Poet's corner: The battle for TS Eliot’s village

East Coker was immortalised in the 'Four Quartets'. Now the idyll is threatened by a sea of cheap housing. John Walsh reports on a battle for the heart of rural England
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Near the 15th-century Helyar Arms alehouse in East Coker, walkers in the village's bosky lanes are stopped in their tracks by the prospect of Chapel Cottage.

It's a perfect farmhouse with an enormous thatched roof, an arched upper window, a wall of jagged flat stones framing a garden constructed of the essence of late summer: pink daisies, purple stocks, shockingly red geraniums. Ahhh, the walkers sigh, the rustic sights of Olde Englande... Then one of the yellow flyers from the pub doorway blows down the lane and lands beside them. Its message is uncompromising: "NO NO NO to the urban extension".

One of the idyllic villages of south-west England is baring its teeth. Beneath the thatched roofs, radicalised hearts are beating. East Coker is up in arms. Out of nowhere, 20 months ago, South Somerset District Council announced its plans to "zone" 600 acres of prime farming land around East Coker, in order to install 3,700 new homes therein, to make an "eco-town". The current population of East Coker is 1,781. The new development will bring 10,000 new arrivals to this tiny parish in the Somerset heartland. It will bring a sea of concrete and cheap housing to the green fields and sandy lanes that make East Coker an idyllic spot, next door to the urbanised hell of Yeovil, a mile and a half away.

Opposition to the plan has been strenuous and passionate. In response to local urgings, when letters of protest to the Council drew no response, the East Coker Preservation Trust was established by Marcus Fysh, a 40-year-old businessman who lives with his family in the village's beautiful, 14th-century Naish Priory. When he discovered how Somerset Council's plans were advancing, and fearing that mere protest might not be enough, Fysh stood for election to the Council on a "Stop the Development" platform – and won the seat. That he was the only Tory in years to win a council seat in this Lib Dem heartland (Yeovil was Paddy Ashdown's manor) shows the depth of local feeling. Between Fysh and Joe Coles, his successor at the Preservation Trust, the protest has become organised. Their most recent initiative has been to apply to Unesco, asking for special status for East Coker as a World Heritage site.

The bid will not succeed unless it's supported by the Government. But the Government is offering nothing in the way of support.

Just one more Sixties-style cautionary tale of town planners versus rustics, heartless property moguls versus placard-waving Luddites? But this dispute is a special case. For East Coker is more than a pretty spot in Somerset; it's been, since 1943, an emblem of Englishness, of ancient communion and collectivism, a village that transcends time and place. Its name is the title of a poem which may act as more of a rallying cry in the current protest than any MP could muster. A poem by TS Eliot.

Though he died in 1965, the Nobel Prize-winner has immortalised the place in his climactic work, Four Quartets. It's an unclassifiable piece of genuine mysticism, dealing in paganism and Christianity, language and meaning, the need to explore and the need to be still. Each Quartet deals in one of the four elements: air, earth, water and fire.

East Coker is earth: the earth of south Somerset, the sandy lanes worn down by generations of carts, "the deep lane/ Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon," the "old stones that cannot be deciphered," like the sandstone grave of a Crusader knight and his lady, their features battered and eroded to nothing by the elements, which lie outside St Michael's Church, wherein Eliot's ashes were interred.

Astonishingly, the poem begins with what seems like an acceptance of town planning, of the need for change.

"In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory or a by-pass.
Old stone to new buildings, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes and ashes to the earth."

But soon he has moved on to a passage of enchantment, in which he shows us a sight from history, of men and women dancing round a bonfire in an open field. His language becomes medieval –

"Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde..."

and gathers the figures into immortality, the rhythm of the dance joining the rhythm of seasons, the rhythm of living and dying. It's a magical piece of focus-pulling, a sanctification of the Somerset land where continuity is all-important,

"Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth,
Nourishing the corn."

Unsurprisingly, the poetry world has taken up arms. Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, has joined forces with villagers and scholars to sign the application for Unesco special status for East Coker. Academics from Oxford, Harvard, Chicago and Stanford have written to the south Somerset councillors begging them not to despoil the territory which Eliot so eloquently treasured. The architect Professor Terry Stevens, born and bred in East Coker, whose father, the village carpenter, was the man who presided over TS Eliot's obsequies, has written to Marcus Fysh to describe the village as "an outstanding heritage settlement when measured against any template of universal interest, significance and relevance" and "a landscape of deep economic, historical, psychological and cultural value". He even quantifies its value, saying the loss of East Coker as a global "brand" could exceed £100m a year.

