The plan

The land around Bridge is not just pretty scenery, it is a working agricultural landscape. Image © Copyright 2018.

After years of hard work in preparation, the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan has been presented publicly for consultation with the people of the parish. All residents are invited to comment. So, how does it look from the perspective of Nature, wildlife conservation and agriculture?

The plan appears to be very much geared towards preserving the unique identity of Bridge, maintaining a strong sense of separation from the city of Canterbury and protecting green spaces around the village. It presents as a ‘green plan’ accepting and supporting the use of environmentally friendly initiatives and technologies as they arise. These include: maintaining public transport links, an improved cycle route to Canterbury, clean air policies, electric car charging points, preservation of green spaces in and around the village, flood and sewage pollution prevention policies and sustainable building practices.

We sense that this plan is also a valiant attempt to resist major development in Bridge while fulfilling a demand for need established affordable homes. The latter is a generous gesture and it may win public approval, but even the building of affordable homes of this type is only intended to be allowed within an AONB in exceptional circumstances, and these might be considered hard to justify when so many new houses are about to be built outside the AONB just a few minutes away at Mountfield Park.

Unfortunately, there is a further sense within the plan that various policies on development contradict each other. Policy C3 expresses support for the proposal to build 40 houses near Bridge Surgery, although the need for more housing than 11 affordable homes has not been established. This does not comply with national planning legislation (NPPF 2012), current AONB management policies, CCC’s District Plan, or indeed other policies within the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan itself. Residents should recall that, in a trade off for the recreation ground, this proposal was voted into the plan by the public, but that does not mean the idea is appropriate or that it will pass muster with the planning authority.

The idea that Bridge includes, and is surrounded by, green space is made much of within the plan, but it is described in an abstract sense and there is surprisingly little acknowledgement that the surrounding fields are working farmland in an historic and beautiful corner of England: one that has been protected for future generations by AONB designation of the same status as that of a National Park. A further indicator of this omission is the poor presentation of the pictures showing protected views within the plan, sometimes as tiny images, which can barely be seen. Better presentation might endorse the recognition that these views are worth protecting.

Sadly this does not look and read like a Neighbourhood Plan which values farming: indeed, there is so little mention of farming, farmland and the outlying countryside of our parish that it reads like a plan for the village centre, which only acknowledges farming as a scenic view from the window, and only appreciates countryside as a place of recreational pursuits. On page 26, in general text we read, “The plan will encourage and support the use of land to establish sustainable farming, allotments and community orchards…”, but that sounds almost like a slap in the face for existing farming, which faces many complex environmental, economic and political challenges. On the same page we are offered Project F2, which says it will “support new developments that allocate land to uses such as sustainable farming, allotments and community orchards”. Is this saying it will approve new housing development if such land is offered as a sweetener? It certainly reads that way and it is alarming. The plan needs clarity here. Perhaps Project F2 should be replaced with a project which states, “Sustainable farming will be supported and the further use of land to establish allotments and community orchards will be encouraged”. And what of a project statement on local woodland? And on wildlife conservation?

Of further concern is Policy A3 which supports a proposal to convert redundant farm buildings at Great Pett Farm, Bridge, to light industrial/commercial units. This is a proposal from agents acting for the landowner; but how and why are the landowner and the authors of the plan so sure that Great Pett Farm will never again need its barns and its farmyard? What is the long term ambition for farming in the fields around Bridge? We don’t find an answer in the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.

To be fair, we are perhaps asking the plan to speak beyond its basic remit on some of these issues, but maybe it should. This should be a plan presenting, not just a defence of our village from urban expansion, but a vision of Bridge parish as a thriving, historic, rural landscape which treasures its AONB status, its countryside, its farming heritage and its wildlife, along with its community. The plan is a bold effort, but our parish has much to be proud of, and we should not hesitate to speak loudly in praise of what it is we are defending: a little more expressive recognition of farming and countryside would be welcome.

