Tuesday, 21 October 2014

In search of William Kimber: a morris pilgrimage

Headington is not the kind of place one would expect to visit on the trail of morris dancing heritage. A suburb of north Oxford strung out along the main road towards London, it is in parts cheerfully shabby, and in other places, includes the large Victorian villas typical of so many of the city’s suburbs. It is certainly a long way from the solidly rural settings which most people associate with traditional morris dancing. However, it has an important place in the history of traditional dance in England, for here, on Boxing Day in 1899, Cecil Sharpe first heard a Headington builder William Kimber play traditional morris tunes, when the Headington Quarry morris team danced out at Sandfield Cottage, where Sharp and his family were staying with his mother-in-law.

William Kimber became a key figure, as both a dancer and a musician, in the Morris revival led by Sharpe and Mary Neale. Unlike other known figures associated with traditional morris or the early stages of the revival, Kimber has left a mark on the local landscape – it is possible to engage in a form of musical  journey around Headington in the footsteps of the revival. As a morris dancer, for me, there was an element of pilgrimage, but as an archaeologist and someone interest in how ancient and modern landscapes act as sites of memory, it is fascinating excursion into a musical landscape.


In 1958, a new road in Headington Quarry was named William Kimber Crescent- as far as I know the only road in Britain named after a morris dancer. Kimber himself officiated at the opening ceremony. 





The following year, there was another act of memorialisation for Kimber. Sandfield Cottage, the place of the first meeting between Kimber and Sharp was demolished in the mid-1960s. However, before this, in 1959, Kimber unveiled a plaque on the building recording the events (Sharp had died in 1924). Following the demolition of the house, the plaque was re-erected on of the new flats built on the site. It can still be seen, incongruously, half-way up the wall just below a satellite dish. It is not clear who arranged for the plaque to be erected; there is no further information on the tablet itself – this is something for a little further research!




William Kimber died in 1961 and is buried in Holy Trinity churchyard, Headington Quarry, just round the corner from CS Lewis, another resident of Headington. Rather splendidly, his gravestone is decorated with carved stone morris bells and a concertina – the inscription reads “WILLIAM (MERRY) KIMBER / Father of English Morris 1872–1961






Kimber worked for most of his life as a builder. He built many houses in the area – and around 1908 he built his own house Merryville (after his nickname Merry) at 42 St Anne’s Road. In 2011, the Oxfordshire Blue Plaque scheme awarded it with a blue plaque reading “WILLIAM KIMBER / 1872–1961  / Headington Quarry morris dancer and musician  / Key figure in the English Morris / Dance & Folk Music Revival / lived here at ‘Merryville’ / 1908–1961.





It is not the only Blue Plaque to a morris dancer that I know of- Cecil Sharp has one at 4 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead and Mary Neale is commemorated by one in Littlehampton – although surprisingly I can’t find one for George Butterworth. There is also one to R J Tiddy in Ascott-under-Wychwood, which I’ll blog about soon. However, Kimber appears to be the only original dancer to be thus commemorated as opposed to a revivalist or a collector.


The final location on my mini-pilgrimage was the Chequers in Beaumont Road, Headington. There is a splendid photograph of the Headington Quarry team standing outside the pub taken by the prolific Oxfordshire photographer Henry Taunt. The image was probably taken around 1899 following the re-emergence of the side under the stimulus of Percy Manning. It is one of a series of photos taken by Taunt showing the dancers outside the pub and in the act of dancing. William Kimber can be seen playing the fiddle rather than the concertina with which he is more usually associated. The pub itself has been heavily restored- the wooden porch with its licensing information has now gone. There is an even earlier image of the Headington Team outside the Chequers taken just to the right of the porch in 1876 – Kimber was only four when this was taken. However, his father, also named William, can be seen in the back row of dancers next to the fiddler.





Saturday, 15 March 2014

Looking for Heartbreak Hill: landscapes of the Great Depression in Northern England

Over the last decade, the world has been living through a period of massive economic disruption and global recession. This has had a profound impact on many particularly through wage cuts and job losses. However, in Britain, the affect on unemployment is dwarfed by the loss of work that occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the US, one of the key governmental responses to unemployment was the foundation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was responsible for overseeing massive schemes of public works and civil infrastructure construction. This was often structured through 'work camps' bringing workers together to carry out the labour. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also oversaw nearly 2 million young men passing through their work camps carrying out conservation and forestry projects.

