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Betjeman's `pleasant acres' in danger

"HOW LONG before the pleasant acres ... are rolled across by limestone breakers", asked John Betjeman in his poem Matlock Bath.

Sadly, the answer is now. Vast areas of countryside are being scarred by the quarrying industry - including the Derbyshire moorland that inspired the late Poet Laureate. A report today from the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) urges the Government to protect landscapes made famous by writers such as Betjeman and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Betjeman was a trifle late on the scene when he penned his immortal words on Matlock Bath. People have been quarrying in the area since Roman times - but the arithmetic of the current operations would horrify the poet.

Fleets of eight-wheeler lorries thunder through the area, carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of gritstone. This year, six to seven million tons of limestone will be quarried from the nearby Peak District National Park.

But John Anfield, the park's head of planning, took exception to one local's description of beautiful landscapes being turned into eerie moonscapes.

"Quarrying is a continuing challenge to efforts to conserve the park's beauty and we take a robust approach to any new applications," Mr Anfield said "Every effort is made to stop quarrying creating eyesores, with careful landscaping and tree-planting.

"The industry is a big local employer but we have to remember what the park is all about. Keeping the balance is a great challenge," he added.

Emily Richmond of the council said yesterday: "Moorland which John Betjeman wrote about in his poem Matlock Bath is now being quarried for limestone in the Peak National Park. In Kent, the ragstone which forms a band to the north of the Pilgrims' Way, featured in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, is under threat from quarrying. As you visit areas of south-west England or northern England particularly, you can see huge swaths of landscape have been cut out. This has major implications for our cultural history."

The council has used parts of the countryside with strong literary associations to illustrate the threat posed to the environment by extraction of minerals such as sand, gravel and crushed rock.

Its report, Quarry Conflicts, is published at a time when the Government is reviewing its quarrying policy.

In addition to areas that have already been scarred, local authorities have permission to quarry a further four and a half billion tons of minerals. The council wants new laws that will lead to planning consent being refused where there is already an excessive supply of land to quarry.

The Government is currently waiting for the quarrying industry to make proposals on how it can minimise harm caused to the countryside but the council believes voluntary measures will be insufficient.

Ms Richmond added: "Minerals planning policy risks being stuck in a time warp as the Government begins to green up its act on transport and new housing.

"We need a fresh approach which protects the countryside from damaging quarries and reduces the demand for building materials."

From Matlock Bath

by John Betjeman

How long before the pleasant acres

Of intersecting Lovers' Walks

Are rolled across by limestone breakers,

Whole woodlands snapp'd like cabbage stalks?

O God, our help in ages past,

How long will Speedwell Cavern last?