South Oxfordshire’s plan to tame Wittenham Clumps into a country theme park are reminiscent of Jerome K Jerome’s caricature of German tidiness. Why can’t these ghastly little people leave the countryside alone, why don’t they leave people to make their own leisure, and why did the planners fail to reserve green space out of the house-builders’ land?
The pen-pushers at South Oxfordshire District Council want to create a 1,500 acre “country park” stretching from Didcot to Wittenham Clumps. There is, apparently a “growing shortfall in green spaces” in Didcot, and a network of paths or “greenways” is proposed.
Alan Bennett’s play 40 Years On, is a sustained lament for a world which has gone. Published in 1969, it gently mocks each era’s values from the turn of the century – until the last couple of pages when mockery turns to a distaste which sends a chill over audiences, as it was meant to.
In our crass-builded, glass-bloated, green-belted world Sunday is for washing the car, tinned peaches and carnation milk.
A sergeant’s world it is now, the world of the lay-by and the civic improvement scheme.
Country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more year by year. We have become a battery people, a people of under-privileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste an season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility.
The hedges come down from the silent fields. A butterfly is an event.
I don’t suppose local government officers read Bennett, or would understand him if they did. The contempt is not for lay-bys or civic improvements per se, and certainly not for sergeants, but for the officialdom which levels down rather than raises up, for the bureaucrats’ preference for the artificial alternative to the real thing, and for their assumption that people must have their pastimes made for them.
There are already two footpaths through the fields from Didcot to Wittenham Clumps. Doubtless they could do with a little clearance, a new stile or two and the occasional finger-post. We can guess, however, what a pen-pusher with £2.5 million to spend will do. There will be broad, hard tracks, suitable for bicycles, wheel-chairs and prams. “Country-style” notices, perhaps with acorns and squirrels carved on them, will point to the nature trail. There will be a car park and a lavatory-block, or “toilets” as they will be called. A café will be built, with an adventure playground and an information point.
There will be staff – play co-ordinators, nature wardens and traffic wardens. A new road will be built to take the traffic. Health & Safety will want to spend money on fences and notices and on making sure that no-one runs the slightest risk. Equalities will want to know that the very young, the old, the obese and all cultural and religious opinions are represented. Signs will prohibit smoking and drinking. There will be warnings to take your litter home but no bins. There will be speed restrictions and road humps and probably CCTV to check who comes and goes and what they do.
The pen-pushers will think it all as it should be – lots of public money spent, lots of government boxes ticked, jobs for all and an impressive new entry on some CVs. Above all, that horrid nature will have been tamed and put in its place.
In 1900, Jerome K Jerome published Three Men on the Bummel, a sequel to his more famous work about boats. The same three chaps visit Germany on bicycles. It must be 40 years since I read it, but the author’s description of the German’s need to improve upon nature came to mind as I pictured the bureaucrat’s dream for Wittenham Clumps.
Your German likes the country, but he prefers it as the lady
thought she would the noble savage–more dressed. He likes his
walk through the wood–to a restaurant. But the pathway must not
be too steep, it must have a brick gutter running down one side of
it to drain it, and every twenty yards or so it must have its seat
on which he can rest and mop his brow; for your German would no
more think of sitting on the grass than would an English bishop
dream of rolling down One Tree Hill. He likes his view from the
summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet
telling him what to look at, find a table and bench at which he can
sit to partake of the frugal beer and “belegte Semmel” he has been
careful to bring with him. If, in addition, he can find a police
notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other,
that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security.
Your German is not averse even to wild scenery, provided it be not
too wild. But if he consider it too savage, he sets to work to
tame it. I remember, in the neighbourhood of Dresden, discovering
a picturesque and narrow valley leading down towards the Elbe. The
winding roadway ran beside a mountain torrent, which for a mile or
so fretted and foamed over rocks and boulders between wood-covered
banks. I followed it enchanted until, turning a corner, I suddenly
came across a gang of eighty or a hundred workmen. They were busy
tidying up that valley, and making that stream respectable. All
the stones that were impeding the course of the water they were
carefully picking out and carting away. The bank on either side
they were bricking up and cementing. The overhanging trees and
bushes, the tangled vines and creepers they were rooting up and
trimming down. A little further I came upon the finished work–the
mountain valley as it ought to be, according to German ideas. The
water, now a broad, sluggish stream, flowed over a level, gravelly
bed, between two walls crowned with stone coping. At every hundred
yards it gently descended down three shallow wooden platforms. For
a space on either side the ground had been cleared, and at regular
intervals young poplars planted. Each sapling was protected by a
shield of wickerwork and bossed by an iron rod. In the course of a
couple of years it is the hope of the local council to have
“finished” that valley throughout its entire length, and made it
fit for a tidy-minded lover of German nature to walk in. There
will be a seat every fifty yards, a police notice every hundred,
and a restaurant every half-mile.
They are doing the same from the Memel to the Rhine. They are just
tidying up the country. I remember well the Wehrthal. It was once
the most romantic ravine to be found in the Black Forest. The last
time I walked down it some hundreds of Italian workmen were
encamped there hard at work, training the wild little Wehr the way
it should go, bricking the banks for it here, blasting the rocks
for it there, making cement steps for it down which it can travel
soberly and without fuss.
For in Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled
nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a
bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming
down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming
down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative
verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to
the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of
“Now then, now then, what’s all this about?” the voice of German
authority would say severely to the waters. “We can’t have this
sort of thing, you know. Come down quietly, can’t you? Where do
you think you are?”
And the local German council would provide those waters with zinc
pipes and wooden troughs, and a corkscrew staircase, and show them
how to come down sensibly, in the German manner.
It is a tidy land is Germany.
Before you accuse me of adding anti-Teutonic xenophobia to my long list of politically incorrect vices, you should know that the Germans loved Three Men on the Bummel, and it was apparently used as a school text-book for some years. In much the same way, South Oxfordshire’s bureaucrats will gape in astonishment at the idea that their scheme to tame the fields, woods and hedges will attract criticism.
There is more to this, though, than dim pen-pushers moulding the countryside into their neat vision. There are echoes here of the Nazi Kraft durch Freude – Strength through Joy – movement, the state-controlled leisure programme. There is a patronising assumption that the people of Didcot must be helped and encouraged to get out into the “country”, and that without “greenways” (yuk) they will not have access to the fresh air. If you wanted to reinforce the prejudiced assumption that the people of Didcot would not lift their fat arses from their sofas without official encouragement, this is one way to do it.
There is also the small matter of the £2.5 million which is to be spent on this. One wonders where that will come from in this time of economic crisis – will the rate-payers fund it or will some munificent Belgian bureaucrat pay? What else will not happen whilst this urbanisation of the countryside is being paid for?
Not least is the question as to why Didcot’s expansion has not included provision for green space commensurate with its growing population. Estates of rabbit-hutches have sprung up all around the town in the last decade, full of commuting middle managers and their families. Developers must have made a fortune. Should not the planners have insisted on adequate open space? Or are they, like the planning officers of Oxford City, too much in thrall to the developers to make a stand? Perhaps (again like those of Oxford) they find actual planning beyond them, contenting themselves with rubber-stamping the builders’ plans.