And if you go down to the woods today...

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The Independent Online

As a result of the whole "A Nation Mourns" stuff, this year's April Fool's Day jollities were largely suspended. All those hours spent by the humour sub-committees of our daily papers, sweating earnestly over what joke to play on their readers – witty, yet safely uncontroversial – have now gone to waste.

Or have they? I could have sworn that an enterprising journalist had, in a moment of skittishness, sneaked in an April Fool's joke a day early. For it was reported that, all over the land, clearance gangs are at work felling trees to make woodlands more "visitor-orientated".

The problem, apparently, has been that many of those who visited the countryside were too frightened to go into forests, having been influenced by The Blair Witch Project or by lurking memories of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.

I laughed when I first read what I took to be a perfectly realised spoof. The scary statistics were there, presented by authoritative, patronising experts. It is now essential, it seems, to attract "urban working-class people and foreign tourists".

To this end, 15 per cent of the Forest of Dean has been cleared to make room for walkways, car parks, visitor centres and look-out points. A similar tidying exercise is taking place at Grizedale Forest, in the Lake District, while millions of pounds is being spent on Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, in Scotland, in order to make it seem "less intimidating".

Some 25 per cent of all people felt vulnerable when in a wood, according to a survey conducted by Professor Terence Lee, of the University of St Andrews. "Water features seem to hold the greatest aesthetic value rather than the actual trees," the professor revealed.

So, sure enough, a man-made lake has been constructed in the Forest of Dean. The recreation manager of the Forestry Commission added that "we have started developing more areas where people can feel more safe, with dappled shade and open areas".

At this point, a terrible thought occurred. The item was not a joke at all. What I had assumed was a rather brilliant satire on the aggressive ignorance shown towards the country by bossy town-dwelling authority figures, from the Government downwards, was in fact the real thing. The psychologists and recreation officers quoted were expressing articles of contemporary wisdom under which wildness is seen as inappropriate in a well-ordered society.

According to this view, the only sensible criterion of how worthwhile a landscape may be is the number of tourists that it manages to attract. Any part of the countryside not being intensely cultivated by acceptably large, profit-centred agribusinesses must justify its existence as a leisure facility, entirely free of anything that might frighten trembling foreigners or members of the working class.

With forests being required to conform to government guidelines, we are one step closer to the future as predicted by Joni Mitchell almost 30 years ago in her song Big Yellow Taxi: "They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum/ And they charged the people a dollar and half just to see 'em..."

What next? Perhaps the Government should set up one of its taskforces, headed by Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock, to redesign Britain's forests in a suitably suburban way, with water features, picturesque bridges, olde worlde wishing wells and visitor information centres housed in astonishingly lifelike woodsmen's cottages. Or perhaps the actress Joan Collins could spearhead a campaign to reduce instances of inter-species violence in the wild in order to avoid upsetting any urban visitors.

It is not so much The Blair Witch Project that is influencing the way we see our landscape as the Blair Countryside Project.

Which is the more scary?

terblacker@aol.com

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