, “there remain only printed fragments or faded manuscript sentences” – a fact that makes me hesitate, and then meditate on the future of my words, in a period when we no longer relish and rely on the almost-permanency of “old pages” and “encumbered shelves”; but commit our thoughts to flimsy, fleeting pixels, viewed transitorily, rather than stacked and cherished, to one day be visited again with delight at the conclusion of a successful forage for a familiar, half-remembered phrase or sentence.

“He liked to write as an onlooker, wide-minded and kindly, indulging, I think, in the fantasy of being at ease as to time and income…” – a sentiment, and an ambition, I empathize with (but have not yet attained). He also, like me, “must have found time to read books on history and rural affairs, or his writings could not have achieved their quality.” He wears his learning lightly, though; and always parallels it with action: using the conclusions he arrives at, with great thought, to understand, strengthen and animate the lives of his peers; to “arrive at the facts [that] would make ill-informed talk an anachronism.”

This devotion to knowledge, passed down from his mother, flowed naturally to his offspring, as well. He believed that “it was always important to notice how things appeared to children” – and his, inheriting his love of Tysoe, as well as his talents, “firmly believed themselves to live in an area of remarkable natural beauty. To them the Edge Hills were high, though not too high for one to stand often on their top and look out over the world.”

Kathleen – as his natural, bardic successor – reproduces, towards the end of the book, her first (although not childish) attempt at capturing the Tysoe she saw, felt, lived in, and loved:

We no longer see our country as did the old painters, the distance dark and threatening, the great elms near at hand admired for strength, their leaves individually drawn as each a sign of life and power…. Looking from the top of Sunrising our landscape is friendly to its bounds; we interpret its light and shade with the great Constable’s help to mean corn and plough and meadow.

From below our hills are high: “Man lifts up his eyes to the hills.” In the vale is a man’s home; the market and the milkpail. The poetry of these may be more profound than that of the heights but it is not easy to feel it so. On the hills is exhilarating wind. There in June the harebells and thyme “waft prayers and adoration to the azure”, the firs on Old Lodge toss their boughs in a rarer, quicker, air. Here a few romantic young folk load the wind with shouted poetry. Many through the nineteenth century have thrilled to feel their minds expand with the wide view. “Yonder see the Coventry spire”, they say, or “as far as the Severn”, but what they mean is that here the soul is large and free. These long-sighted folk are mostly men taking a Sabbath walk. On Sundays village women are busy dressing each member of the family, in Sunday best, and then afterwards cooking the finest, largest meal of the week, but here they come on summer weekdays gathering mushrooms or blackberries. It is difficult for them to shed the numerous and pressing cares of the household, but gradually in the keen air sight and smell become heightened, hands fall idle and the gatherers note the tiny flowers and the cloudlets in the sky. It is animal life that attracts the little children; they like to frighten the clumsy sheep – so often it is they themselves who have been afraid. They fly with the birds that are freer even than their holiday selves. The bigger children remember that they came here in February, when the wind was at its keenest, to chop boughs and pick up chips from the trees that had been felled. The pale sunlight and the pale primroses asserting themselves against the cold had promised summer and now the promise was fulfilled. Very soon the visitors to the hills return to their life of custom and work in their homes below, but they will come again when time and labour permit, to look outwards and heavenwards.

However, her “study”, written half a century later, concludes with these words – bringing us back to her father… – words which I cannot better:

It has been the special destiny of Englishmen to be at once good citizens and highly individualised – to be very serious pilgrims, like Bunyan’s, but telling fine tales on the way, like Chaucer’s. The scale of our lives is different now; for us all the world is our parish; all the more need to practise our wits and skills in Joseph Ashby’s way, on the home acres.

Moore Rodin, please (part one...)

My life is pretty challenging, at the moment – principally because of my health (or lack of it…). However, I have found some very effective medicine (although short-lasting – it therefore needs consuming regularly), in the form of the Moore Rodin exhibition, at Compton Verney.

