Housing threatens Middlemarch country

Kate Watson-Smyth reports on the campaign to save the rural landscape that inspired George Eliot
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But everywhere the bushy hedgerows wasted the land with their straggling beauty, shrouded the grassy borders of the pastures with catkinned hazels and tossed their blackberry branches with the cornfields. Perhaps they were white with may, or starred with pale pink dog roses; perhaps the urchins were already nutting amongst them, or gathering the plenteous crabs [crab-apples].

Felix Holt the Radical (1866)

CAMPAIGNERS are fighting to save the landscape that inspired George Eliot, which developers want to bulldoze to make way for 850 houses.

As a child, Eliot used to roam the lanes and fields of Bedworth Woodlands in north Warwickshire, which provided the backdrop for Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss as well as Felix Holt the Radical.

The woodlands, 100 acres of fields dotted with hedgerows and ponds near Nuneaton, is one of the last examples of unspoiled ridge-and-furrow medieval land and has remained largely unchanged for more than 100 years. Eliot wrote of the "pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and the trees leaned whisperingly" and "the elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank," and the campaigners say the scene is still familiar.

Judy Vero, of the Warwickshire branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), said that if the development went ahead there would be hardly anything left of Eliot's Warwickshire.

"Tourists go and visit Thomas Hardy's Dorset and the Brontes' Yorkshire but it seems that George Eliot's Warwickshire does not have a place alongside them," she said. "She was born less than half a mile from the site and her descriptions of rural life are clearly based on the landscape. It is not only rich in literary heritage but also in nature."

The site in question was originally set aside for development in the Eighties, but Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council subsequently decided that the planned houses were no longer needed. The development proposals were refused planning permission last year.

Bill Hancox, chairman of the council's planning committee, said: "The application was turned down because, since the local plan was drawn up, things have changed and the housing was no longer required. The second reason was the unacceptable loss of countryside involved."

However, the developers, a consortium of the land's owners and a local housebuilder, appealed against the council's decision, forcing a planning inquiry which is due to be completed this Thursday. The inquiry's ruling is expected at the end of the year and is likely to hinge on whether a local authority has the right to depart from its published development plan, even if it is considered to be out of date.

Mrs Vero said the CPRE had carried out a study of the land and found several protected species, including four types of bat and the so-called "developers' nightmare", the great crested newt.

But Richard Wood, a planning consultant for the consortium, said that, if there were protected species on the land, plans could be made to accommodate them or move them elsewhere. "We say that the need for houses does not go away and the council will still need to make provision for extra housing," he said.

Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819 at South Farm on the Arbury Estate. Her father, Robert Evans, was land agent to the estate and to the Nicholas Chamberlaine Trust (which ironically is part of the development consortium) and would take his young daughter on his rounds, visiting tenanted farms and collecting rents.

Mrs Vero said: "She has changed the names in her books but the descriptions of rural life in Middlemarch are clearly based on the landscape. There is a path through the woodlands which she would have walked as a young woman."

The campaign to stop the development is not limited to fans of the novelist. Karl Mayer, a window-cleaner, helped to gather 10,500 signatures for a petition against the plans. He is concerned that locals will have nowhere for country walks if the land is developed.

"It is the last piece of countryside in the town because everything else has been built on," Mr Mayer said. "The only rural land that will be left is the Arbury Estate itself, and that is private."