Why did this tiny village mean so much to TS Eliot? He first visited East Coker in August 1937. He was staying two miles away in West Coker at the house of a friend, Sir Matthew Nathan, and decided to pay the little village a call. He even took some photographs of the place, like an American tourist. But when he came to write the poem "East Coker" – first published in New English Weekly in 1940, later to become the second of the Four Quartets, published by Faber in 1943 – the place had become transformed in his imagination.

It was from here that his ancestor, the Reverend Andrew Elyot, had set out for the New World in 1669. They had fetched up in Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous witch trials – in which, apparently, the Rev Elyot took a part, and suffered "great mental affliction on that account in the residue of his life". But visiting East Coker had opened up a whole series of potent images.

One was of William Dampier, born in the village in August 1651, a sea captain, pirate and naturalist. A restless, buccaneering explorer, he circumnavigated the globe three times, and was the first Englishman to explore Australia and New Guinea. His detailed taxonomy of flora and fauna and his collection of sea shells and giant clams were later to help Darwin formulate his theory of evolution. Dampier also had a profound, if unconscious, effect on English literature. In 1703, during the War of the Spanish Succession, his sister ship, the Cinque Ports, marooned one Alexander Selkirk on a desert island. Six years later he was rescued by Dampier, and wrote about his years as a castaway. His memoirs inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. He was name-checked as a famous mariner by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels. Coleridge allegedly had him in mind while writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". And he brought a whole lexicon of new words to the English language – the OED cites his name over a thousand times as responsible for getting "barbecue", "avocado", "chopsticks" and "sub-species" into print for the first time. Not only was he a local hero for East Coker folk, he was, to Eliot, a potent metaphor for ceaseless exploration – and for returning home.

He was also understandably fond of another ancestor, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546), an English diplomat under Henry VIII, and ambassador to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor – but also a considerable writer. His popular work, The Boke Named the Governour (1531), inspected the influence of the classics on English prose; and it's from that book, or boke, that his American descendant lifted the lines about "daunsinge" and "concorde". Though TS Eliot was born in the USA, in St Louis, Missouri, he moved to England in 1914, aged 25, and was naturalised as a British subject in 1939 – the year he wrote "East Coker".

"You'd imagine the TS Eliot connection alone would make this place special," says Marcus Fysh, "but the South Somerset District Council doesn't seem to recognise any special Heritage status. They call this an 'undesignated rural area'. It's not a Designated Area of Natural Beauty, though obviously it should be, it's not a Site of Scientific Strategic Importance, and it's not a Green Belt because nothing around Yeovil is Green Belt."

Mr Fysh fluently marshals the many other arguments against the development. "The Labour government had a system of regional spatial strategies. There was a top-down target imposed by the Environment Secretary that 13,700 new homes should be built in the south-west. This was in 2003. But Yeovil had never been thought of as a venue for expansion – it doesn't have a major motorway beside it, or a big rail link that can be expanded. The Council lobbied hard, though, to get Yeovil included as a 'significant centre for growth'. Then Gordon Brown decided that the long-term economic growth of the UK had changed from 2.3 per cent to 3 per cent each year ad infinitum, and therefore we needed more houses. So the figure went up to 19,600 houses, of which 3,700 may be zoned in the Yeovil plan. But the first figure was arrived at in years of massive economic boom in the UK economy, even though of course we were borrowing from the future. Since the recession began, the figures make no sense.

"How are they going to fill these houses with people? There's no net immigration in south Somerset. The annual average immigration for the past five years has been 480 people, not the 1,200 a year they're projecting. It's so obvious they should be zoning on the north side of Yeovil. Businesses in this part of England have always run off the A303 – Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Glastonbury. I can't imagine many businesses being attracted to invest down here."

Walking around East Coker, you marvel at how multifarious a tiny village can be. You expect a picture-perfect little hamlet, smug and tucked away on a hillside; you get what amounts to a sprawling parish. At one end, the Helyar Arms pub (est 1468) and St Michael's Church with its dozen almshouses, its Crusader graves and sandstone dolmens, overlooking miles of Somerset countryside and the pistachio-coloured meadows which may soon be overwhelmed by brickwork. In the middle you find the flax-mill, the light-industrial works for sailmaking, the home of Coker Cloth, so vital to the Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the boats were marshalled and tended by the inhabitants of Naish Priory. At the far end, past the Grade 1-listed Hymerford House, the original home of William Dampier, is the old schoolhouse and a Roman villa, which has yet to be fully excavated. This place was name-checked in the Domesday Survey – as Cocre – but it's very much a working village.

