Thursday 24 June 2010

The Battle for Middle Oak, 1996

In complete contrast, and thirty years after that bright optimism of The Open Road (see previous post), Middle Oak is testament to the deep divisions evident by the 1990s in the now souring relationship between motor vehicle and the countryside. Middle Oak, as it came to be called, stands at an intersection of the Newbury bypass just immediately to the west of the town of Newbury itself.

/>In the early months of 1996, Middle Oak was one of the focal points for protest against the building of the bypass. This nine mile stretch of new dual carriageway required the felling of 10,000 trees and cut through three Sites of Special Scientific Interest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a nature reserve and a Civil War battlefield. As with other grandiose and controversial road schemes of the time, such as the Twyford Down extension of the M3 in 1994, the Newbury project aroused a storm of direct action environmental protest. From the summer of 1995, impromptu camps sprang up along the proposed route with tents and benders on the ground and makeshift but elaborately connected and protected structures up in the trees themselves. A guerilla war of attrition with the authorities grew in intensity as the winter progressed and pressure mounted to clear the area.

The number of protestors at times ran well into the thousands, but one of the smaller band involved throughout was Jim Hindle. In the later stages, he was particularly associated with the defence of Middle Oak and we have acquired some items of clothing that he wore whilst living up in its branches. There was insufficient headroom in the treehouse for standing, hence the heavy wear at the knees of the trousers.

Jim subsequently went on to write a book about his experiences, Nine Miles. Two winters of anti-road protest (2006), which is a remarkable insight into the extremes of cold, stress, deprivation and danger that these (mostly) young protestors subjected themselves to for the cause, often to the detriment of their own physical and mental health.

Here is Jim Hindle signing a copy of his book for me recently.

In the event, Middle Oak was given a last minute reprieve and the bypass was constructed around it. It was hardly a victory, but a more positive legacy of the protest and the publicity it drew was much greater public awareness and questioning of the lasting damage to the countryside caused by such schemes compared to their perhaps relatively modest transport benefits.

Thursday 17 June 2010

The Open Road, 1962

The same team of Lampitt and Deverson that produced The Map that came to Life in 1948 came up with The Open Road fourteen years later. It's John and Joanna again but this time Uncle George takes them in his Hillman Minx on a journey from his farm in the country to the seaside.

The countryside has lost none of its allure but it's a different countryside now, one that has become colonised by, and is completely dependent upon, the motor vehicle and all its needs, from road signs to petrol stations and AA motor cycle patrols. 'There are nearly nine million motor vehicles of all kinds on the road', Uncle George proudly tells John.

There is no negative tone to this: traffic and countryside are in harmony.

The car provides a means of exploring the countryside.

John and Joanna enjoy looking round the inside of a Bedford Dormobile camper van.

When they encounter a motorway (the first stretch of the M1 opened in 1959), 'John and Joanna were thrilled at their first sight of the broad, spacious carriageways with their three traffic lanes on each side of the central grass strip'. It too was at one with the rural landscape and the love affair with the motor car was complete.

Thursday 10 June 2010

The Map that came to Life, 1948

This is a children's book that captures the essence of what the countryside meant to post-War England. Ours has a hand-written dedication on the inside page:

It tells the story of John and Joanna who are spending the summer holidays at their Uncle George's Two Tree Farm. The children decide to walk the 'few miles' to Dumbleford ( a striking measure of the change in attitudes to child supervision between the middle and the end of the century), where there is to be a country fair, taking with them an Ordnance Survey map for guidance and Rover the dog for company. Along the way, they have some adventures and encounter different aspects of the country scene.

The sub-plot to the story is the lesson in map-reading and how maps help in the interpreation and understanding of the landscape.

The book was first published by Oxford University Press in 1948 and was the work of Harry Deverson (1908-1972), a picture editor well-known in the magazine and newspaper world, who produced the text and his brother-in-law Ronald Lampitt (1906-1988) who was responsible for the illustrations. Lampitt's work spanned a wide range of popular commercial art from posters for the Great Western Railway in the 1930s to magazines and books, including Ladybird books, over the following decades. In respect to this book, his time spent in RAF intelligence during World War II producing drawings from maps for bomber crews seems to have been a decisive influence. Here we have a countryside as seen from the air with all the features indicated on the map carefully picked out on the ground.

For someone who lived through the War and who spent most of his adult life in Sidcup, on the outer fringes of the London suburbs, it is also an idealised countryside of the mind. In clear melodious colour, past and present, Man and Nature are in perfect harmony with not a storm cloud on the horizon.

Friday 4 June 2010

Hawkhurst Railway Ticket, 1907

The Hawkhurst branch line was a classic example of a rural railway which belonged to a different time - it was opened in 1893 - but was never really viable and closed in 1961. It was single track, only 11 miles long and linked Hawkhurst with its neighbouring Kent villages of Cranbrook, Goudhurst, Horsmonden and Paddock Wood, where there was a mainline connection.
The ticket here is dated July 4th 1907, and one can't help speculating on the cause for that particular journey from Hawkhurst to Goudhurst. Was it work or pleasure? One reason for the light traffic on the line, apart from its very rural nature, was that the stations were inconveniently placed. Hawkhurst station, for example, was over a mile from the centre of the village and technically not in Hawkhurst at all. At hop and fruit picking time the line was busier, but by the 1950s competition from road transport was rising fast. Annual operating losses nationally in the early 1960s necessitated a pruning of the rail system, hence the Hawkhurst closure in 1961. When Richard Beeching, chairman of British Railways, produced his report The Reshaping of British Railways two years later it recommended the closure of a further 6,000 miles of primarily rural lines.

The postcard image below shows the station in use in March 1961, shortly before it closed.

I had hoped here to include a further acquisition in the form of an enamel nameplate from one of the Hawkhurst station benches.

But it has just been sold at auction for £2,700! These days railwayana occupies a price zone all of its own.

I have a personal connection with Hawkhurst station because my grandparents lived nearby and whilst on a visit I remember exploring the station one day with my cousin. It must have been not long after the closure so I would have been 10 or 11 and my cousin 16 or so. The place was completely deserted and abandoned. My cousin had a bright red quite large transistor radio which he carried with him (that was the cool thing to do then). He set it down whilst we poked round the signal box and the adjacent water tower. I have a vivid childhood memory of him pulling a handle which was followed after a pause by an ominous rumbling noise up above, and then water cascaded down through a great rubber trunk, used for filling the steam engine tenders, and drowned the precious radio. We left quickly afterwards.

(The abandoned signal box and water tower - Photo by Nick Catford)

The station site is now home to some light industrial units, including a firm that makes garden furniture, and only really the signal box survives.

Rural railways left their mark on the landscape and on the folklore of the twentieth century countryside.