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About A Week: England Should Be A National Park

Peter Hinchliffe supports author Bill Bryson's call for England's green spaces to remain green.

Author Bill Bryson has suggested that the whole of rural England should be made a national park.

Iowa-born Bryson, who now lives in England, was delivering his inaugural speech as the new president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

His proposal came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeated his pledge that 3 million new homes would be built by 2020 to ease an acute housing crisis.

Many of these new houses will inevitably have to be built on green-field sites.

Speaking at the annual meting of CPRE, Bryson said:

"Something I have often wondered is why you don't make the whole of England a national park. In what way, after all, are the Yorkshire Dales superior to the Durham Dales? Why is the New Forest worthy of exalted status but glorious Dorset is not?

It's preposterous really to say that some parts are better or more important than others. It's all lovely. And there's not much of it. Of all the surface area of the Earth, only a tiny fragment -- 0.0174069 per cent, or so I gather -- can call itself Great Britain. So it's rare and dangerously finite and every bit of it should be cherished.

The miracle, in my view, is that on the whole it is. For all the pressures on rural England, and all that could be made better, the countryside remains one of this country's supreme achievements. I know of no landscape anywhere that is more universally appreciated, more visited and walked across and gazed upon, more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of England. The landscape almost everywhere is eminently accessible. People feel a closeness to it, an affinity that I don't think they experience elsewhere.

If you suggested to people in Iowa, where I come from, that you spend a day walking across farmland, they would think you were mad. Here, walking in the country is the most natural thing in the world -- so natural that it is dangerously easy to take it for granted.''

Bryson, who lives in East Anglia, looks out from his bedroom window on an ancient church tower.

"It has been standing there, adding a little touch of nobility and grandeur to the landscape, for 900 years. I find that a literally fantastic statement. If this church were in Iowa, people would travel hundreds of miles to see it. Of course, you'd have a job explaining to them how it got there, but you take my point. It would be a venerated relic. And here it is just an anonymous country church, treasured by a few aging parishioners and one overweight American, and otherwise almost entirely unnoticed because it is just one of 659 ancient parish churches in Norfolk alone.

Altogether, there are 20,000 ancient parish churches in Britain. There are more listed churches than there are petrol stations. Isn't that an amazing fact? If you decided to visit one every day, it would take you 54 years to see them all.

Wherever you turn in Britain you are confronted with wondrous and interesting things -- 19,000 scheduled ancient monuments, 600,000 recorded archaeological sites, 100,000 miles of public footpaths, 250,000 miles of hedgerows, 73,000 war memorials, 6,500 listed bridges, 14 national parks, a 100 or so areas of outstanding natural beauty, over 4,000 sites of special scientific interest. You can't move 10 feet in this country without bumping up against some striking reminder of a long and productive past.''

Bryson's Notes From a Small Island, a humorous and affectionate portrait of Britain and its peoples, was thought to best sum up British identity.

In 2004, Bryson won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general-science book with A Short History of Nearly Everything. His most recent book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir of growing up in 1950s Iowa, is a bestseller in Britain and other countries around the world.

While Bryson was making his clarion call for green spaces, Prime Minister Brown was telling a Labor Party policy forum that the demand for both houses to buy and accommodations to rent must be met.

Brown said Britain's housing problems were evident when he traveled the country over the past few weeks and during the last general election campaign.

He said he met young couples unable to buy their first homes, people living in rented accommodations in overcrowded conditions and "young children particularly suffering because of sub-standard accommodation."

He said those wanting to buy a house should be able to do so. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Labor government decided to build "millions of houses"; during the 1940s and 1950s, many more homes were built because there was insufficient accommodation.

"Now again we are going to have to decide as a nation and win the argument with people who do not want that sort of development," he added.

Although Brown did not spell it out at the forum, this means that houses will have to be built on previously protected green belt land, which means that thousands of nimbys will rally to fight against plans to build in their areas.

For those unfamiliar with the word, "nimby" is an acronym for "not in my back yard." It is applied to a person who hopes or seeks to keep some dangerous or unpleasant feature out of his or her neighborhood. Nimbyism is heavily laden with selfish connotations -- so much so that anyone objecting to development in a rural area risks being accused of selfishness rather than concern for the environment.

I live in a Pennine Hill village, less than five miles from the center of a Yorkshire industrial town. I look out on an open landscape, a country estate established by Normans around 1280.

The big house on the estate was pulled down more than 50 years ago. Now the 510-acre expanse is farmed. Some fields are ploughed for crops. In others, sheep and cattle graze. Woodlands and grasslands provide secure homes for foxes, hares and rabbits. Birds, which roost for warmth on town center buildings at night, fly out to feast in the high fields.

I look out on fields in which I played as a young boy. Almost daily I walk the footpaths leading across the estate. The lane in which my house is located is called Town End Lane -- an apt title, because there are no more houses until you reach the next village, which is almost two miles away.

Should plans be announced to build more houses in this rural landscape, I would oppose them, running the risk of being labeled a nimby.

I'm with Bryson. What is needed is greater protection for England's treasured green spaces, not the threat of encroaching bricks, mortar and concrete.


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