Where new lakes lap over forgotten meadows

The once beautiful upper Thames valley is being raped by gravel extraction: when the diggers are gone, along come the developers and their twee holiday homes
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The Independent Online
THE TINY roads around RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire were busy this week. There were American bombers on the tarmac, engines whining in deafening earnest. Cruise missiles were being lifted into the lethal innards of the brand new swing-wing B-1 Lancers scheduled to fly sorties over the Balkans.

Television vans with satellite dishes were pressing against the high wire fence; round the perimeter, between the yellow police cones, people parked their cars and set up binoculars.

In this flat green plain between Cirencester and Swindon - the flood basin of the Upper Thames - you could see the giant bombers from miles away: their massive tails, high as church spires, poked above the hedgerows like sharks' fins. Children kicked footballs into the daffodils. A buzzard flapped its wings in a nearby tree.

It wasn't a day for brooding on the geology of the ground beneath our feet, but the honey-coloured piles of sand that jut up like termites' nests around every corner tell a sad story.

This is gravel country. A glance at the map alerts us to the abrupt change that has struck this landscape since an older generation of planes took off from the now-disused airfield at nearby Ampney Downs, ferrying luckless paratroops to Arnhem.

These flat fields play host to RAF Fairford, RAF Brize Norton and RAF Lyneham. But in recent times the map has turned blue. Pilots returning to Fairford no longer descend into a quiet patchwork of damp green fields; they come in over water. It must be like landing on an aircraft carrier.

A vast acreage of agricultural soil, more than 14,000 acres, has been chopped out to form the Cotswold Water Park. A substantial slice of historic English landscape has been sliced up for aggregates, which are mashed into breeze blocks or spread on to bogus-Georgian drives in the stockbroker belt.

There hasn't been much opposition to this wholesale transformation of the countryside. After the war the area was pillaged for its gravel, which was needed to support the reconstruction of Britain (the creation of Swindon, for example).

The lowlands to the south of Cirencester became lakes, and now a pleasure park with jet-skiing and holiday homes, almost before anyone noticed. But for the past 10 years the torch of local protest has been carried by Owen Humphrys, a volunteer for the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

He does not fit the caricature of the environmental protester: he is no Swampy. A retired army officer (he served in Northern Ireland) and chairman of the parish council, he seems as reluctant as he is driven.

He paces his Cotswold cottage, throws cowslips to the donkey and wades through local authority reports on "hydrological continuity", landbanks, aggregate needs and mineral rights.

"The initial quarrying for post-war reconstruction, that was fine," he said. "That was a clear need. But it's not serving need any more. It's only serving want. They want to dig the last pebble out of this countryside. In 25 years' time there won't be any gravel left, and this area will be a lake. Do we want that?"

We drove round villages with lovely names - Ampney Crucis, Marston Meysey, Castle Eaton - criss-crossing the twinkling streams that feed the Thames: the Churn, the Colne, Ampney Brook. "That field's going to go," said Humphrys. "And that one over there, that's all gone this year."

American pilots were checking into their billets at the Bull in Fairford, beside St Mary's church, home of the only intact set of medieval stained glass windows in England. Half a mile away, excavators were gouging sand out of the fields, ploughing them up for good.

"No one knows what it means for the landscape to take out all this gravel, all that drainage," said Humphrys. "They always talk about `mitigation', about the precautions they're taking. But what if they don't work? I'm not saying we are, but we might be creating a situation where all the water flashes into the Thames and it'll just flood."

The economics of gravel quarrying are simple. It is, literally, dirt cheap, selling for only five pounds a tonne. "One of the things we've been lobbying for is to have it taxed," said Humphrys. "Because there are costs here to the landscape and to the local community that no one is bearing. They're not in the equation. It's cheaper to dig it out than it is to recycle it, but only because the true costs aren't worked out. In the end what we have to do is reduce the demand.

"We don't need as much as gravel as we use, and we don't think about what we are destroying in order to get it. With the new machines they can rip up land to get at just a yard of gravel. The mineral rights were conferred at a time when it was three men with a shovel, and a horse and cart."

We already have a Lake District, and the local authority probably won't want to call this the Gravel Pit District. Instead they have colour brochures extolling the conservation miracle represented by these new wetlands. David Bellamy pops up to praise it ("A blooming marvellous place!") and in a way it is true.

Nature is tough. Kestrels hover over the cars on the Latton bypass; crested grebes dodge powerboats; swans waddle ashore near the toytown houses of the lakeside estates.

One of Humphrys's problems is that he falls between two local authorities, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, with different agendas. And the gravel industry moves in a bureaucratic way. Each county is given a quota by the central authority and must decide for itself where it should be grabbed.

The councils prepare elaborate reports emphasising that quarrying "should aim to mitigate environmental disturbance". In the race to leave no stone unexcavated, they seem to leave no stone unturned.

The result is a vicious circle in which pits are dug to provide cheap gravel for new waterside developments, a zero-sum game in which the short- term winners are property developers and their contractors, and the lucky few who aspire to a holiday home beside a lake.

We drive past Ampney Down, where Vaughan Williams composed the music for Come Down, O Love Divine, and where an unvisited war memorial silently recalls the men who died at Arnhem.

"This is all scheduled for digging," said Humphrys. "That wood over there had badgers in it, but it's been chopped down now.

"Sometimes I can't face reading another report on aggregates. But then I pick up a Jane Austen book, or whatever, and the first thing I find is people going up a gravel drive. I've spent 10 years worrying about gravel. And I know that not everyone cares about these things. But the skylarks..." He looked at the ground and kicked at it with his foot. "There used to be lapwings here," he said.