Constable's England crumbles under feet of heritage tourists

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The Independent Online
As the green waters of the Stour slowly drifted past Willy Lott's cottage yesterday, the cattle grazed by the river bank and the classic vista of the English countryside appeared almost as John Constable captured it 156 years ago.

Yet soon the image which Constable ingrained in the public consciousness with The Haywain, and other landscapes painted at Flatford on the Essex-Suffolk border, may no longer exist in real life.

For such is the damage caused by the thousands of trampling tourists who now converge on "Constable Country" each year, that conservationists say the scene might be disfigured beyond recognition.

Similar fears are extended to the futures of heritage sites all over Britain, crumbling under the marching feet of mass tourism.

This crisis is part of a global problem which has rendered such wonders as the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa almost worthless as public spectacles, such is the crush of people around them.

At Flatford, some local people have become so distressedthat they have asked council officials to take them off the map.

It is a sad fate for a piece of land once owned by Constable's father, Golding, a prosperous merchant, and described in loving terms by the painter himself, who said: "But I should paint my own places best ... I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter ... that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before I had ever touched a pencil."

But such was his ability to translate the landscape on to canvas that the urge to see the real Flatford has proved irresistible.

The result, said the Countryside Commission last week, is that local villages are being swamped, footpaths worn out and the narrow country lanes jammed with cars and coaches.

In Britain as a whole, tourism now yields pounds 36bn a year from 25 million foreign visitors.

Then there are the day- trippers. Improved transport facilities, increased leisure time and shorter attention spans have encouraged a culture in which more and more people spend their spare time hurrying between a check-list of attractions, queuing and jostling for barely a glimpse of each.

It is a phenomenon described by Chris Green, the chief executive of English Heritage, as "a modern madness".

As a result, the ancient floor of Canterbury Cathedral is being seriously damaged by the tread of 100,000 visitors a day. Stratford-upon-Avon now has a visitor to resident ratio of 188-1, comparable to that for Venice. The ceiling in the library of the 220-year-old Haworth Parsonage, home of the Bronte sisters, is buckling under the weight of the 100,000 annual visitors passing through an exhibition in the room upstairs.

And Hadrian's Wall is disappearing at the rate of an inch a year, as many of the 250,000 annual visitors insist on climbing on to the three- metre thick structure and acting the role of Roman legionary.

The "carpet pedestrianisation" associated with cities such as Venice is now happening in London, Cambridge, Canterbury and Chester. At the same time, the countryside is being choked by an ever-increasing army of trippers headed for Hardy Country in Dorset, Herriot Country in the Yorkshire Dales or Constable Country at Flatford.

Yet tourism is a great money-earner, and as Adele Biss, chairman of the British Tourist Board, has pointed out: "Tourism in many areas, with our encouragement, provides much-needed revenue for conservation and regeneration projects in our historic towns, our stately homes and our countryside that is not forthcoming from other sources."

Instead of merely driving the tourists away, it is argued, they should be made to contribute towards the maintenance of the attraction they are visiting.

At Haworth, an increase in admission prices has had the helpful side- effect of discouraging the more casual Bronte visitors and keeping numbers to a manageable level.

But in many areas of the countryside, trippers have traditionally been able to avoid paying anything towards the cost of their visit.

A new report, produced for the European Commission by English consultants, calls for the introduction of "visitor payback" schemes in all national parks, whereby all visitors would be encouraged to make a voluntary contribution.

In the Peak District, the busiest national park in England, 74 per cent of visitors agreed with the principle. The park already seeks to collect small sums from as many of the 22 million visitors a year as possible, with parking meters being adapted to accept donations as well as standard fees.

The authors found that the main stumbling block for the idea was the level of resistance among hotels and other tourist- dependent businesses, which were worried about discouraging visitors.

But the potential for visitor pay-back is enormous. A fund set up in 1985 to collect donations from visitors to the spectacular Yosemite National Park in the United States now collects $1m a year.

So, perhaps, a Constable National Park, entered via a voluntary toll- gate, could yet ensure that one of the most enduring images of the English countryside will live on as more than just oil on canvas.