Richard D North

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The Independent Online
"Tranquility lost forever - County reeling from traffic noise invasion": thus this week's Hereford Times front page mourns the passing of peacefulness. We know we used to be a workman-like rural backwater. Now, every other suburbanite has a diesel jeep. We steam about at an enormous rate, running groceries back from Safeway, and our children to discos, while empty buses squeeze down our lanes.

The consulting geographer Simon Rendel has done good service in producing his computer-generated maps of the erosion of tranquility over the last 30 years (published by the Council for the Protection of Rural England). It's not that he has identified a new problem. He has pulled off a better trick: he has helped us get a handle on a process which is insidious and piecemeal, but cumulatively important and hard to visualise. He has found what must be every map-maker's dream: something new to portray.

I am a firm believer in the idea of psychic geography: the notion that geography does not just describe physical features, but helps unravel the way the physical world is seen and thought about. Rendel has made proper maps: they describe something we know to be there; but they are psychic maps because this real stuff (noise, visual blight) is sensed only by people. The birds and the bees couldn't care less about it.

Rendel has helped us sense the scale of an intrusion we have all felt but have been unable to quantify. Here are believable visualisations of what had previously been an intangible anxiety about what we have been doing. I find the maps comforting because, while they certainly show, in a campaigning way, that there is a big and growing problem, they also help us to comprehend something which would otherwise be a nameless, formless concern.

Simon Rendel is the first to admit the fallibility of what he has done. The bad news is that the blight can be worse than his maps show. On these still, cold mornings, as I walk on a whaleback hill which commands the valley of the River Lugg, the noise of the A49 is very present. It's hard to characterise the effect: "roar" is too stong; "hum" doesn't quite do it. It is, in any case, an ignorable noise: every modern person is more or less immune to it. Indeed, it would not be striking at all except for the fact this terrain is one of the last oases of the kind of quiet which really can be assumed to have been more commonplace in the 1960s, as it was surely even more so in the 1940s.

But there is good news. Herefordshire has absorbed large numbers of very busy new people with surprisingly little damage to its rural nature. Even more to the point, Simon Rendel's maps show swathes of white (his colour for aural and visual intrusion) over areas in which there remain not just pockets of calm, but also periods of calm. Surely we all sense this? My house, next to the shop and post office, stands on a street in this dream village which is a good deal noisier than was the street outside my Victorian terraced house in Stoke Newington, Hackney. I hear a rush- hour now as I never did in London. There, as here, the garden was alive with bird-song. I have less peace here than urbanites would expect; urbanites have more peace than country-dwellers would ever imagine.

Much green thinking makes the mistake of believing that paradise can be a place, when it was only ever an idea. We now need to see that tranquility is also a state of mind. Sure, society ought to remember that people's right to drive cars cannot override an individual's right to quiet. Yet one fears modern people cannot thrive if they feel the fulfilment of another neurotic desire is theirs as a right. Real tranquility, like paradise, lies beyond the grave. It's a state of perfection I am happy to delay.

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