I fell in love with Henry Moore when twenty-eight of his sculptures were shown at Kew Gardens, a few years ago: returning again and again to see them, admire them, interpret them, photograph them, in all weathers and lights. I intend to do the same at Compton Verney – although there are only five of Moore’s works outside, there is the added bonus of six of Rodin’s masterpieces sited in perfect juxtaposition with the more modern sculptures: bringing depth, and a feeling of innate completeness, to the exhibition. (When I get around to it, part two will cover the continuation of the exhibition, inside the house; although I can already heartily recommend both the café and the restaurant for quality of food and service!)

Rodin’s Monument to the Burghers of Calais has always been one of my favourite sculptures – ever since I first came across it, outside the Houses of Parliament, when I was traipsing around London, with my mum, as a child; and Moore himself considered it the greatest work of public sculpture in the city. Even if you do not know the story behind it, it has the power to move you intensely. Once you learn that story, you see more of the subtle detail; understand the profound and sublime range of emotions shown on the characters’ faces, and in their poses; appreciate more the tensions between resignation, hope and fear. Once you learn that story, those sensations will become yours; the figures will live and breathe for you – and it can therefore be overwhelming.

This is, of course, what makes it the chef d’oeuvre it is; and why it is undoubtedly the big draw of the exhibition. If you time your visit right, though – e.g. mid to late afternoon, during the week – you can have it all to yourself; and there will be no-one to see you pretending to have something in your eye; or that your hayfever has somehow suddenly been brought on by an inanimate lump of metal…!

None of the Rodin sculptures will fail to disappoint those who love figurative art. His compassion – as well as his exemplary skill – shines through in each of his works. The Moores, I think, may be more of a challenge, to some.

This is not said snobbishly. Although, overall, I fell for the sculptures at Kew, some took me longer to appreciate, and some left me quite cold. Moore – however much a perfectionist – was something of an experimental artist: and not afraid of failing; of bravely putting something out there that he could then use to evolve his work, to produce something more ‘successful’ in the future.

‘Modern art’ can also take some getting used to: the artist’s ideas often being well ahead of the general population’s, as well as what is seen as acceptable, tasteful, in fashion.

It is somewhat difficult to pick one outstanding piece of Moore’s: as they range so widely in style. Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae certainly has the most impact – especially with its echoes of Rodin’s Burghers – but it is also the most complex of the works; and takes time and patience to grasp (and therefore photograph) all its internal rhythms, symmetries, and contrasts. (In my head, I hear Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – with its varying tempi and measures; its dissonances; its stresses and pulses.)

It is perhaps Moore’s yearning Upright Motive No.9 that affects me most, though. (Strangely, the Upright Motives at Kew were amongst the ones that least affected me.) There is, in its fluidity and curvaceousness, an expressive soul that – at his height – Moore captures equally as well as Rodin: which is why the juxtapositions and contrasts work so very well – especially between Rodin’s The Fallen Caryatid with Stone and Moore’s Reclining Figure: Bunched, where the echoes, at first obvious, develop complexities that push and pull the two figures together and apart in a tidal bronze ballet.

If I had to choose just one sculpture – that pulls me back even more than the others – it is the bashful Eve, hiding in her woodland grotto (and surrounded, picturesquely, by snowdrops, when I was last there). There is a simplicity to her… – and her gesture of reticence is superbly captured: frozen in a moment you hope may thaw in front of you.

Both sculptors express and draw out movement, emotion, and humanity, superbly, in a medium that should produce the opposite characteristics. If you don’t believe me, I suggest that you visit – preferably more than once – and find out for yourself…!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Spirit of place…

In an earlier piece, I mentioned Ian Nairn – rapidly becoming one of my few heroes, the more I read of him and his writings. He once stated that “There is only one real rule, that each place has its own nature, its genius loci.” I recently, too, referred to this ‘spirit of place’; and I now wonder how we could capture that of “the three hamlets of Over, Church and Temple (sometimes known as Upper, Middle and Lower) Tysoe, and their residents” – with a view, perhaps, to using this as a foundation for the villages’ nascent Neighbourhood Plan.