The agroforestry revolution

Large open crop fields with few trees and hedgerows, like these fields on the Downs at Bekesbourne, are prone to depletion and may soon be a thing of the past. Image © Copyright 2018.

Those of us who have grown up in the British countryside within the last century or so have become accustomed to seeing large rectangular(ish) fields of one crop growing between thin, widely dispersed borders of hedgerow: it seems the sensible, efficient way to organise areas of agricultural crops, particularly when using modern farming equipment. But this, so called monoculture, is not the only way to manage land, and it is certainly not the most environmentally friendly. Britain’s fields are approaching exhaustion: they have been overworked and undernourished; our wildlife has been decimated; there is a critical shortage of farmland; something has to change.

Governments, farmers and environmentalists are all looking for new ways to increase production and maximise farming efficiency, while, at the same time, enhancing the biodiversity of farmland. One astonishing system, which is gaining credence in EU farming and government circles is called agroforestry, and it is an entirely different agricultural system from the big field monoculture which many British farmers are used to. The idea is to plant crops in strips, perhaps sixty feet or so wide, between rows of fruit, nut or wood producing trees. Livestock meadowland can also be planted with rows of trees in this way.

It all seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but the secret of the system is that with careful crop and tree selection and management a micro-climate can be created between the trees, which is of benefit all round: trees take water lower in the ground than crops, so they don’t compete; trees can provide refuge for the creatures that eat crop pests; trees can protect arable crops (and animals) from adverse weather, while careful positioning of the rows north to south (or otherwise to suit the local topography) and regular harvesting of new wood growth allows plenty of sunlight for good growing.

One might assume that when managing a farm in this way production is reduced and profits lowered, but farmers who have switched to this system say that is not necessarily so: planning for smaller land strips means they are more diverse, more able to be flexible and adaptable in what they grow. The rows of trees also produce a valuable crop themselves: fruits like apples and plums, nuts like hazel and walnut, or coppiced wood for bio-fuel chips; all of which tend to become available when the arable harvest has finished. As a consequence, farmers say their profits have increased, sometimes by up to 50%.

While this system can be beneficial to the farmer, tests indicate it is significantly better for the rural environment too, with huge biodiversity enhancement, less water run-off and evaporation, less soil erosion and, if the system became widespread, massive capture of carbon pollution. Of course agroforestry is just one new option in farming: we will have to wait to see if it takes off; but with our government promising a new ethical stance on farming grants which will favour those farmers who practice environmental farming policies, agroforestry may prove a popular and exciting new feature of our countryside in years to come.

A walk around the model farm

On Saturday, 20 January 2018, members of the Barham Downs Action Group led a walk on public rights of way around Highland Court Farm near Bridge. The initiative was intended for local people with an interest in learning more about the farm and preserving the farmland from a proposed new development. Despite inclement weather, over twenty people, some with dogs, attended the walk.

Jill Thomas, of Bekesbourne, presented some interesting factual and historical information about the farm and the downs at various locations around the landscape.

On behalf of all local people who wish to see our AONB preserved, we thank the organisers and all those who attended.

This was not a initiative and we have no further information on the walk or the action group. Barham Downs Action Group have their own Facebook page.

Of signs and scenery

Under orders. A plethora of ugly, bossy signage can create an oppressive atmosphere. Image © Copyright 2017.

NO ENTRY, KEEP OFF THE GRASS, TURN LEFT, TURN RIGHT. Whatever a sign says, very often there is another message written large within the words, and it says, “Pay attention to me: I want to tell you what to do”. We see signs all over the place, everywhere we go, in the city and in our rural fields. Even advertising signs for things as unimportant as pop songs and fashion wear pass daily through our countryside on buses and delivery trucks, telling us what we need to buy and imposing themselves upon our scenic vistas. People living in the metropolis may have grown used to signs and accept them as part of daily life in the busy urban hive; but do we really need so many cluttering the countryside and our small villages? What are they all for?