Up a lane overlooking Naish Priory, I meet Neil Holland who has lived in his house for 50 years. A hairdresser by trade, he's shocked by recent developments. "I'm very against the urban expansion, because this is all Grade 1 land. If it was rough, common ground it wouldn't be so bad. But it's used for wheat, barley and maize, for feeding people. It's been farmed by four generations. I know people have to live somewhere – but this is where locals and strangers come to walk their dogs or ride horses. I'm sure there's lots of other directions the developers could expand in."

Marcus Fysh has dark suspicions about the reasons why South Somerset District Council is so keen to force the development through. "There are cash payments made to the Council for every house that's sold," he says. "It's called a New Homes Bonus, and it's promised to councils who achieve new housing in their districts. I'm not sure if it kicks in at the zoning stage or when permission is granted or when the house is built, but I think it's the commissioning stage. At a time when councils have to tighten their belts, that's a potential revenue stream. Another one is called Section 106, also known as the Community Infrastructure Levy, which lets councils do deals with developers for money, in creating infrastructure of one kind or another. It gives a lot of scope for negotiation about very large sums of money." What kind of sums? "Getting 3,700 homes built here would probably result in a Section 106 cheque for about £100m from the developers to the local government authority..."

At Greggs Riding School, a sign announces, "East Coker welcomes careful drivers but not reckless planners". Abandoned machinery and a faint air of hippie laissez-faire permeate the property, which overlooks a view of hills unchanged since Tess of the D'Urbervilles walked on them to her doom. The owner is Amelia Bennett, a Jane Austen-ly named local character. She has run the school all her life, like her father before her, and has lived on this farm since she was one – "which as you can see is a few decades now". From her dad she inherited 20 acres of prime farmland, "and we do farm it," she says defensively, "we've got a tractor and a chain harrow and we make hay. And the British Horse Society reckons we're the oldest riding school in the country." She has lost track of the number of people who have murmured to her that she ought to think of selling her land, whose worth used to be nugatory but is now reckoned to be little short of £1m per acre. "They've been asking me for decades. I always say, no – I don't want to be here working it and increasing the biodiversity and doing the hedges and everything, and knowing that it's actually going to be sailing off to someone else."

Her objection to the development isn't selfish, she says. "I've got no objection to seeing some nice, vernacular cottages or starter homes – that would be great; it would keep the village alive – but this is just a blank metropolitan-style development. They say it's going to be ecologically sound, but I think the chances of that are nil. The new houses will encroach on my fields, and will compromise the hay meadow. It's a local wildlife site, with some wonderful butterflies and indigenous grasses and plants. Having concrete there will just isolate it. We've got lovely sandy lanes that people go riding around. But they'll be in a housing estate. Well, no one's going to want to ride around a housing estate, are they?"

Could she go to the Council and look at the plans? "No, I can't," says Ms Bennett. "They're not officially out yet."

"Tell 'im the story," says a voice.

"Shall I?" asks Ms Bennett, with an impish smile. "Well, I went to the poetry group in East Coker one day and this woman who used to ride with me came up and said, 'Look at this document. It was found in a field next to yours, by someone walking their dog'. It's a plan which looks very much like the Council plan, all coloured in – residences here, employment here, this bit's a school – and it completely surrounds my fields and is very disheartening. So I'm going to confront them with it."

It takes some persuasion, but Ms Bennett finally digs out the document for us. It's headed 'Urban Expansion Masterplan', like something out of Enid Blyton's Five Confront the Planners. On a detailed Ordnance Survey grid showing South Yeovil and East Coker, the proposed development lies like a malevolent, giant nesting butterfly, the areas of housing, schooling and factory plant coded in nursery pinks and greens, sweetie colours. Ms Bennett, her lady riders and I gaze at it with dismay. It has the horrible, garish look of a fait accompli.

The crucial meeting at which the South Somerset District Council will discuss the development proposal and its objectors' arguments is set for 14 November. A District Executive meeting will follow eight days later, and the full Council will meet to approve the scheme (or not) on 26 January, 2012. After that, if the core policy is adopted, the protesters can only press for a judicial review; but unless some grotesque financial anomaly is involved, they will get nowhere. "There are so many valid objections," says Marcus Fysh. "The heritage objection, the fact that there are better places to develop, the arguments about traffic and transport and that the land is the finest agricultural land and is used for local food supply... But if East Coker can't be defended on all these valid grounds, then nowhere in the whole of England is safe from developers."

Eliot's own words in the poem "East Coker" are not entirely helpful. In a section about the acceptance of death, he says, "I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you" and continues, with slightly annoying resignation:

"And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama

And the bold, imposing façade are all being rolled away..."

But we don't know this yet. Not if the villagers – Marcus and Amelia and Neil, and 1,778 other villagers and a worldwide confederacy of poetry lovers – have anything to do with it.

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