In The American Landscape: a Critical View, Nairn discusses “the art of the environment, the art of placing objects together so that the result is something better than any of the original elements; the art of giving identity to places and hence to the people living in them”. And, in the ‘Sussex’ volume of Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, he describes that county as “a good place both for modern houses and for unspoilt village pubs… fully motorized, fully affluent, yet aware of the need to keep countryside green.” However, in the ‘Surrey’ volume, he protests against “a particularly mean kind of village expansion” that throws out “the old pattern, maybe pickling a few old cottages for appearances’ sake, and not putting anything worth-while in its place.”

I think I prefer the Sussex version as a starting point for any model for Tysoe’s ongoing development; yet appreciate that some of what has already happened to Tysoe has inevitably followed the Surrey model… – albeit a little more sympathetically than in many other places. (Maybe not empathetically, though.) What we don’t want is “a soggy, shoddy, mass of half-digested clichés, half-peeling façades, half-comfortable rooms, untested preconceptions about what people want… ignoring what people are like in all their frailty and diversity”, as he wrote in his seminal Observer article ‘Stop the Architects Now’. The Neighbourhood Plan must reflect the needs – and wants – of where we live; why we live there; how we live there; how our children will live there.

Close your eyes for a moment. Remember your first view of Tysoe – as a small child, born into the village; as a newcomer, like me. What was it that made this place special; memorable; a place where you wanted to base your life – if not all of it, then at least a sizeable chunk of it?

Ignore the house you live in – whether this be a mansion, farm, or semi – and remove the considerations of cost, affordability, and the facilities your particular home provides. Perhaps, for a moment, envisage yourself floating high above the village. (And, if you find this difficult, load up the satellite view of Google Maps, briefly; and then re-close your eyes.) Swoop around – like the boy in The Snowman – visiting the parts of the parish that you love best.

Now, remove all the buildings. What was the vale like before people began to settle here? Before St Mary’s was built in the 11th century? Before the cores of the three separate settlements really took shape in the 17th century? Before the Red Horse was carved – around the same time, perhaps… – and then erased? Why did people settle here throughout that millennium? Why did our three villages grow? How did they grow? How did those people live and work? Why did they stay – or move away? What attracted them? What made it hard for them? What made it hard for them to stay or move away?

Take a deep breath. Then take all that you have seen; and add the buildings in, as you imagine the three Tysoes evolving, developing, growing, in fits and starts – right up to the present day. What was good (in your eyes – no-one else’s matter, at this point…)? What was bad? What lessons can be learned, as we go forward? What successes should be repeated; what mistakes avoided? How would you like the villages to evolve, develop, grow? (And no: you don’t have the option to preserve them in aspic. Between now and 2031, we have been told that Upper and Middle Tysoe must accept between fifty-one and seventy-five new houses.)

Did those (large) numbers wake you from your reveries? I’m not surprised. However, close your eyes again; remember the place your thoughts have already brought you to. If you wish, or need to, write those thoughts down, before proceeding….

Where could we put all those houses? In fields; filling in gaps; replacing – or remodelling – existing buildings? What should they look like – individually; corporately? Who will live in them? What will their collective impact be on us; our successors; our villages; our surroundings; our environment? Can any negative aspects be ameliorated? How? Who by? Before or after they are built? What positive factors do they bring with their emergence? How do they affect your imagined history of the three Tysoes, as it spirals off into the future…?

Go for a walk around your village. (Open your eyes, first, though!) Does this change the thoughts you’d had; the conclusions you’d reached?

Ian Nairn believed that the only way to counteract architects and developers designing and constructing unsuitable buildings, bulldozing over fields and over residents’ desires, was “The public head of steam…”; and that “All it needs is a channel.” Thanks to the 2011 Localism Act, we now have that “channel”: the development of a Neighbourhood Plan giving us all an opportunity to have a say in how the built environment in our parish develops to meet existing and future demands.