The archaeological survivals of these responses to unemployment are well established as a topic for research by US and Canadian scholars. However, there has been little engagement by UK scholars in this aspect of 20th century heritage. This is not because the impact of the depression was more limited in Britain. Nationally, unemployment more than doubled (from 1million to 2.5 million). In the north-east of England, the situation was worse than the national average. In the shipbuilding areas of Tyneside such as Jarrow unemployment hit 70% whilst in the ironstone mining areas of Cleveland, a staggering 90% of the workforce was out of a job. However, there was only limited centralised governmental investment in formal work programmes. There were, though, a series of individual, often privately funded, initiatives providing new settlements and work schemes for the unemployed, as well as some centrally supported work camps. But because of the diverse and patchy nature of this response it has generally failed to capture the interest of researchers.

Now, though, David Petts and Quentin Lewis from the Department of Archaeology, Durham University are starting a project (funded by a Durham University Seedcorn Research Grant) to explore this aspect of 20th century heritage. The pilot project is focussing in on the north-east of England and is collating the various responses to unemployment, exploring how they were structured and funded, defining their impact on the local landscape and assessing the extent to which there are still physical traces of these sites.

Our initial focus is on “Heartbreak Hill”, a co-operative allotment scheme set up for unemployed ironstone miners in 1936. This was funded by a combination of the local Tory landowners, the Conservative MP and his radical wife. It also drew in a range of other participants, including intriguing figures such as the neo-fascist morris dancing organicist Rolf Gardiner and composer Michael Tippett. Using archive sources and field visits, we are mapping the location of the scheme, and are planning some simple field survey to attempt to identify any of the surviving infrastructure.

We have also been working to identify the sites of other work programmes and engagement and educational initiatives responding to unemployment in the North-East. To date these include the Spennymoor Settlement (a community settlement partly funded through the Pilgrim Trust), forestry work-camps (Instructional Training Centres) at Hamsterley, Byrness and Kielder, the Swarland settlement (founded by the private Fountains Abbey Land Settlement Company) and the Land Settlement Association farm at Stannington. Some of these have very little surviving evidence, for example, the forestry camp at Kielder is now beneath the waters of the Kielder reservoir. At other sites though, there are stll physical traces of these initiatives. One of the huts from the work camp at Hamsterley is now part of the Forestry Commission visitor centre, the theatre at the Spennymoor Settlement is still in use, whilst there are eleven of the earliest buildings at Swarland are protected by Listing.

The project is still in its early stages; we hope to complete our initial work at Heartbreak Hill in the early summer and aim to then develop a larger grant proposal to take this research forward in the near future.

If anyone reading this has any information about any of the sites mentioned or knows of other similar initiatives we'd be pleased to hear from you!



Friday, 7 March 2014

"The history of clouds" World War II skyscapes

With all this talk of recording and rediscovering the home front landscapes of World War I, I thought this would be a good point to have a ponder about the home front landscapes of World War II instead.

In Britain, we've been lucky; the last battle on British soil took place in 1746 at Culloden. We have no historic battlefields of 19th or 20th century date at all. Our experience of World War I was largely vicarious, barring occasional naval bombardment and a little limited bombing (remind me to tell you the story of how my great-grandfather got a medal for not shooting down a zeppelin). The landscape imprint of the Great War is largely confined to the run up to combat (training camps; practice trenches) and the aftermath (hospitals and war graves / memorials).

The same is true to a certain extent of World War II. Again, there was no land-based combat on UK soil (unless Went the Day Well and the Eagle has Landed are true). The direct experience of the destructive power of modern warfare was however felt through the impact of the bombing raids. Obviously these were most extensive in the Blitz over London – my great-grandparents lost their house. But many other places, Coventry, Bristol, Cardiff Liverpool and other great industrial cities were heavily hit. Even smaller towns such as York felt the impact of the Luftwaffe – my daughter's school was substantially rebuilt following the Baedeker raid on York in 1942. These not surprisingly had a massive physical impact on the fabric of British cities and these structural and social effects were recorded by artists during and after the bombings.

However, I've been increasingly coming across another dimension to the landscape experience of the World War II air war. I'm currently reading a book by HE Bates called “In the heart of the country” written in 1942 about living in Kent during 1941. It is primarily a book about nature and rural life, but the war keeps on breaking through the surface. He encounters evacuee children, meets squaddies fishing, records a crashed German bomber and a dogfight over the village resulting in a Messerschmidt being shot down. For Bates, the “memorable hot beauty of that summer was sharply impregnated by the prick of destruction”.

