Country lanes: the soul of England

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The Independent Online
It is easy to mock the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Its aim is admirable: to save what is left of our countryside from being covered by concrete, bricks and asphalt. Yet its role is all too often negative - it forever tries to stop building on green sites, block planning permission, prevent construction of new highways.

Now, though, it has come up with a creative campaign to save country lanes - "the lost lanes of England". Anyone who lives on a lane, or has cause to use one regularly, will give this initiative a hearty welcome.

The CPRE's warning extends to the whole country: cars and lorries have already made many lanes intolerable for walkers or riders, it says, and the unbridled increase in traffic threatens "a part of ourselves so deep that it makes us what we are ... not just the heart, but the soul of England".

I second that. Here in Gloucestershire the lanes that wind up and down the steep valleys of the Cotswold escarpment are an essential feature of the landscape, and they appal, astonish or delight visitors. One German friend could scarcely believe his eyes. "Das kann nicht sein," he kept muttering incredulously as he nursed his Mercedes round hairpin bends between flower-covered banks as high and steep as the roofs of houses rising from close in on either side of the seven-foot fairway. In Germany, he said, all this would be bulldozed out to a sensible width. To which I replied, "Thank God, this isn't Germany."

The transport lobby's prescription is to turn lanes into highways by straightening bends, removing hedges and plastering the landscape with signs. The CPRE, in contrast, is pushing for lower speed limits, action to stop heavy lorries using small roads as rat-runs, and "traffic calming devices, making use of traditional features of lanes like hedgerows and walls".

Another CPRE proposal is for improved public transport in rural areas, to cut down car journeys. Though excellent in theory, this plan is extremely hard to make effective - as was brought home to us when we had American cousins staying.

They did not want to drive, so we investigated the possibilities of moving around our area by bus or train. The Gloucestershire Public Transport county map shows bus routes snaking in all directions, and there is also the railway, with a branch line, reopened after a splendid local campaign, running straight into the heart of Gloucester.

But could we shift our cousins by public transport from base to the arboretum at Westonbirt, eight miles across country? First they would have had to walk a mile into the village. There a bus could have taken them by a roundabout route to Tetbury. A change there would have brought them to the start of the drive leading to the arboretum - with a long walk to the entrance. The journey there and back would have taken most of the day. So, of course, we took them by car.

There lies the rub. We who live in the sticks depend on cars, and have perforce to use the lanes. But we use them as little and as carefully as possible, and we want others to do the same.

Once, in a camp some way south of Kathmandu, I asked King Birendra of Nepal whether he saw the day when every village in his vertiginous land would be connected to a road. His answer was no: hundreds of hamlets in the Himalayas are so high and remote that no road will ever reach them.

It is up to us to ensure that parts, at least, of our precious English landscape remain comparably isolated.

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