ETCETERA: COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
A ZEAL for obsessive neatness has become one of the new blights of the countryside here. Wind-blown trees are cleared away as if they were some unsavoury form of litter. Roadside verges (now mostly put out to private contractors) are mown as regularly and closely as suburban lawns. They've even asphalted the dusty canal towpath where we used to play boules.

When all this gets too much I flee to the north Norfolk marshes, the nearest patch of landscape which could genuinely be called wild - and unkempt. But the new fastidiousness is creeping in there, too.

I was taking an early evening walk through the tousled grazing marshes east of Blakeney, hoping to glimpse the local barn owls, and expecting to have the place to myself, when another solitary walker materialised out of the dusk. He was a resident, a landscape painter I'd known years before, and he warned me of the shock I was about to face a few hundred yards down the track: the massive new sea-wall built round Cley, or rather its extraordinary livery. Even at this distance it looked a horrific intrusion among reed beds and russet grassland, a smooth and lurid motte-and-bailey the colour of billiard-table baize. My friend told me that golf-course quality turf had been trundled all the way up from the West Country, at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds, to give the bank a "nice finish".

We railed against the impertinences of the improvers, and he reminded me of another casualty, a tumbledown shack that once stood at the end of Blakeney channel, where the boat-painters had the habit of wiping their brushes clean. Its walls grew into patchworks of different colours, like wooden quilts, and painters would come back years later, point up at a smear of peeling ultramarine, and think, "That was me, 1978."

I mentioned how the Suffolk writer Ronald Blythe sees these improvised oddities - the sagging barns, the hedges mended with old farm-machinery - as essential ingredients of the East Anglian scene. He calls them "muddles". My Norfolk friend parried with aphrase of his own: "vernacular ramshackle". I was tickled with this splendid piece of cod architectural jargon, which seemed to catch the idea of the landscape gently accreting like moss on a log, and have been on the look-out for examples ever since.

There is nothing like a new category to sharpen the eyes. On the way home, on a common on the Suffolk border, I was shown a network of ancient communal washing-lines, strung out between crumbling concrete posts like some cryptic radar aerial; and, in another Norfolk creek, a decaying foam-plastic din-ghy, moored a few yards off-shore and carrying the remains of a crop of that wild marshland vegetable, samphire. I have an image of the owners using it like an outsize maritime equivalent of a mustard-and-cress carton, towing it in for the occasional snip in season, and then setting it adrift again.

But back home all they are doing is replacing the old metal road signs with plastic ones the colour of Cley's new sea-wall. !

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