Outdoors: The voice of the country

When more than 285,000 rural folk invaded London last weekend spirits were high, but beneath the good humour was a deep anguish. Duff Hart-Davis joined the marchers and captured the mood
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The Independent Online
Despite all those stories about the Countryside March being "hijacked" by one sinister organisation or another - by an American tycoon, by the Conservative party, by British big business, by the pro-hunting lobby - nobody hijacked the marchers. Nobody bribed 285,000 people to give up the day and go to London: we went of our own accord, goaded by resentment and apprehension.

Government spies would have been hard pressed to measure the degree of anger that simmered beneath the surface, for superficially all was high spirits. But that is the way of rural folk: they are by nature cheerful and friendly, and not given to the display of ugly feelings.

The atmosphere was set on the special train which bore us into Paddington. The two-way fare of pounds 10 was less than half the cheapest normal return; no one bothered with tedious formalities such as asking for tickets, and the bar was open throughout the journey.

Farmers tend to talk loudly at all times; if you're competing with the roar of a tractor or the bellowing of cows, you have to. So, on the train, the noise level was phenomenal, and an extraordinary contrast with the normal commuter hush. Fuelled by natural exuberance, by cans of lager, and perhaps also by apprehension about crossing the urban jungle ahead, repartee crackled at shattering volume.

The travel arrangements made by the Countryside Alliance were admirable. On the train, stewards handed out tube tickets at pounds 1 apiece. At Paddington marshals met us and shovelled the horde down the maw of the Bakerloo Line, where we packed on to a train for Charing Cross.

The next part of the journey demanded patience, for the Underground system was stretched to its limits, and we repeatedly squealed to a halt. When the driver broadcast apologies about repair work on the line ahead, we began to suspect that this was some filthy urban plot to stop us reaching our destination in time.

In the end, regaining fresh air, we were herded eastwards along the Strand, away from our ultimate objective, Hyde Park. Down alleyways and side streets to our right, we could see the main column inching in the opposite direction along the Victoria Embankment, but not until we reached the Temple were we allowed to go down and join it.

Only then did we realise what a colossal gathering this was. Such was the mass of people, 40 or 50 abreast, that we could only creep forward, and it took more than an hour to reach the official start line at the bottom of Northumberland Avenue, barely three-quarters of a mile ahead.

Nobody seemed to resent the delay. On the contrary, violent Mexican waves of yells and horn-blasts surged up and down the column. It was impossible to discern what started each outburst, but if one of them caught you under a bridge, the noise was deafening.

When we crossed Trafalgar Square and entered the wide open spaces of Pall Mall, the pace picked up. Then at last it was possible to move freely, and to enjoy the sensation of walking along famous thoroughfares without a vehicle in sight. With the noise, smell and threat of traffic removed, the buildings on either hand looked twice as fine.

In St James's and Piccadilly the balconies of gentlemen's clubs - Brooks's, White's, the In and Out, the Cavalry - were thronged with punters who had done themselves nobly at lunch. Their shouts of encouragement set off fresh Mexican waves, which swept the marchers forward. The sight of Piccadilly, packed solid with people from the Ritz to Hyde Park Corner, was in itself something never to be forgotten.

So at last we tramped along the north shore of the Serpentine, with a fresh breeze blowing off the water, to pass under the banner at the finish and disperse towards our far-flung homes. Before the event I had feared that, without any speeches or ceremony, the march might end in anticlimax. On the day, the opposite was true: I felt a sense of achievement, of a job well done.

The most striking feature was the mixture of high spirits and calm that everyone displayed. But appearances deceived: it was a variety of deep- seated worries that had brought about the invasion of London. As always, the fox-hunting fraternity were the most vociferous, but thousands of farmers who had never hunted in their lives were demonstrating anxiety about the collapse of their incomes. Landowners by the hundred had come because they were alarmed by the threat of the right to roam.

I myself, if challenged as to my motives, would have cited uncontrolled house-building as one of the most insidious dangers. In Gloucestershire we have repeatedly been told that 53,000 new houses will be needed by the year 2011; yet detailed examination has shown the figures on which these predictions are based to be absolute rubbish.

Will the Government now, for God's sake, pay attention to the message from the land? With the exception of children hauled into line by their parents, I think every one of the 285,000 felt that we must make a stand, so that idleness, ignorance, prejudice and political correctness in Westminster do not destroy the traditions and appearance of our beloved countryside for ever.