Theme park countryside. The placement of this supposedly educational sign spoils a rural beauty spot and the view of the Little Stour at Littlebourne. Image © Copyright 2017.

At their best, signs are necessary and useful: they keep us safe, prevent us from getting lost and guide us on our way. One obvious example might seem to be street name signs, but in fact Japan has managed without them for centuries, so even these aren’t quite as essential as we might assume.

LIVESTOCK LOOSE, PLEASE CLOSE THE GATE, KEEP DOGS ON A LEAD and other such signs in the rural landscape make it clear that we are on a farm: the farmer may rightly deem the signs necessary to protect livestock, but ironically they only become so because of the careless stupidity of an ignorant public who have become so used to signage that they don’t know how to behave on working land unless they see a sign telling them what to do.

With the exception of these types of notices, our working countryside is generally clear of signage litter; our farmers have better things to do than plant signs. But the same cannot be said for our rural roadside verges, parks, recreation grounds and public places, all of which are littered with self-important signage. Many of these signs are poorly considered and simply express a need to be noticed in an individualist orientated, yet alienating modern commercial culture which has no regard for the demure.

We have been informed that CCC have requested the removal of this unauthorised advertising sign in a field on the approach to Bishopsbourne village. It has now been covered. Image © Copyright 2017.

British panning law requires that signs above a certain size need planning permission before they can be placed out in the countryside: placement without authorisation is a criminal offence, and thankfully Britain’s farmland is spared the rows of huge roadside advertising hoardings that litter the roadside in various countries on the continent. This is particularly important here in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and our designated Conservation Areas, where the commercial interests of private enterprise should not be allowed to damage rural amenity assets which are of immense value to local communities and the nation as a whole.

The treasure in the fields

A detectorist in a field in Bridge this week. Image © Copyright 2017.

Seeing a detectorist with a metal detector searching for treasure in the middle of a huge field, one might be reminded of Easop’s fable ‘The farmer and his sons’.

Knowing he was about to die, an old farmer summoned his two sons to his bedside and pleaded with them not to sell the farm when he died. He explained that the land had been in their family for generations, there was a great treasure in the fields, and it was waiting to be discovered if only they did the work to look for it.

After the farmer died his sons gathered their tools and began digging all over the land in a quest to find the buried treasure. They did not find it, but their digging had been so thorough that they had prepared the fields for the next growing season. Furthermore, they realised that working on the land had given them a new purpose in life: so they planted seed; and when their crops ripened the following summer, the farm duly offered up its bounty, just as the old man had promised.

This tale was being told, no doubt by elderly farmers to their children, in Ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but it is astonishing how the concerns and moral values within are still so relevant and so extraordinarily pertinent even to this day.

Messing with a model farm

Farmland at Highland Court Farm is under threat from a new development proposal. Image © Copyright 2017.

In recent weeks residents of Bridge and other local villages have learned details of a proposal for a huge new development at Highland Court Farm, which is in Bekesbourne parish, but just across the A2 from Bridge Down and Bishopsbourne. The development is intended to include 300 holiday homes, 150 retirement homes, a business park and innovation centre, a leisure and artisan food and drink hub and new facilities for Canterbury Rugby Club and Canterbury Football Club. On a map all this is even larger than it sounds: it looks like a big new village on our doorstep.

Some voices in Bridge have suggested that this development would be “good for the local economy and businesses”; it would “provide jobs for local people”. While the scheme would presumably offer employment opportunities, it appears to come with its own retail, restaurant and bar facilities, which are so far described only in the most vague terms; but it may be so big and so self-centred that it would take trade from local village businesses and leave us with nothing but a nightmare in traffic, infrastructure and service facility problems to deal with, along with the loss of local green fields. But, even if all the supposed positives are correct in their assumptions, is this kind of development really a good thing for a rural area like ours?

