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Books Our countryside: use it or lose it

DAVE BANGS explains the politics of his latest book, a field guide to the middle Sussex and south-east Surrey Weald

I LISTEN, as I sit in a small, grassy Wealden glade, while the glow of the half moon increases and the day’s light fades. The nightingale’s fluting, wet-throated lyrics, slip-slap trills and arabesque warblings fill the silence, while a far-off cuckoo calls.

This magical place is at the centre of “Mayfield,” a proposed new town in the Sussex Wealden vale between London and Brighton.

On a damp December day we track a Wealden stream’s edge through thorn thickets, along high banks and there, within the gloom, we see the fresh corpse of a giant sea trout, exhausted by the labour of spawning, lodged below the water’s spate. This creature’s Sussex race, larger and later spawning than their cousins, has been returning each winter to these wooded streams since the Ice Age.

One year later, a giant farm slurry tank was emptied into the stream, suffocating sea trout, brook lamprey and every other fish.

A mere 15 miles south of Westminster, the great wooded vale of the Weald begins, stretching 40 miles southwards to within five miles of Brighton and 90 miles east-west. Since before the Norman invasion, size for size, this has been the most wooded region of England.

If you look at a map you could be reassured that this vale is protected from the horrors of hyper-capitalist development. Much of it is designated as Green Belt, as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or as part of a National Park.

Yet the opposite is the case. A great lava flow of urbanisation stretches for 26 miles south from the London megalopolis, penetrating more than half way to the Sussex coast, its fingers spreading east and west down railways and main roads, coalescing town to town and pooling in the unprotected Low Wealden areas.

New towns are mooted, the threat of Gatwick Airport’s expansion still looms large, new radial rail and road links to the London megalopolis are planned and new intensifications of usage threaten surviving woodland, pasture and waterlands.

In a generation, the Middle Weald could be reduced to subtopian sprawl, scattered with precious fragments of preserved habitat, unsustainable and fading.

This great wave of hyper-development is just one piece in a pattern of unequal development across the whole of the British Isles, across Europe and the globe. The deindustrialisation of parts of the midlands, the north and the west, the hyper-development of the south east of Britain, parts of Germany and France and the part-collapse of the peripheral economies in the south and east of Europe are just opposite sides of the same coin.

They are aspects and phases in a continuous history of geographic inequality and uneven, unsustainable development.

All across the globe the story is the same. The imperialist countries, with the rentier Middle Eastern oil dictatorships, drive the destruction of the wildlands of the poor world for their own food and other resource needs, while Wealden lands that have grown ordinary food crops for millennia are lost to built development and taken over for the leisure of the rich.

London expands to fill the entire Thames basin, explosively doubling in size in the 1920s and 1930s. The vast population movements of those forced out of their own disadvantaged and pillaged poor-world economies and by climate change and dreadful regional wars, expand the mega cities of the Pacific and Atlantic rims, while the capitalists who depend upon migrants’ cheap labour foster division and strife between them.

Valiant past efforts to contain Britain’s huge metropolitan expansion by the designation of Green Belts have not dealt with the underlying power of capitalism, which seeks to weaken and leap the spatial constraints which ameliorative reforms place upon it.

Vital protective landscape designations have weak social dimensions and their resources of natural beauty, wildlife, and tranquility are scooped up by the middle and owning classes. Golf courses, hobby farms, vineyards, extravagant private gardens and parks and game preserves claim land where ordinary food, wood and timber production once sat alongside community pleasures.

This biodiverse, beautiful, ancient Wealden landscape does not belong to us. It belongs to the rich. The people of London and Brighton, Croydon and Crawley do not walk its wooded gills — mini ravines — its glorious bluebell woods, hidden pastures, meandering streams, slow rivers and rocky outcrops. We meet almost no-one on our Wealden wanderings. Those few we do meet stick to the public paths and don’t explore the greenwood and meadows that lie beyond.

We live within a tragic paradox. It is only our class, working people, who have the power to halt the destruction of nature and the blind drive of capitalism to ceaseless expansion. Those rich owners who monopolise the Weald and profess their love for its countryside will not stop this process, for their wealth is dependant on the destructive exploitation of nature.

Yet our class, crammed as we are in towns, cities and megacities are also the most alienated from nature. We do not lead the fight against its destruction because that process is invisible to us and means little to our current lives. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart will not grieve over.

It is for that reason that I have written this book. If our collective connection with the countryside does not increase dramatically, we cannot hope to build the broad urban-rural campaigning alliances necessary to preserve it from gross built development and the mass of incremental threats that it faces.

There are points of hope. Campaigners at Balcombe powered the spread of the national campaign against fracking. The large-scale organic community farms of Tablehurst and Plawhatch produce a substantial fraction of the temperate foods of their township, generate many jobs, enhance soil quality and sustain biodiversity and historic landscapes features.

They provide a fine alternative model to owning-class land management, which offers only large-scale destructive agribusiness, retrograde abstention from the responsibility of food production in mothballed leisure landscapes or Knepp Castle’s aristocratic rewilding, producing only the same elite meats as the Norman barons’ deer parks.

So much is at stake. It is in the fight for nature locally that the battle against extinction becomes real. If we cannot preserve the nightingale, the woodcock, the willow warbler and the nightjar of our local Wealden woods and farms, what hope is there for the rainforests, the coral reefs, the rhino and the tiger?

The Land of the Brighton Line: A Field Guide to the Middle Sussex and South East Surrey Weald is on special offer to Morning Star readers at £10 plus postage from [email protected]


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