Distilling Nairn’s approach (or even teachings) in their recent book Ian Nairn: Words in Place, Gillian Darley and David McKie summarize it thus…

Go and look at this place. See what you think. See how you feel. Respond. And if it is being diminished, if the flavour is being squeezed out of it, think about how you might respond to that, too.

…and I don’t think we could have better instructions in place as to how we, as a village, kick off our own Neighbourhood Plan.

PS: Fare thee well, Tony Benn – conviction politician extraordinaire; and another hero. As Ed Miliband said, he “spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.”

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

There may be lambs in Tysoe and Oxhill…

…already snuggling up to their mothers against the cold north-easterly wind; but there were none to be seen, yesterday afternoon, during my walk up to the Grade II listed Philips obelisk, and around the surrounding Welcombe Hills Country Park.

Towards the end of April, last year – making the time, each day, to go on an Expotition: for the twin sakes of my physical and mental wellbeings – I decided I’d try and take some ‘cute’ lamb shots (as I tried again yesterday – but failed…): so went up into the Welcombe Hills (although that makes it sound a bit like the Himalayas, rather than the North Pole…).

One of the first sheep I came across, though, was obviously in some distress: as, having already produced one healthy offspring, her next was stillborn. She tried to coax it into life by reflexively nuzzling and licking it: but to no avail. This also meant, of course, that she was ignoring her first lamb: who was still covered in blood and mucus; but had managed to get to its feet, and was investigating its dead sibling. Luckily, the farmer was only a few hundred yards away, and dealt with it all swiftly and calmly (and, sadly, routinely) – with me as token assistant, as well as summoner. An hour later, on my return, the ewe was busily fussing over her only baby; and all was well.

When I originally uploaded it, I made no apologies for the following photograph – and therefore make none, now. It represents the daily truth and challenges… of farming, specifically; and the countryside, in general. Having worked on a farm, this should have been nothing new to me. I realized, quite quickly, though, that it had made a major impact… – which is why I remembered it so vividly, yesterday, traipsing the same route.

The climate and terrain in the country park is that little bit more exposed (even though, at just over a hundred metres, the Welcombe Hills are pretty much the same height above sea level as Main Street) – witnessed by the views afforded to and from the obelisk – which is why the lambing is that little bit later. Not too long to wait, though, if the current girth of the ewes is anything to go by; plus their gathering close to Lower Welcombe Farm, and the preparation of paddocks for newborn singletons, common twins and infrequent triplets.

Although seventy metres or so above the Avon, many of the footpaths in the hills are still clogged with deep, dank, muddy puddles (as, therefore, were my feet); the fields still saturated with our wettest winter. It will take many, many more rainless and sunny days to even begin to dry these out (although, after hosing them down, I’m hoping my trusty walking boots will be ready much sooner). Such sustained weather would also encourage lambing, of course: with a ready supply of fresh grass and soothing warmth providing the necessary sustenance and comfort for mothers and children alike. (Sheep milk is extremely tasty and nutritious, by the way: and is perfect for ice cream, as well as cheese. Lucky lambs!)

Let’s hope, therefore, that next time I’m up there – there will be Pretty Baa-Lambs for me to capture!

PS: Goodbye, Bob Crow – possibly the last of the great union leaders (and the same age as me…). A true working-class hero: wrought out of a solid block of grit; and yet still imperceptibly fragile. “I’m not going to be hanging around for ever. I won’t be one of these people like Lenin in a mausoleum.”

Monday, 10 March 2014

Arnside and the Knott…

Arnside – on the Lancashire/Cumbria border – is one of those places you pass by (with little, if any, thought) on the way to the Lake District. Ignoring it – as I have often done – is unfair, though. Looking to walk somewhere that I hoped would be quiet (and was), on a Saturday that hinted at a soon-to-be spring, I therefore parked early on the Promenade, and decided to be led by the signs drawing both the wary and unwary onwards and upwards to the summit of ‘The Knott’.

