An inspiring talk was given to Stroud Civic Society on Thursday 5th April by Dame Fiona Reynolds: ”The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future”
Juliet Shipman, Chairwoman of the Stroud Civic Society, secured yet another fine venue that entailed Members and friends driving beside banks of primroses, newly ploughed fields and greening trees before walking across to Syde Manor’s Tythe Barn.
Under the roof of this splendidly converted barn our speaker began her passionate defence of the word ‘Beauty’. After a career working for the countryside it was a word never used by politicians or planners, whose talk is of biodiversity, ecosystem services, natural capital and sustainable development – all words that centre on economy and measured values.
Yet the notion of ‘beauty’ is recognised, Dame Fiona added, as endemic to humankind’s well being from Geoffrey Chaucer’s celebration of Spring in ‘Engelond’: ‘Whan that Aprile with his shoures sweet [in] the younge sonne’, to John Ruskin writing of ‘the real meaning of the word Beautiful [as] turn[ing] the human soul from gazing upon itself.’ Indeed Ruskin’s vision, as our Speaker, Director General of The National Trust until 2012, added, was part of the latter’s Act which was established to preserve ‘lands…( including buildings) of beauty or historical interest.’
Dame Fiona moved us on to sympathise with George Cruikshank’s etchings entitled ‘London Going out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ (1829). However, it was a woman, Octavia Hill, who had inspired her most. Appalled by the sight of ragged children in London she started teaching children, and walking them out in the countryside to look for beauty. Ideas about protecting the countryside, keeping homes healthy and building for the future burgeoned until the First World War put a stop to them.
However, battles continued to be fought, for example Patrick Abercrombe’s pamphlet ‘The Preservation of Rural England’ sparked the creation of The Council for the Preservation of Rural England in 1926, which vowed to protect England from ‘the lack of planning and the poor quality of much of what was built.’ The National Trust too feared the replacing of ‘Old Beauty’ with ‘modern ugliness’.
Sadly, Dame Fiona felt that from ‘then on the road was pretty much downhill’. However, she felt Michael Gove’s recent calls for views on a plastic bottle deposit return scheme were hopeful. Awful though, were her lists of hedge and common insect losses. Battles over coast lines, mayhem caused by roads which follow the cheapest route regardless of sites of special scientific interest or local needs. ‘No-one cares’, she added, it’s all driven by money which means planning is the most important policy we have. However, it is not about saying ‘No!’, but she has fought for years to oppose the idea that the default answer is ‘Yes!’ ‘That’s awful, she added, there needs to be a balance; we want intelligent planning.’ Cambridge, Dame Fiona feels, shows urban flats can be beautiful. Newcastle city centre too and more locally Cirencester. GDP must not be the Holy Grail. Dame Fiona drew her talk to a close with mention of her pamphlet ’50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4′ adding that children only care about what they experience and habits are engrained by the age of 7.
Guided by Juliet Shipman, many questions followed,, showing that Dame Fiona’s fire had seriously inflamed her audience. Tim Mars while thanking her taking a near quote from Wilde said he ‘felt like a man lying in the gutter looking at the stars’, I suspect many of us shared his feeling.