One particular experience he mentions was the appearance of vapour-trails in the sky tracing the twists and turns of Spitfires and Messerschmidts in combat

So you got another example of the how little a war, savagely though it was fought above the countryside affected the countryside. The summer went on from that day in middle August as if the air-battles were not only clearing the sky of raiders but clearing it also of cloud. But towards the end of the summer they began to do the opposite things; they began to fill it with cloud. It was cloud such as has never been seen before. The white or blue-white vapour trails of plane-wings were a new phenomenon. They streamed in delicate smoke parallels from the wings of planes that were not visible, or they whitened suddenly the fresh blue autumn surface of a sky with soft splashes of milky curd. If there were many planes and the sky was blue and clear enough, it was would as if the sky were ice and the planes were skaters marking on the virgin surface all the rings and spirals and figures-of-eight and fancy cuttings that skates make on a frozen pond. These patterns sharp, frost-white, so fine and fancy, when first made, added something to the history of clouds. Sometimes you never saw the plane except for a split second as they turned in the sun; all you saw were the parallel streams of snow pouring backward from a moving point. Sometimes a squadron would turn in the sky, and then the snow-trails would turn too, suddenly merged together or split apart, but always, as they hung far behind, enlarging and softening and sometimes even assuming the shape of natural cloud, remaining visible for a long-time.(Bates 1942, 86-7)

The con-trails also make an appearance in the wonderful woodcuts by C F Tunnicliffe that illustrate the book, including my favourite image, of a man lying on his back looking over the Kent countryside with the vapour tails like spider scratches at the top of the picture.

These vapour trails not surprisingly appear to have had quite an impact on those who observed them, and they appear several times in art and film in the early 1940s. The best known example is the painting Battle of Britain – by Paul Nash (Yes him again), which although as is typical of Nash's post-WWI work is balanced on the very cusp of surrealism, depicts the con-trails of dog fights over the Channel.

Vapour trails also appear in the work of other war artists, such as Richard Eurich, who depicted them on the south coast in his painting Fortresses over Southampton Water and Airfight Over Portland, and Walter Monnington's Southern England, 1944. Spitfires Attacking Flying-Bombs.

A classic filmic depiction of con-trails I've come across recently is the Noel Coward war film “In which we serve” (a film, which incidentally, should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Trousers). At 1hr24min50s into the film, a frightfully dapper Capt Kinross (Noel Coward), his cut-glass Mrs (Celia Johnson) and family have a picnic and watch the vapour trails of a dogfight going on overhead. [I did go back and check the famous opening sequence of Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, with the famous jump cut from a diving medieval kestrel to a Spitfire, but sad to report, no vapour trail).

In a world where we are used to seeing the trails behind high altitude plains, it is easy to forget that until the Battle of Britain very few people would ever have seen vapour trails- they were something new and with their close connection to dog-fights and bombings must have had a slightly sinister beauty. However, this nice little clip from a Pathe newsreel from the summer of 1941 of the village of Meopham in Kent, includes the site of con trails as part of its overview of a picturesque rural landscape, so thoroughly had they become embedded into the national consciousness by this point

Finally, although I've mainly been writing about the con-trail as it was seen from a English point of view, there is a rather nice passage from Flight to Arras by the French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery about the other side of the equation:


“The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the watery vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside. The fighters are guided towards us by their radio, by the bursts on the ground, and by the ostentatious luxury of our white scarf… The fact is, I have absolutely no idea whether or not we are being pursued, and whether from the ground they can or cannot see us trailed by the collection of gossamer threads we sport. Gossamer threads set me daydreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting. “… As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars.”


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Visions of Avebury - Equivalents for the Megaliths

“On a still moonlit night Avebury seems peopled by ghosts, and the old church and cottages of the village seem new and insignificant.” John Betjeman

Amongst my haul of Christmas goodies I got a couple of DVDs – the 1970s children’s tv series Children of the Stones and a set of BBC Christmas ghost stories from the 70s. The latter included Stigma, the first modern ghost story to have been filmed for these series. Both Stigma and Children of the Stone are set in and around the stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire and involve the interplay between the past and present articulated through and by the stones themselves. Pleasingly a key plot element of Stigma is based on the true discovery of a medieval man buried or crushed beneath one of stones, which nicely brings together the deep prehistoric past, the medieval past and modern life. Crucially, the fact that people still live among the stones is central to the conceits of both programmes. Prehistory is shown to inhabit the present day.

