Of dormice and men

A road carves through the heart of the village, like a giant river running to the sea.  Sometimes it’s a flood, sometimes a trickle, but like a river it never falls completely silent.  The traffic flows through a deep cutting, like water that’s worn its way through rock over the centuries, and cascades down the hillside in curves and waves.

You can stand on the bridge and watch it flow.  (OK, unusually for a river, it flows both ways, but every analogy has its limitations!)   Those in the north follow the river south.  Those in the south seek the north.  Everyone wants to be somewhere they’re not.

But at the point where the river first tips over the hillside to begin its waterfall journey downwards, there are now apocalyptic scenes.  A muddy brown scar runs along both banks of the river, littered with tree stumps and pitted with bulldozer tracks.   The river’s privacy has been stripped away, and you can see it twisting and turning down the hill, catching the dull winter light as it goes.   Before the apocalypse, its first turn took it to a hidden place, behind banks of trees and undergrowth, before curving and carving its way onwards and downwards through thick woodland.  It disappeared into mystery.  Now the mystery has been laid bare.

The reason is very simple:  those who ply the route are to be given a straight line down the hill.  They will be able to go faster from north to south and from south to north.  Accident after accident has convinced the authorities that man cannot change for the hillside, so the hillside must change for man.

Only the tree stumps are left now, and that is only for the dormice, apparently slumbering through the apocalpyse at the base of the trees.  Come spring, they will awaken to their savage new reality, and trundle off deeper into the remaining woods.

Man will always tame and rule over nature, I know.  But for a few minutes here and a few minutes there, we destroy so much.

The planned HS2 high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham will shatter lives, homes, hopes and countryside.  For what?  So businesspeople can save not much more than half an hour on their journey.  The spectre of a Thames estuary airport, dubbed Boris Island  after the blond bombshell who runs London, is suddenly stalking Kent and Essex again.  Marshlands teeming with bird life will be compromised if not destroyed.  But “Bugger the birds, let’s do it anyway!” seems to be the prevailing view.  “Think of the benefits, the extra runway capacity, the faster journey times to central London!”

I know the desire for exploration and progress lies in the heart of man.  I know if everyone was like me, we’d still be clumping around the cave complex on square wheels and discussing whether there’s more than one way to skin a mammoth.

But I wish there was some sort of happy medium, where nature can be messed with only if there is an overwhelming case for it.   Like the presumption of innocence in a criminal case, I’d love to see a presumption for nature being left alone unless anyone can prove the absolute necessity of its destruction.  It would have to be a better case than: “Well it would shave a few minutes off the journey, wouldn’t it?”  I know it’s optimistic and idealistic, but hey, a blogger can dream.

I don’t think HS2 has an overwhelming case for existing, not even in its improved form with extra tunnels.  Boris Island has even less to commend it.  And I don’t think shaving a few minutes off the A23 London-to-Brighton dash justifies ripping out woodland and messing with the dormice’s heads.

A few days before Boris Island came back to haunt us,  I had driven to the nearby Isle of Sheppey, to a huge expanse of watery paradise that is home to beautiful birds of prey as well as waders and other smaller birds.  A long trek across the marshes on a spookily still, warm January day was rewarded with views of a majestic marsh harrier, and a short-eared owl, cruising across the mudflats in search of prey.

It’s the sort of experience money can’t buy.  Money can buy rail links and airports and faster roads, but it can’t buy back the nature that’s lost in the process. Planes, trains and automobiles all have their place, but to quote another of my favourite poems, “long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”



3 thoughts on “Of dormice and men

  1. I agree with you on HS2, a pointless project, especially when existing railways are so underresourced and overpriced – let’s put some millions into improving those first.
    But on air travel, I think there’ll have to be new runways or an entirely new airport sooner or later to meet demand. It’s an economic issue – otherwise international business will go elsewhere, where the connections are.
    You could argue that for the people of Sipton, Hounslow and other areas near Heathrow, a Thames Estuary airport would be much more ecological solution: less noise, less pollution, for hundreds of thousands of people. Let’s consider those people, as well as the birds! The Evening Standard, however, put it differently this week, arguing that if a Thames Estuary airport were ever to be built, it would be a terrible economy blow to areas around Heathrow, with all the lost jobs at the airport and surrounding infrastructure. So maybe we’ll reach a point where homeowners around Heathrow are actively campaigning in favour of a new runway.
    I regularly travel through Stansted – an increasingly overcrowded airport – and I have my copy of “The Stansted Affair – A Case For The People” by Olive Cook, forward by John Betjeman (1967, Pan Book, 3/6) on my bookshelves, a story of “broken promises, ruthless adherence to a policy unanimously condemned by expert advice….. the whole intricate and disreputable story” of Stansted’s early development as the third London airport.
    There are many points to be picked out of that fight and Stansted’s rise to prominence, but here are just two.
    FIrstly, if Stansted wasn’t operating at its current capacity, links with central and eastern Europe wouldn’t exist as they do now, hampering the business and family connections between the UK and the source of many of its plumbers and carpenters; nor would millions of Brits be able to take the kind of holidays they now see as routine.
    Secondly, the main alternative “The Stansted Affair” argues for is the “proposed Sheppey Airport”, in the Thames Estuary, and Cook enthusiastically quotes a Times leader from the 29th June 1967 about “the inherent advantages of a coastal site…. the dissipation of noise over the sea” and support for the idea from “the voices of reason seeking to humanize the forces of technology which threaten, if left to their own momentum, to barbarize the nation”.
    So it’s a long-running argument.
    Perhaps the thing we should really be asking is why there are no plans for a major international airport in Newcastle, with highspeed rail links to the northern England and Scotland – a grand transport project that is nowhere near London.

    • I think Jayjaydeepee has it right. Why does it always have to be London? I live in London, under the Heathrow flight path as it happens, but my objection to expanding Heathrow or Stansted or building an estuary airport isn’t just the impact on people living there, the noise, the environment etc but also that the south-east is pretty clogged with roads and railways as it is. Getting to Heathrow or Stansted is never easy or cheap – sometimes it costs more than the flight!
      And I think it’s wrong that the south-east has all the wealth. The wealth needs to be spread about a bit. So yes, let’s expand in Newcastle, Leeds or Manchester. They need links to the rest of the world too. And then maybe there wouldn’t be a need for HS2 – the businessmen would already be in the north of England where they need to be.

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