Poetic justice: villagers defeat phone mast threat by quoting their local bard

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The Independent Online

The Cambridgeshire village of Glinton has not found itself short of reasons to repel plans to erect a 15m phone mast within its rolling acres of fenland in the past few months. Fears of involuntary exposure to radiation and impaired views of one of eastern England's finest church spires have been tirelessly chronicled in a petition signed by a quarter of the resident population of 1,700.

The Cambridgeshire village of Glinton has not found itself short of reasons to repel plans to erect a 15m phone mast within its rolling acres of fenland in the past few months. Fears of involuntary exposure to radiation and impaired views of one of eastern England's finest church spires have been tirelessly chronicled in a petition signed by a quarter of the resident population of 1,700.

But just as the people were beginning to resign themselves to proposals that had encountered no municipal opposition, salvation arrived yesterday from a most unlikely quarter, the 18th-century writings of the village's most famous son.

Local protests might not have moved British Telecom, but disclosures that the spire of the Grade 1-listed, 12th-century church once led John Clare to write one of many memorable works certainly did. The company declared it would abandon forthwith all plans to erect the mast at the telephone exchange.

The spire might be the sole defining landmark in an otherwise unprepossessing village but it was an integral part of Clare's life for many years and within view to him nearly every day until his confinement to a lunatic asylum at Northampton.

The poet's 1832 ode to the sandstone structure ("Thy taper spire predominates over the level landscape" and "common things around it glow with beauty not their own") was inspired by his daily two-mile walks across the fields from the nearby village of Helpston to the school he attended in the church vestry.

That was where he met Mary Joyce, aged 14, who was to become the love of his life and his muse, but who could never marry him because of the gulf in social class between them. Clare was born into grinding poverty in 1793. The spiritual bond between Clare and Mary was even closer during his many years in the madhouse, to which he was consigned after Britain's fleeting appreciation of him waned and he became impoverished and ill. He died at the Northampton asylum in 1864.

With this solid body of cultural and pastoral history mustered, the anti-mast campaign leader, Val Hetzel, turned to BT's chief executive Ben Verwaayan when other strategies seemed less successful. "I enclosed a copy of John Clare's poem with my letter, along with photographs of the church spire," she said yesterday.

Then she enlisted the help of the John Clare Society. Its president, Ronald Blythe, who delivers regular lectures on the poet in the village, concluded that the mast would be a disaster. "The spire is to Clare what Salisbury cathedral's was to Constable," he said. "It has a great meaning. The buildings around it might not be great but we are talking about the inspiration for our greatest rural poet."

BT was evidently convinced. In a statement, the company said yesterday that since being granted permission it had been provided with "further information about nearby important historic buildings" which had led it to reconsider its position. "BT is withdrawing from building these masts to ensure that the setting of the [church] is not disturbed," the company said. "The masts would have changed the context and setting of a number of buildings of national importance."

Ms Hetzel could scarcely conceal her delight. "They must get hundreds of letters objecting to masts, but I think this might have helped our protest stand out," she said. "It was a different approach, and it probably sent the message home to him that the proposed site, on the edge of a conservation area, was not the right place to put a 15m mast. The church spire is very noticeable and can be seen for miles across the flatness of the fens."

She added that the church's south side was also renowned for four gargoyles, three showing their faces and the fourth its backside. History has it that that the stonemason was not paid for his work and demonstrated his displeasure by carving the fourth figure.

BT's decision may send thousands of anti-mast protesters scurrying to their history books. Some 40,000 masts around Britain service more than 50 million mobile phones, and at least 8,000 more masts are to be erected over the next three years as the new 3G telecommunications system expands.

But telecommunications firms merely have to notify the local council and are allowed to assume they have the go-ahead if it has not been refused formally within 56 days. In an announcement to Parliament last week, the Government disclosed - contrary to earlier assurances - that firms will not be forced to seek full planning permission for masts, as they already do in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The minister for planning, Keith Hill, told Parliament in a statement that communities should have a say on the placement of phone masts.

Glinton Spire

by John Clare

Glinton, thy taper spire predominates

Over the level landscape - and the mind

Musing - the pleasing picture contemplates

Like elegance of beauty much refined

By taste - that almost deifies and elevates, One's admiration making common things Around it glow with beauties not their own. Thus, all around, the earth superior springs;

Those straggling trees, though lonely, seem not lone But in thy presence wear superior power And e'en each mossed and melancholy stone,

Gleaning cold memories round oblivion's bower

Seem types of fair eternity - and hire

A lease from fame by thy enchanting spire.

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