You don't have to venture far on to Longmoor Heath, in the Western Weald of Hampshire, to know you have stumbled on an unusually favoured spot. Lightly wooded and knee-deep in ferns, it is one of those miraculously peaceful landscapes that seem to have slumbered unnoticed and undisturbed since the dawn of time.
Part of the much larger Woolmer Forest, it is like a lost corner of the New Forest but to many minds is even more scenic, thanks to its long views of the steep and comely hills known as the Hampshire Hangers. It is a miracle and joy that such a refuge of perfection survives just 50 miles from Trafalgar Square.
Until a few weeks ago, the heath, the forest and vast tracts of land beyond were to become part of the new and long-awaited South Downs National Park. But in July, Neil Parry, the government inspector, recommended they be excluded on the odd grounds that they were not geologically appropriate and on the even odder grounds that they were not sufficiently lovely.
At a stroke, the proposed park has been cut by nearly a quarter, from 1,638 sq km to just 1,267.
"It's astounding really," Margaret Paren, a retired civil servant and stalwart of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), told me when I visited the area this week. We were standing by a lovely old barn at a place called Old Ditcham Farm, near Petersfield.
"This is a perfect example of what has happened," she said. "The barn here has been taken out of the park, but the farmhouse is still in. The land on that side of the road is in, but on this side, it's out. No one in their right mind would suggest that the landscape on one side is worthier than the landscape on the other, but that is,in fact, what has happened."
Why this is so is a question that takes some answering. The South Downs National Park has existed as an idea for more than 60 years. In 1947, it was one of 12 areas of England recommended for park status by Sir Arthur Hobhouse, and it was the only one of the original 12 not to gain that recognition in the years that followed.
In 1956, it was considered for inclusion but the proposal was set aside on the lame (and, as time has shown, completely incorrect) grounds that it didn't have adequate recreational prospects. Instead, in 1962, it was classified as two separate Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – designations which were to give all the protections of a national park but without the visitor centres and other touristy paraphernalia.
Finally, in 1999, more than 50 years after it was first proposed, the park idea was resurrected. After the usual long period of consultations, the boundaries were agreed and hundreds of hard-working volunteers, such as Margaret Paren, were ready to celebrate the birth of England's newest and, in many ways, most important national park.
So it came as a shock when, in early July, the inspector announced that he wished the park to be much smaller than everyone had supposed it would be.
It is a decision that is truly hard to understand. I spent a long day this week being driven by CPRE members along the back roads of Hampshire and West Sussex, through a landscape of woods, sunken lanes, rolling hills and hidden farms, all of it glorious, all of it now outside the new national park boundaries.
"This would be London's national park in effect – the one national park that could be reached easily from the city," Shirley Wright, of the West Sussex branch of the CPRE, pointed out as we paused on a hill in the village of Elsted and took in a view that was ancient, expansive and fine.
The Western Weald is not only lovely to behold and to be in, but it is also miraculously unspoiled, despite standing in some of the most developmentally attractive countryside on the planet. I can't imagine any landscape this uniformly serene and agreeable stands so close to a national capital anywhere else in the world.
Already, the South Downs and Western Weald attract more than 40 million recreational visits a year – more than any other national park. So it would seem logical, on these grounds alone, to make it as large as possible.
The very opposite, however, appears about to happen. The inspector wishes to confer park status only on the lofty uplands which least need rigorous protection (IKEA is unlikely to want to build on a hilltop, after all) and withhold it from the populous valleys, where developers would most like to plant their golf courses, executive estates and retail sheds.
The suspicion is that the Government has taken fright at the cost of maintaining a national park in an area of such prosperous, developmentally promising market towns as Petersfield, Midhurst and Petworth; but that isn't what it is saying. It is saying, rather, that the Western Weald should be excluded on the grounds that it is a landscape of a different character. The South Downs, the argument runs, are chalky uplands, while the more low-lying Weald is made up of older sandstones and clays, which give it an entirely different nature (a fact that, if really relevant, somebody perhaps ought to have noticed years ago).
No one disputes the geology but the logic is beyond fathoming. Most national parks incorporate more than one type of landscape – the Peak District has three, the Lake District five – and most people would argue that variety is the essence of their glory. Anyway, nothing in the designation guidelines suggests that uniformity of subsoil ought to be an inspector's ambition.
But the real pain and worry come from the suggestion that the lands to be excluded have, for the most part, become irreversibly degraded. Here is a typical passage from the landscape assessor's lengthy report: "I do not consider that Liss, Petersfield or Sheet meet the natural beauty criterion. I also find that the character of the surrounding landscape has been extensively fragmented by the transport infrastructure and urbanising influences.
"In my view, the character and quality of the 'mixed farmland and woodland' landscape character type has been so degraded by the combined effects of settlements, road and rail links that the tract no longer meets the natural beauty criterion." And so it goes through many long and bewilderingly dismissive pages. Why – to take just one small point – a venerable railway line that was unexceptionable 60 years ago is now an intolerable scar on the landscape is a question that really could do with answering.
"The inconsistencies are almost comical," Margaret Paren told me. "According to the assessor's report, the A272 is noisy and intrusive where it passes through the Weald, but a lovely country lane when it reaches the Downs. They seem desperate to fit the facts to their case rather than the other way around." It's little wonder that nearly everyone you meet believes the real motivation for shrinking the park is to save money.
"If that is so," says Chris Todd, the leader of the South Downs Campaign, a coalition of more than 100 pro-park organisations including the CPRE, "then that is really very disappointing because, in the overall scheme of things, the park budget is peanuts. The estimated cost of the park – that is, the larger park, with the Western Weald included – is £6m to £8m a year. That compares with the £200m to £300m budget you have for a single local authority like Brighton and Hove. National parks are, in fact, tremendously good value. All of them together cost the British taxpayer £1 per person per year. And anyway the £6 to £8m for the national park isn't additional costs, but costs transferred from one budget to another. So cost grounds would be a very, very poor reason for creating a park that is smaller than it ought to be."
A separate but very worrying danger is what all this means for the future of areas of outstanding natural beauty. To argue that two of the largest and most important of these areas in the south of England have become critically degraded in 40 years doesn't say much for Government policy, does it?
Even worse is the thought of a developer being able to say to a planning inspector: "Look, if it isn't good enough to include in the national park, how can you claim it's worth protecting now?"
Submissions from interested parties will be accepted until 24 September. Then Jonathan Shaw, the Minister for the south- east, or Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, must decide whether to accept the inspector's report or to modify it.
They won't make a more important decision this year. It would be wonderful to think that before taking such a decision, they will come out and do what I did – spend a day driving around looking at the area. I can guarantee they will have a lovely day. They really ought to see it while it is still there.
© Bill Bryson 2007
Bill Bryson is president of the CPRE. If you wish to support its South Downs National Park campaign, you can do so by signing its e-petition, at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/western-weald, or by writing to the Minister responsible, Jonathan Shaw, before 24 September, objecting to the exclusion of the Western Weald. Further information is available at www.cpre.org.uk