I’ve been intrigued how these very 1970s engagements with the Neo-Romantic aesthetic contrasts with how the Avebury stones were portrayed by major artists in the 1930s and 40s. The key figure here is Paul Nash- one of my favourite artists and one who inhabited the grey area between English surrealism and the Neo-Romantic school of the late 30s and 40s, although he was a little older than the key figures in both traditions. He has been called a ‘green surrealist’, which is a term I like.

He first came to Avebury on a visit in 1933 and took a series of photographs showing the stones. He clearly had a very strong response to the site. He wrote:

“The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak. Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in the cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were always wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them, I shall always remember them ….. Their colouring and pattern, their patina of golden lichen, all enhanced their strange forms and mystical significance.”

Although in this passage he talks about the process of time covering up the stones, he does not mention the presence of the village that overlies the Avebury Henge. His emphasis on the natural world and suppression of the modern world can be seen in another passage

“'Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, sixteen feet high ... A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.'


Interestingly, he visited at a time when the stones were being restored and the vegetation cleared. He met Alexander Keiller and they seem to have got on, though he later wrote ““Avebury may rise again under the tireless efforts of Mr Keiller but it will be an archaeological monument, it will be as dead as a mammoth skeleton in the Natural History Museum” – he seems to have been very antipathetic towards the impact of the modern world.

His visit and his photos went on to form the basis for a series of paintings based on Avebury – Druid Landscape, Landscape of the Megaliths , the Circle of Monoliths, Nocturnal Landscape and most abstractly Equivalents for the Megaliths. The interesting thing about these pictures is that they entirely ignore the built environment of Avebury, the village, the manor house and the church. Instead he strips back these accretions to present a purer vision of the stones. He is focussing on them almost entirely in terms of form rather than in terms of their human dimension. The only hint of human activity is in the presence of plough furrows that run up to (and under?) one of the monoliths in Landscape of the Megaliths.

Nash was not the only painter of this period to paint Avebury. John Piper was also very interested in prehistory- indeed he had written a short spread in the art magazine Axis about aerial photography of prehistoric sites. In his paintings of Avebury, he too pushed away the village, although he didn’t entirely excise it like Nash did. In his painting Avebury Restored the tower of the church is just visible in the background. In another meditation on prehistoric Wiltshire he showed Avebury and the Avenue, but the modern world only appears in the form of the skylined obelisk that is the Landsdowne Monument on Cherhill Down. I’m intrigued how Piper and Nash both seem to push out the modern (or indeed anything not prehistoric) in their depictions of Avebury- they seem interested in the deep past, but not in its juxtaposition with later periods. This lack of juxtaposition is surprising as it is this placing of the past against the present that is often seen as one of the defining aspects of 1940s Neo-Romanticism- one thinks of Eric Ravilious’s images of chalk hill figures, seen from seen from trains or behind barbed wire. In fact Myfanwy Piper (wife of John) writes of Nash in 1937 “He has no interest in the past as past, but the accumulated intenseness of the past as present is his special concern and joy”. I would contend though that there is surprisingly little evidence of this present in Nash’s Avebury work. It also contrasts with the folk-horror/uncanny sensibility of Children of the Stones and Stigma which seems to explore the past within the present and is might perhaps be seen as a very 1970s reworking of Neo-Romanticism for a nuclear age.

Postscript: Nash wrote “A stone walking over a field” on the back of one of the prints of the Avebury stones he gave to a friend- I like to think this presaged the Doctor Who story-line Stones of Blood, which is set on a prehistoric stone circle and has walking megaliths.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Blogging Archaeology #3: Simply the best!

Continuing with the latest of my contributions to the Blogging Archaeology blog carnival in advance of SAA2014. This month Doug has asked us to reflect on our best and/or worst posts. As Doug sagely noted in his overview, there are lots of ways in which we might define ‘best’ (and worst). It might be identified in hard metric terms such as number of views or you can take a more personal perspective and define it terms of best feedback or simply personal preference.

Purely in terms of number of hits, my most popular blog post on my personal blog was a surprise – it’s a fairly niche posting on depictions of the God Pan in late 19th and early 20th century literature, which as attracted around ten times the visits of any other of my posts. I suspect that this simply reflects the wider general international interest in Greek mythology and the vast majority visits appear to have arrived via general search engine queries on Pan. Despite the high number of visitors, I doubt that many stayed long. It is noticeable that despite the large number of views, there was only one comment, and that was from a personal friend. However, what this does show is the agreeably random nature of the web!