I know I’m not as fit as I once was (by a very long way): and the increasingly steep 159-metre climb from sea-level left me gasping for air, and in worse shape – temporarily – than the trees sculpted and stunted by the permanent on-shore winds (gusting up to fifty miles per hour, when I was there: although it felt like such gusts were actually the norm…). Fortunately, once you leave behind the bigger houses, with the bigger views, there are frequent benches for the weary of limb, but ambitious (and stubborn) of mind – although often at view-points (and, therefore, gust-points) that turn into one vast, glorious panorama, as you near the top.

I’m sure, on a clear day, the vista of the Lakeland fells would be more than enough reward; but, even on a day marked by gloom (only lifting in my rear-view mirror, as I headed back towards the M6), there was an air of rugged, blurred mystery about the scene below me: looking across to Grange-over-Sands and along Morecambe Bay and the Kent Estuary – clogged with orange, grey and dull brown, dangerous, deceiving sands – and this was sufficient a prize (along with knowing that I had, for a moment, overcome the permanent pain that sears through my body, that would hold me back; and appearing to be the only soul around).

If it hadn’t been so very breezy and chill up there (even the birds were hiding – apart from the odd intrepid, acrobatic raven), I would have stayed longer – there are paths and paths to be followed and tempted by: of scree, grass, rock, and occasionally mud. Even with gloves, and many layers, the plethora of coffee-shops and cafés on the Promenade was too tempting. My timing was good, as well: as, descending, I met a large party of hail fellows well met, who had cleared the tables of one of those eateries before setting off to also conquer the local summit.

The town itself puts up a staunch front against the prevailing weather; and, I suppose, could appear forbidding in its apparent greyness. However, it is an honest place; and the houses jostle agreeably for position and prospect on the slopes down to the Prom: a short walk taking you past what looked (and smelled) like an excellent chippy (not quite open for lunch) to a typically scenic coastal railway station – its long line stretching purposefully across the tide to Grange and beyond.

Returning to the town via Church Hill, I headed off, suitably fortified, towards New Barns Bay. I should have left my walking boots on, though: as the concrete path soon crumbles, once past the lifeboat station and old boatyard – so I sat, photographed, and collected my thoughts.

Definitely a place worth returning to: when the sun is shining (and not just a broken promise); the breezes are gentle; when the fish and chip shop is open. However, then, I fear, I will be amongst crowds – some of whom learned long ago of its secretive and subtle delights.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Signing up to save our countryside…

CPRE charter
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is currently running a charter to Save our Countryside – asking for better protection for the countryside; a fair say for local communities in planning for the places where they live and work; and more housing – but of good quality and in the right places. You can sign the charter here.

Our campaign is a wake-up call for the Government. We are saying loud and clear that whatever their original intentions, the reformed planning system is not working.

Welford-on-Avon Parish Council e-petition
Additionally, as you may have seen in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, Welford-on-Avon Parish Council has lodged an e-petition on the HM Government website: to “Amend the NPPF now, before irreversible damage is caused to our communities” – following our MP, Nadhim Zahawi’s comments in the press. Although this petition was originally aimed at local councillors (parish, district and county), it is now open to all, and can be found here.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Another found poem…

…Never fair

Fly unto a curlew’s weeping distance;
But grant your arching wings a closer hold,
That, reaching down, their feather fingers fold
My saddened soul into your breast. Entrance

Your wandering, restless flight with love of me,
And pale not your roaming heart, but brighten
All with my fond love of you. Go: tighten
Our strong bond – but yet return, and softly

Cry my name from that sad curlew’s weeping;
Grant my aching wings your hold when sleeping.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Why do we need to build (so much…)?

Like food, there is actually more than enough housing to go round – at least for the moment. Not only in the UK (which has more than 700,000 empty homes); but in the rest of Europe, too (with more than 11 million empty, in total – “enough to house all of the continent’s [4.1 million] homeless twice over”).