Highland Court Farm lies within its own Conservation Area and the entire development site lies within Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an area designated in 1968 for protection as an agricultural landscape, not just because of its visual appearance, but because of its importance to agriculture, our cultural heritage, the well-being of the British people and the national economy. The land in our AONBs provides outstanding benefits to many aspects of British life including: green space for rural experience, leisure and education for people in our cities; tourism; wildlife habitat; natural resources; and, most importantly of all… farming. In a country of dwindling countryside which no longer has enough farmland to feed itself, AONBs are a vital strategic resource which, once lost, can never be replaced.

The notion that development on fields at Highland Court Farm would be good for the economy might suggest that those fields are just waste ground, waiting to be built over: they are not, this is working land growing crops including apples and plums for our food industry, the largest industry in the UK. This land has a role in the national chain of employment for pickers, packers, drivers and workers of all kinds across the country in food and drink manufacturing (Blackcurrants for Ribena are also grown here). Furthermore, these fields provide green space between our urban developments; they provide a vital wildlife corridor and habitat; and they contribute along with all the other parts of our AONB to an essential land resource which is being constantly reduced by unnecessary development.

In their promotional material the developers say that the farmland here is currently “intensively farmed” and “of poor ecological value and species poor” {We would like to see the evidence which backs this up}: with this development they want to “create an environment that is species rich and that becomes an exemplar of how development can work in harmony with nature”. That would indeed be a worthy ambition in a different, less valuable location, but in one of the most protected landscapes in the United Kingdom, wildlife habitat enhancement would be beneficial, but there is simply no need to bring building development into the equation.

We do not believe an important farming landscape next to a heritage asset on Kent’s protected North Downs would be more valuable to Kent or the United Kingdom if it were converted into a couple of sports complexes, a restaurant and some rows of second homes for rich holidaymakers placed next to an industrial estate. It makes no sense at all, unless we only value our national countryside in terms of the financial profit which can be generated by building over it.

Highland Court Farm achieved a valued heritage status because it was built as a ‘model farm’, an experimental farm which, at the time, practiced the latest methods in early 20th century agricultural efficiency, in combination with an attitude of welfare for workers and best practice in the enhancement of the local countryside environment. If there is to be any restructuring of this farm and its environs, surely it should be as an evolution of this model, in what The Campaign to Protect Rural England call a ‘new model farm’, using modern exemplary farming practice and our new understanding of the current ecological imperatives, to work for the very same ideals and principles as the previous model.

Ironically, the new proposal presented by the developer does include an admirable scheme for varied habitat enhancement for wildlife across the area, and an organic farm: exactly what the CPRE are calling for in the ‘new model farm’. Fabulous! So why not just roll that idea out across the whole landscape and scrap the plan to build anything?

Photographs, and cart of hay

The 20th century Hay Wain. To the modern eye this photograph does not have the charm of Constable’s original, but to the high society of his day his picture of ordinary country life was just as unremarkable. Image © Copyright 2017. regularly receives praise for the photographs on display; more rarely do we receive vociferous, active support on the issues the website was set up to champion: the protection and conservation of our local landscape and wildlife. This is concerning, because one wonders if the right message is getting across.

This website was not created to exhibit photography for its own sake; it is not a gallery; for to display an art form in that way gives it ascendancy over its subject. Unless the subject is, or somehow becomes celebrated, the picture in a gallery steals the limelight from its model: the artwork achieves its own reality and the subject within is objectified, unrecognised, its very soul is stolen and displaced.

We all know Constable’s painting of ‘The Hay Wain’, it lives on in our minds as one of the most famous rural pictures in the world, and today on the Suffolk-Essex border the scenery there around Willy Lott’s house on the Stour looks pretty much as it did, carefully preserved in trust: but why? Is it for the sake of environmental conservation, to preserve the landscape that the painter so admired? Or is it in order to preserve a semblance of the famous picture? To whom or what do we pay homage?