The next biggest hitter was a short review comment of Matthew Johnson’s book Idea of Landscape – I hope this is partly because people think its reasonably insightful, although I suspect it picks up hits from archaeology students searching on “Idea of Landscape”. Another successful entry (in terms of hits and personally) is an entry I wrote on Archaeology and Psychogeography- I think this owes its success as it was quite ‘zeitgeisty’ – and was written on the back of a TAG session on archaeology and psychogeography; and was slightly more widely tweeted about / circulated than some of my other postings.

My other most successful blog entries have been those that engaged with very topical issues, particularly in my case, minor heritage or conservation controversies in the UK – again, I suspect these get picked up on because of their topicality and tend to get shared and reshared amongst my own colleagues and friends who all have an interest in this kind of material – these include comments on archaeology and road construction, archaeology and hot-headed local councillors and archaeology and industrial history.

As a result of a comment I made in a previous entry on the blog carnival about the lack of feedback/ views I’ve had, it was suggested that Twitter was a good way of publicising blog entries, so this year I took the brave decision to become one of the Twitteratti. The first post I disseminated via Twitter was on controversial and lazy remarks about conservation made by a government people I didn’t previously know, which along with the nice comments, was immensely satisfying and has certainly confirmed my future use of Twitter. It is noticeable that the other blog entries I have since circulated via Twitter all have much higher hit rates than I would have previously expected.

So, if these are my most successful blog posts in terms of hard figures, which are the ones that I am most personally pleased with? First, I should say, this has given me the opportunity just to go back and look at what I’d written in the past, some was good, some was awful and some I’d entirely forgotten. In general the things I’ve been most pleased with are those where I’ve got something off my chest (ie splenetic rants such as this or this), those where I’ve been able to jot down relatively short semi-academic thoughts I’ve had, which probably won’t ever make it into a formal publication, but have been useful exercises in hardening up previously nebulous thoughts (such as the landscape review and the psychogeography entries I’ve previously mentioned).

Finally, the other set of entries I am most satisfied with are the more reflective ones I’ve written about my own personal engagement with the past, such as the influences that led to my initial interest in archaeology and historic landscapes. . These have probably been partly fuelled by impending middle-age, a young family and changing personal priorities. However, they have provided me with the chance to perhaps move further away from direct discussions of archaeology into the wider, more discursive written engagement with the past, and one I’m keen to develop and pursue. Of all these entries, in fact of all my blog entries, I think my personal favourite is this one – a fairly short reflection on being a southerner living in Northern England, but one that I received kind comments on and still resonates personally with me


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Off-sets and upsets: more on Owen Paterson and biodiversity offsetting

Last week I fired off a blistering blog post about Owen Paterson’s latest thoughtful and considered intervention about the role of conservation in the planning process. I’ve been doing a little more poking around about his bizarre contribution and its equally bizarre position as the headline in the The Times. What is not particularly apparent from the headlines is that Paterson’s comments appear to come on the back of a recent DEFRA consultation green paper about the wider role of off-setting biodiversity losses in the process of development. It’s worth having a look at the consultation paper which is much more considered and thoughtful than Paterson’s comments (and indeed seemingly in direct opposition to his comments). I want to offer some comments on the off-setting notion and have a little think about the relationship between off-setting and conservation of the historic environment.

The biodiversity green paper doesn’t bode well initially when it states ““Our economy cannot afford planning processes that deal with biodiversity expensively and inefficiently or block the housing and infrastructure our economy needs to grow.” A pretty clear statement of the subordination of conservation concerns to productivity and cost – those weasel words ‘expensively’ and ‘inefficiently’ are nicely subjective and undefined.

