Gardening: Habitat of the suburban savage

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THE WONDERFUL thing about Herefordshire is that the place is so unappreciated, unprotected, unglamorous. The countryside is, of course, among the most lovely in England, and therefore in the world. But we have no national parks, and there probably aren't too many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, either.

It is true that just up the road from me is the Queenswood Country Park, and a very good thing, too. Everyone goes there because the arboretum is very lovely.

Queenswood is the countryside as the vast majority of people like it. There are signs to tell dogs where not to do it. There is a new fence round part of the quarry where my children used to parlay with death for the hell of it, and where now the kiddies are less likely to break their necks. There is some remedial grade artwork hung up in one of the copses. There is a cafe. I condescend, but I go there like everyone else because it is glorious woodland.

Besides, I recognise that walking in the countryside is not a simple business. If I did not combine my physical cowardice with occasional, largely inexplicable verbal forwardness, I doubt I would have explored the fields and woods around this village as much as I have. As it is, I think I have spoken to most of the farmers in most of the fields around here, and have had their nods of approval for my rambling. They seem pretty relaxed about my invasion.

The only criticism of my walking has come from the vicar. He disdains all this tramping about - he told me once he could remember when this was a proper village and there weren't any of the sort of people in it who go for walks.

I am quite frightened of the real countryside. I am not, for instance, the sort of person who is good around animals. The other day, I took myself out at about 8am. Hardly dawn, I grant, but the morning felt young and I was walking with the sun behind me for the first time as I wandered along the brow of my favourite local hill.

I jumped half out of my skin when a pheasant did its Harrier jump-jet vertical take-off at my feet. Heart-quickened, I found myself positively twitchy when I heard scurryings under the rusty blades of the abandoned combine harvester I always visit. I was glad I was wearing stout boots: who wants some pesky ferret or stoat taking bites out of one's plimmies? What if it had been a snake?

My hayfever had not yet come on, and I was lauding the glories of the vivid rape. I was thinking just how exquisitely Japanese were the sinuous curves of the furrows in the potato field. This is a countryside that gets up and goes to work every morning; a lot of its beauty comes from the scrapings and proddings that the big tractors blaring Radio 1 FM insinuate into the ground.

As I strode along, I was thinking how odd it is that farmers should have added just what was needed to the geology that formed this exquisite valley. You meet remarkably few farmers who give a damn about the look of the countryside, except that it should be tidy.

Tidiness, of course, is almost exactly what finally wrecks the countryside. Or rather, it is in some interstice between order and wildness that we find the comfort we draw from the Manscape in which we all live. It is some kind of miracle that the result of farmers getting a living is loveliness, since that is hardly ever their goal.

Perhaps there is an equivalent to Adam Smith's economic hidden hand at work. You wouldn't ask a socialist how to help a poor man, and you wouldn't ask an artist how to make the countryside lovely.

Of course, it isn't quite that simple. I spent a great day last month with a woman, about to retire, who has spent her career doling out money to farmers and landowners so that they can improve the countryside. Improvement, in this context, means rendering scruffy, chaotic and lovely.

As we went from one big spread to another, she had me pretty well convinced that it was right that the country should tax the poor people so as to get rich people to plant copses and dig out ponds. She might be officialdom, but she was in charge of producing muddle for future generations. She was clearly satisfied, and rightly, that a lifetime spent giving Nature small romper rooms in every tuck and fold of land that could be found was not a life wasted.

Besides, another of her missions, replanting old orchards, simply makes no sense unless it is mostly for fun and grant- assisted. The point isn't that modern commercial orchards are full of dull varieties; it is that they are planted with little trees, because it is impossible to find sufficient numbers of people mad enough to climb ladders to reach the crop of more handsome big ones. If we want picturesque orchards, we will have to pay for them.

As a crowning glory, right here in the village the welly-booted bureaucrat has bought a neglected field, and will now ensure that it can stay benignly neglected for a lot longer. Next to it, she has planted a wood. I wish I could say I had ever achieved as much.