The Hay Wain is of course a painting not a photograph, but if John Constable had ever owned a camera, he might have been obsessed by the images it could produce. He was passionate about depicting nature with scientific accuracy: he studied trees, he studied clouds, he tried to paint as “the mirror of nature” {Stendhal} to portray the naturalistic charm of the rural landscape in much the same way as many photographers do today; arguably, the very fact that they do so, stems from his vision and initiative. He would, no doubt, have wanted his much loved Suffolk countryside preserved, but, in this respect, what have paintings like the The Hay Wain actually achieved?

In contrast to the adoration they receive today, Constable’s rustic scenes were not so highly admired by the English academics of his age and even the French Romantic Realist writer Standhal, who praised his style, went on to lament the fact that Constable chose to paint ordinary rural landscapes rather than the dreamy retrospective classical vistas of Arcadia which were the fashion of the day. The muddy, smelly agricultural landscape of England was taken for granted, unworthy of recording on a canvas; why on earth would it need to be conserved? Despite a plethora of worthy art and argument that attitude has persisted even to this day, and, in consequence, a wealth of the charming and invaluable working countryside of Constable’s age is now severely and irrevocably diminished.

In retrospect we might suggest that paintings like The Hay Wain have engendered the very notion of an ‘English countryside’ within the modern mind, inspiring generations of admirers, painters and photographers to appreciate it and try to capture it in art: but therein lies a deception; capturing an image of something does not preserve it in any real sense, it merely creates an impression of it and perpetuates the idea of its existence. Ironically, many of our old landscape paintings and photographs have proved more permanent than the landscape they sought to represent.

If Constable’s paintings, and all the photographs of our landscape that have followed down the decades since, have inspired a national mood of countryside awareness and conservation, we have to ask: why has the wider English landscape not been preserved with the same meticulous attention as has the scene there on the Stour at Willy Lott’s house? Are our artworks more important than our land?

Today we look upon Constable’s paintings as photographs of a Paradise lost: he gave us beautifully crafted ‘snapshots’ of his English countryside idyll, and in preserving them we try to deceive ourselves that we have preserved it all. We have not, and sadly we continue to let it melt away.

Nothing much to see

Pett Valley View. Image © Copyright 2017.

Nothing much to see

Up on The Butts
one morning in mid-September
and what is there to see?

Nothing much
but the sun
and the waning visage of last night’s moon
a fleet of white cumuli drifting across the blue
and the shadows of them racing
like spectres over stubble fields
of corduroy and tweed

At the hedgerow
an audience of animated trees
jostles in the wind
applauding a restless sea of golden grass
that glistens and shimmers in the sunlight
as it rolls in wave on wave
towards a continent
of purple flowered marjoram

There on the distant hill
the Mansfield orchards
pattern the slope
with neat little rows of apricot
apple and plum
and the ancient trees of Whitehill Wood
define the far horizon

In the valley
a working party of rooks
has landed on the stubble
to glean spilled grain from the mud
and above them a buzzard
watching their every move

Up here in the tall grass
at the style
a bank vole nibbles at a sloe
and a few heads of oxeye daisy
turn their faces to the sun
as if refuting the end of summer

there’s nothing much to see here
nothing much to see here at all.

*All content on this website is © Copyright Mike Burns-Stark 2017
for All rights reserved.

Season of the fruits and falling leaves

Autumn Apples at Highland Farm, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016

With the arrival of September, Autumn begins here in our pleasant verdant valley. Autumn, a season at once bringing the farming year towards its close with luscious fruits, the emptiness of fields, the sadness of decaying blooms, the first cold mornings and the fall of golden leaves. A “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it in his poem ‘To Autumn’.