It also provides a nice clear definition of what off-setting actually is in this context. “Biodiversity offsets are conservation activities that are designed to give biodiversity gain to compensate for residual losses. They are different from other types of ecological compensation as they need to show measurable outcomes that are sustained over time.” (Page 7)…“It ensures there is “no net loss” of biodiversity as offsets demonstrably compensate for the residual losses and are secured for the long term;

To be fair, this is all good stuff. I don’t think anyone would have any problems with the notion that any destruction of ecological resources should be made up for in an appropriate way and commensurate way. There is also a commitment to the notion of a mitigation hierarchy when it comes to dealing with development. What is a mitigation hierarchy I hear you ask? Well, again, the green paper provides a nice succinct definition

The mitigation hierarchy is a policy for ensuring activities do not have unnecessary impacts on the environment:
first instance harm should be avoided, for instance by locating development at a different site

Where this is not possible the impacts should be mitigated, for instance through the detailed design of the development

Lastly any residual impacts should be compensated for, for instance by restoring or recreating habitat elsewhere

Now this notion should be familiar to those of us involved or interested in conserving historic buildings and monuments. It is basically the approach taken in the current planning guidelines, when it comes to archaeology – that, allowing for the importance of the identified or potentially identified remains, that damage should be avoided, failing that mitigated against through design improvements and only failing that should intervention be carried out. In practice, fieldwork might be seen as a form of compensation or off-setting for the destruction of archaeology; an intact and extant site may be destroyed through development, but this is off-set through preservation by record. Indeed more generally this mitigation hierarchy is embedded into the National Planning Policy “if significant harm resulting from a development cannot be avoided (through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts), adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused.” Of course, the key challenge is ensuring that this is a hierarchy or sequence worked through in order, rather than simply a suite of options which a developer can choose from.

Now of course, when it comes to compensation and assessing ‘net loss’ there is a need to be able to broadly compare like with like- and so the green paper outlines the notion of ‘standard biodiversity units’ (essentially calculated through a grid showing habitat distinctiveness versus habitat quality). Again, this is actually an approach quite commonly used in conservation plans and audits for the historic environment, and whilst it seems at first glance scarily reductionist, it is in fact, relatively uncontroversial.

The Green Paper encompasses lots of discussions and consultation questions about how biodiversity offsetting might work in practice. As is usual in these cases, it will all depend on which final decisions are made as to whether the process might be a relatively enlightened piece of legislation enhancing and protecting biodiversity or whether it will act as a developer’s charter for landscape destruction (although given the general tenor of Owen Paterson’s contributions I think we can guess what he’d prefer). There are of course some queries about the process of consultation, for example, we could note the fact that the consultation is taking place before the six pilot projects have been completed and their results analysed and published….

What is particularly interesting though is given Paterson’s comment is that the consultation specifically singles out ancient woodland (along with limestone landscapes) of being of particular environmental significance and sensitivity ““Any development which damages these habitats effectively leads to an irreversible loss. “ (Section 5.6) and it specifically highlights that off-setting cannot be used to overturn other statutory protection for such landscape types (e.g. National Planning Policy Paragraph 118).

So, where are some general comments and observations about this little incident…

(1) There are actual closer parallels between this notion of off-setting of biodiversity and the protection of heritage assets that has perhaps been appreciated- could this be seen as a PPG16 for the natural environment?

(2) It is clear from the comments by myself and many others in their initial reactions to Paterson’s statement that is overly simplistic to treat ancient woodland simply as a natural biodiversity resource and that by definition ancient woodlands are likely to have significant heritage assets within them. Given this, is there a scope for a better way of preserving such landscapes that brings together heritage and natural conservation issues within system?

(3) It is notable that although this consultation began in September this year, no-one I know had heard about it (I know a lot of people interested in heritage environment protection). I’m not clear if the Council for British Archaeology responded (their consultation archive is a year out of date) – but I quite understand if they didn’t as it was aimed firmly at the natural conservancy world – but it is clear there is a need for perhaps more joined up communication. I do wonder though whether people end up getting ‘consulted-out’ – if I responded to every archaeological/ heritage environment consultation that appeared I’d never have time to do anything else.

(4) The plans for biodiversity off-setting could be a great new way of protecting threatened habitats or it could be a quick and easy way for developers to buy off the conservation lobby whenever they want to chuck up some new flats. It will all depend on how the government respond to the consultation.

(5) Finally, it is clear that Paterson’s statements about applying off-setting to ancient woodlands goes significantly beyond what is being suggested in the Green Paper. Is he simply badly briefed, deliberately courting controversy or serious planning to overthrow a lot of the existing statutory protection that protects endangered or rare habitats (and if so, how long before this approach is applied to Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Listed Buildings)…..?






Saturday, 4 January 2014

Owen Paterson and the fine distinction between woods and trees

The Torys really seem to have it in for the Ents! In the latest gem from Owen Paterson (Secretary of State for the Environment), we can find him suggesting a policy of offsetting the destruction of ancient forest (ie land which has been forested since at least 1600) through the development process by replanting new forests at a rate of 100 new trees for each old tree uprooted. The general response to this seems to have been: ‘wtf?’.