With around a third of all food being wasted (through over-supply and over-eating) – in this country, at least – there could be sustenance for the permanently hungry; for those who are forced to collect parcels of provisions that can be warmed up with a kettle (the only source of heat in some people’s homes being a camping stove…). With empty houses being refurbished or conserved, there could be accommodation for the dispossessed; for those forced out of the homes they have lived in for years because of the ‘bedroom tax’, or from delayed or deleted benefits (that, in all likelihood, they deserve, or are due…) – or simply because their landlords demanded excessive rents.

Food wastage and food shortage are terrible problems; but so is the reported lack of available homes that is – I am told – at the root of the carpet-bombing of proposals to cover our green fields with swathes of unsuitable, unsustainable, identikit boxes: with a legislated proportion being ‘affordable’ to almost no-one that would qualify for their residence, or actually needs them to live in (especially as Stratford district’s “House prices are higher… than the average for Warwickshire”).

At 1 April 2011, there were 1,329 empty houses (14% of the estimated new homes needed between now and 2028 – or two years supply) in the area governed by Stratford-on-Avon District Council (SDC) – with 748 of those (8% of the housing requirement) having been empty for six months or longer. [As of 2 March 2014, this latter number has been reduced to 543, as a result of SDC’s Empty Homes Strategy.] And yet, from my reading of SDC’s Draft Core Strategy, and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), it appears impossible to include any of these empty houses in the council’s five-year housing supply – even though there are hints in both of these documents that this would be a sensible move…. So they simply haven’t been.

And yet, the coalition government says that it is “committed to bringing empty homes back into use”: encouraging local planning authorities (LPAs), such as SDC, to do so – “as a sustainable way of increasing the overall supply of housing and reducing the negative impact that neglected empty homes can have on communities…” – both via the NPPF, and such resources as the Empty Homes Mapping Toolkit. The evidence appears circumstantial, at best, though.

This is what the NPPF says, at paragraph 51:

Local planning authorities should identify and bring back into residential use empty housing and buildings in line with local housing and empty homes strategies and, where appropriate, acquire properties under compulsory purchase powers. They should normally approve planning applications for change to residential use and any associated development from commercial buildings… where there is an identified need for additional housing in that area….

“Should”, not “must”. According to the CPRE:

The Government has… implemented two initiatives to support this policy: [including a] £160m fund for supporting local authority and community projects to get empty houses back into use…. Concern has been raised, however, that the Government’s proposed tightening of the rules which govern the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) could undermine local authority attempts to refurbish and re-let privately owned empty homes.

By the way, the above figures don’t include all the second, third, or fourth (etc.) ‘homes’ that are occupied rarely – or sometimes never – by the super-rich who buy up property like most people buy tea bags (or lottery tickets?); and who therefore drive up prices and scarcity in the name of selfishness and greed (their twin gods?). “Even London has more bedrooms than people.” (If you counted empty bedrooms in Stratford, what numbers would emerge…?) This is why more people are renting than owning, again; why families are living in unsuitably small and squalid spaces; why slums will soon re-erupt, like flesh flies from diapause.

There are no easy answers. Campbell Robb, the chief executive of Shelter, the UK’s biggest homelessness charity, has stated that the government needs to come up with “bigger, bolder ideas” to tackle the lack of available, affordable homes. But I would add that it then needs to put these into action, rather than just “encouraging”.

On 16 January 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution – by 349 votes to 45 – demanding that the European Commission develop an EU strategy on homelessness “without further delay”. And I would hope – however Eurosceptical our government has become – that this would eventually filter down into UK law: ensuring that regulations such as the NPPF force LPAs to not only allocate empty houses to the homeless, but also to designate them as truly affordable. Additionally, new legislation must ensure they are used as part of the five-year housing supply: therefore relieving some of the pressure from the remote and greenfield sites that are of so little use to those with limited funds, and limited access to transport….