While the names of months and days are capitalised in good English, the names of the seasons are considered generic nouns, so they are usually written with the initial letter in lower case. However, where a writer or poet like Keats chooses to personify a season by giving it a particular personality, the name of the season becomes a character’s name, a proper noun, so it is capitalised. But such is the influence of these seasonal characters upon our countryside, and so profound is the effect of the imposition of their individual temperaments upon our own lives, that we believe their personalities should be acknowledged every bit as much as the months and days; perhaps more so. Hence, throughout this piece (and in many of’s articles) the names of the seasons have been capitalised.

Today we recognise four seasons, but it has not always been so: while Summer and Winter have been accepted as distinct seasons for over a thousand years, it was not generally considered that there were two other seasons in our year until around the 16th century. In this country, up until that time, the late Summer period before Winter set in was simply known as ‘Harvest’, derived from the old Norse word ‘haust’ meaning ‘to gather or pluck’. During the industrial revolution, as more and more people moved from the English countryside to the new cities, the term lost its seasonal connotations and became just a word to describe the distant countryside activities of reaping and gathering of crops out in the fields.

Although Chaucer used the name Autumn (derived from Latin) in his writings in the 14th century, it was not until the 16th century that the word became widely used to describe the third season of the year. ‘Fall of Leaf’ became another popular, and more descriptive way to describe it too, and similarly ‘Spring of the Leaf’ acquired usage as a term for the beginning of Summer. Over the years they were reduced to the shortened forms of Fall and Spring respectively, and when the hordes of migrants travelled from these shores to the new continents of America and Australia they took those names with them. In Britain, for reasons unknown, Autumn remained more widely used than Fall; and it still is, much to the disappointment of Fowlers, the guardians of proper English, who prefer the more picturesque ‘fall’ (with a lower case f).

Fall of Leaf is surely the more poetic of the English names for the third season of the year; but in that name, and Autumn too, there is a sense of melancholy and ending, which conveys none of the joy, relief and satisfaction of the harvest: traditionally a happy time of year with feasting, singing and celebration when the work was done.

Dog days and a harvest

Harvesting oats, Bridge 2017. (Picture copyright © 2017)

Historically, the term ‘dog days’ refers to the hot, sultry period of summer between early July and the beginning of September when plants have reached maturity, their growth is over and they begin to decline. This is the season of the grain harvest. In ancient times the period was recognised by the rising of Sirius the Dog Star.

Last weekend (19-20 August), the unpredictable ‘cloudy, sunny, cloudy, sunny’ dog days of summer 2017 did at least stay mainly dry, giving local farmers the opportunity to gather in the oat crop which has been ripening in recent weeks in the fields surrounding our village. The hum of the combine, the roar of tractors and the heavy thumping of empty trailers coming to be filled with the grain could be heard throughout the weekend, and sometimes late into the evening. These are the sounds of harvesting on the modern farm; and for all who do have “time to stand and stare”, as William Henry Davies put it, the modern ritual of gathering in the crop is a fascinating display of 21st century farming efficiency in our living, working landscape.

Yet it is worth pausing further, to see just who it is that may be overseeing these mighty, grunting, monster-machines that gobble up the golden harvest: when we look a little closer, we may be in for a surprise…

Zooming in on the picture reveals the surprising supervisor overseeing the harvest. (Picture copyright © 2017)

Dog star rising! Throughout the work, the little dog pictured watched attentively to all that was going on; and when there were any technical delays, he observed from the cab steps of the combine harvester, like a captain at the bridge, barking occasionally to indicate that progress should be made with all due haste.

Ah, this farming life: the great outdoors, the sunshine, the scent of the harvest and the warm summer breeze in your ears… (Picture copyright © 2017)

Throughout the pleasantly temperate weekend, local residents were out and about in the fields, often pausing on their walks to watch the work in progress and capture photographs. will present more of our own pictures from the harvest in due course. We express our thanks to the combine and tractor crews for their tolerance.

*Readers please note: the dog pictured remained in a place of safety during the harvesting operation and was not interfering with the controlling mechanisms of the machinery in movement.