Upstairs, downstairs

(or how I learned that snobbery and deference are alive and well in Tony Blair's Britain)
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For the whole of June and July, I travelled alone by canoe and on foot to try and discover Middle England. Was it the home of a tribe of narrow-minded, philistine suburbanites to whom no respectable government should lend an ear? Or was it the People's England, classlessly embracing a new millennium? And while I went I heard that war had ended in Kosovo; that peace was not yet concluded in Northern Ireland; and that those of us who hadn't quite managed to vote in the Euro-elections were to be added, willy- nilly, to the posited ranks of Labour's "disgruntled heartland".

But of all the stories that filtered through to me, the most parochial was probably the most interesting. Which was that a wonderful and bloody row had broken out between the bolshy residents of north London and the choleric boss of English Heritage, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, concerning Kenwood House. So fierce had the battle of Kenwood become that Sir Jocelyn (whose outfit also manages Stonehenge, where there was a proper old-fashioned riot at the last solstice) fulminated thus: "We have 409 other properties, and nowhere else do we have problems like this."

Problems like what? Well, as far as I can tell, Kenwood (left to the nation in 1929 by Lord Iveagh) was closed to the public altogether for a day or so in the early summer, and access was restricted to other areas for more than a fortnight. The oldest residents of Hampstead muttered that they couldn't remember this ever happening before. What then was the cause? Urgent repairs? The excavation of a hitherto unsuspected longship burial?

English Heritage gives its own principal aims as being to secure the conservation of England's historic sites and buildings; to raise understanding and awareness of heritage; and "to promote people's access to, and enjoyment of, this heritage". Which is very People's England. This aim, however, is hard to square with the reason for the closure - which was the hosting of the reception for the wedding of Princess Alexia of Greece and Mr Carlos Morales Quintana, a Spanish architect.

One of English Heritage's major objectives is not listed as being "to give obscure royals from defunct monarchies a really good send-off when they get hitched". Otherwise, with weddings forthcoming between the likes of Count Alexander of Schonburg-Glauchau and Princess Irina of Hesse; Phillipp von Lattdorf and Princess Tatjana von und zu Liechtenstein; or my favourite, Archduke Sigismund of Tuscany and Elyssa Edmonstone, Kenwood might be closed down in perpetuity.

Cross at being turfed out of their favourite haunts, where the benches bear dedications to their husbands, wives and parents, the locals complained vociferously. Sir Jocelyn's reply was something to the effect that it was an honour that HRH of Greece was hiring Kenwood for her wedding bash. To which, naturally, he had been invited.

Now, many of the things that English Heritage has done at Kenwood have been excellent. But the contempt displayed by Sir Jocelyn towards those who argued against the closure was a relic of a bygone era. After all, even the Greeks are not interested in their (ousted) royal family, forbidding them to return when democracy was restored in 1974. Why people should be denied access to their heritage, so that the coterie of playboys, hostesses, glossy-magazine editors and Tamaras that make up what is left of the aristocracy could have their bash, is something that we no longer understand.

And there are other indications that the old elite rather believes that - two years on - the post-Diana era (the end of deference and all that) has now run its course, and it's time to get back to business. Some of them think it's all over. A couple of days before I limped, foot-weary, into Windsor and stood below his granny's substantial castle, Prince William had attended the Cartier International Polo competition there, escorted by a pair of Aitkens and an assortment of other juvenile Hoorays. That's his social milieu now.

But a much better example of Bourbonism, of aristos who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing either, was afforded by the case of Ilchester Estates and English Nature. Ilchester Estates (owned by the heiress Mrs Charlotte Townshend) owns Chesil Beach, that long, thin strip of shingle on England's south coast. Until last month, English Nature had hoped to mark its 50th anniversary by having the 20-mile-long beach and hinterland - home of little terns, sea kale, holly, and rare marine animals and plants - designated the 200th National Nature Reserve.

And then Mrs Townshend dropped her bombshell. "After careful deliberations", Ilchester Estates had decided that the plan could not proceed. Why? Because "The Fleet and Chesil Bank owe their diverse landscape in part to land- management policies, which result from the commitment of generations of owners to all activities that are conducive to conservation, including hunting".

I see. I wonder how much our finest natural shingle bank has really benefited from fox hunting over the aeons. And how bad it would be for sea kale if the view-halloo were no longer sounded a few miles inland. Of course, if one labels this an act of capricious pique, one risks being accused of failing to understand the hidden intricacies of country life. Anyway, I do not myself care much about fox hunting one way or the other.

But I do care about absurdly over-endowed landowners holding their shotguns to the nation's head. For what Ilchester's ridiculous actions have drawn attention to is how outrageous it is that one woman should own such an unnecessarily large part of England. Why does she need Chesil? Now, of course, if her reason had been that she was worried about English Nature closing the area for the wedding of Archduke Sigismund of Tuscany, then I would have understood. She, too, presumably thinks that Middle England will shrug its shoulders and say: "It's her land, let her do what she likes with it."

As it seems to have done in the case of an ancient meadow at Dorney. On the map, this meadow shows up as a very rare white expanse of nothingness next to the river Thames, just upstream from Windsor. Along with Port Meadow outside Oxford, it has been grazed for centuries, while all around it has changed. Last week I walked past it, and discovered that the meadow had gone. For 45 minutes, with the Thames to my right, I looked left on yellow and red diggers creating an extraordinary sight. On this blank land a huge trench - more than a mile and a half long - some of it filled with water - had been dug, with mud banks all around it. In the sun, the earth was light-brown and the water almost turquoise. It was like watching one of the wonders of Egypt being built.

This vision from the Middle Dynasty is Eton College's new rowing lake. At a cost of pounds 15m, a 2,000-metre rowing course is being dug. The boathouse alone, with its 60 or so rowing and fitness machines, accounts for pounds 3.6m. But Eton knows how to sell itself. The extensive website that it has set up to inform the world about the lake agrees that, "the main purpose is to ensure the future of rowing at the School, in which up to 600 of 1,280 boys will row at some stage".

But it lays great stress on the fact that others will be allowed to use the lake in ways and at times not yet stated. There will be eight regattas per year. Local rowers will flock. The lake itself will be managed by an independent charity. The college set aside 46 acres for a park and an arboretum full of English trees. "A small pond and bog area" will be built, and an avenue of semi-mature lime trees will be planted. Donations to the arboretum will, the website reminds us, be deemed to be charitable and will attract tax relief. Tax relief on landscaping the Eton rowing lake! Eat your heart out, Oxfam.

The upshot of it all is still this: the meadow has gone so that, say, 6,000 wealthy boys per decade can row on a straighter course than the poor old Thames supplies. If this same land had been given over to social housing, it could have parked a thousand families next to the specially created bog. But that, of course, would have meant the despoliation of the countryside. Had a shopping mall been proposed, with exactly the same environmental safeguards, it would have been given the bum's rush.

It is hard to conceive how such a thing can have been allowed to happen, just as it is hard to conceive how access is served by closing heritage sites so that the rich unemployed can party on them, or how one woman's whim can destroy the plans for a wonderful nature reserve.

It all sounds like a return to what the former Australian premier Paul Keating once called the "cultural cringe". But we are also the nation of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Paine, and we may still one day invite charities like Eton College to stick it up their arboretums.