Now of course, at the very basic level, if ancient woodland absolutely has to be destroyed then of course some kind of basic policy of off-setting or compensation would seem to be the least that could be expected of the developer. However, what is proposed here is more than a simple response to the last resort destruction of a limited and threatened resource, but an active incentive to facilitate such destruction.

There are so many problems here, it is hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with the basics; a forest or woodland is more than simply a collection of individual trees. It’s an ecosystem that consists of trees, undergrowth, flora, flauna and microflauna, all living in a symbiotic relationship with each other, all interconnecting in a complex web of mutual reliance and dependence. This is a system which has developed over time, usually hundreds of years. It is also one which usually closely articulates with human interaction with the woods. Simply planting a new forest somewhere else, quite probably in a different ecological, geological or socio-cultural niche is a not cheap and cheerful way of replicating the dynamic system of an existing ancient woodland, with all its ecological and cultural complexity. Replacing an ancient wood is not simply a case of transferring the gene stock of a group of individual trees; you can’t transfer the long term pollarding or coppicing practices that have sculpted the old trees, you can’t transfer the understory of human activity that helped to mould the ancient woodland landscape (woodland ditches; park pales; saw pits; drag roads etc etc etc).

My first reaction was send Owen Paterson n the complete works of Oliver Rackham. But this is pointless, because much as we would like to think that Mr Paterson is a bear of very little brain, he is not. He may not be the brightest mind in the cabinet, but he is clearly a reasonably capable man and he is doubtlessly surrounded by reasonably intelligent civil servants. It is not that he does not understand the issue, but rather that he doesn’t care about them. At the end of the day from his ideological perspective, any issue (social, cultural, political) can be dealt with by monetising it. By allowing the off-setting of a dwindling natural resource, he is permitting it to be managed and controlled through the market. He is applying the core freemarket tenet that everything can be better controlled and curated via the market and that the right to destroy ancient woodland is one that can be derogated to anyone with enough money in their current account to buy their way out of any kind of moral or social obligation. It is this that is at the heart of all these off-setting schemes, the notion that if you are rich enough, if you are powerful enough, you don’t have to make any awkward or inconvenient compromises for the greater good. Instead, you can simply buy your way out of any complex moral conundrum. We see here the pre-Reformation system of indulgences being rewritten for a secular generation.

It’s worth striking a cautionary note here. Despite this story being a headline in The Times, the Department of the Environment have said that it is extremely unlikely that it would actually happen in practice. So what is going on here?

It is interesting to note the context within which this news came out. It took the form of an interview with Paterson and The Times – the paper also used it as the subject of their lead editorial today. In the leader this idea was framed as an unfortunate necessity in the face of the requirement for more construction to meet the housing shortage. However ancient woodland covers less than 2% of the land mass of England and apart from in the Weald of Kent, relatively little of it is located in areas that suffer the greatest housing shortage. This leads one to question how far the establishment of a decent housing stock is being held back by the protection afforded to ancient woodland. Paterson and The Times appear to be setting up a rather disingenuous false dichotomy. So why has he come on the record about this at this particular moment? Well, according to the latest figures from the Nationwide House Price Index, house prices have risen 8.4% in the last year and the housing boom is greatest in central London, an area not known for its ancient woodland. As a result of this, there are voices within the coalition calling for a rise in interest rates, as well as criticisms of the government’s “help to buy” schemes. Given this, it seems far more likely that Owen Paterson is actually indulging in a little bit of back room knockabout with his coalition colleague, and trying to blame the potential new house price bubble on planning issues rather than fiscal policies enacted by his own government.

However, that’s not to say, the dismantling of the planning system is not high on the current government’s “to do” list. The Tory’s don’t have much luck when it comes to woods as the debacle of the attempted privatisation in 2011 showed- Theresa May had to buckle in the face of mass opposition to her plans, including from within the Tory heartland (Daily Mail and Telegraph where notable for their hostility to the idea). They are not very good at understanding the complexity of forests; under Thatcher, their preference was for conifer monoculture in rows as straight as a spreadsheet which viewed trees as long sticks of chlorophyll impregnated tax avoidance. Although given the current political context, it is unlikely that Paterson's latest forays into aboriculture will result in much, it stands testament to the wider perspective in which freemarket liberalism places our historic landscape.