When I was a child, our annual August pilgrimages to pick bilberries on the Quantock Hills in Somerset were a highlight of the summer holidays. My father would take the Crowcombe road, and park his light blue Austin Cambridge by Dead Woman’s Ditch on the edge of Over Stowey Custom Common. He’d tramp the family through scratchy golden bracken across Robin Upright’s Hill while my sisters and I shied away from imaginary adders. High on the ridge, we’d eat squashy egg sandwiches, the salty wind whipping hair across our faces as we gazed out towards Bridgewater Bay.
The next few hours were spent scouring low scrubby bushes for those elusive fruit, tiny, purply-blue, with an intense flavour. Then home to supper, where our haul of berries was popped into a waiting pie crust made that morning by my mother.
Some 40 years on, and my husband Nick and I had been looking forward to taking our daughter back for a taste of my Somerset childhood this summer. But, last week, Nick found himself asking a question in the House of Lords (where he sits as the Earl of Clancarty, an independent crossbench peer) on the very future of the Quantock Hills. Somerset County Council, we had learnt, was in the process of divesting itself of about 2,000 acres of Quantock land – specifically the Great Wood, Thorncombe Hill and Over Stowey Custom Common.
The national context for a land sale could not be worse: the draft guidelines on planning are still being rewritten after a public outcry and this newspaper’s campaign. The revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is due to be unveiled in Wednesday’s Budget. The only certainty about its contents is that there will still be a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Widespread concern about the future of the countryside remains intense; 45 Coalition MPs wrote to David Cameron last week to express their fears. They are worried that the NPPF will mean economic benefit becoming the principal driver in every planning decision. This would leave vast swathes of much-loved landscape like the Quantocks at the mercy of developers.
Furthermore, the Somerset sale seems to be a pointed riposte to the hundreds of thousands of Britons who campaigned against the proposed Forestry Commission (FC) sell-off last year. If Somerset Council can put its trees up for sale, ignoring a public preference for woodlands to be kept in public hands, are any parts of British forestry safe?
The first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in Britain, the Quantocks has inspired two of our finest poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who both lived locally. Coleridge was based in Nether Stowey; the Coleridge Way takes the rambler across the Quantock ridges, down to Porlock on the coast.
It cuts near to the contested land at Custom Common which is, like Thorncombe Hill, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Its gloriously untouched ecology is a riot of bell heather and bog pimpernel, insects such as the silver-washed fritillary butterfly, nightjars, grasshopper warblers, occasional adders – and wild bilberries.
Great Wood (let to the Forestry Commission for £200 a year on a 999-year lease – of which only about 70 have elapsed) has sites of archaeological interest, and a permanent Scout Camp. Like most of the Quantocks, the space is truly shared – by mountain bikers, riders, walkers and picnickers, tourists and locals. Once sold, that open access would be lost forever. There are no obvious buyers for Custom Common or Thorn Hill, so what would happen to them? A private buyer would no doubt restrict access substantially: locals fear corporate use, such as paint-balling, clay pigeon shoots, quad bike trials and karting, which would destroy ancient flora and fauna, not to mention the peace. Parents will no longer have space to teach their children to hunt for butterflies and lichen. The earth won’t be padded on by poets but ripped up by quad bikes. There is even talk of a Center Parcs.
Ian Liddell Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater, is as horrified as I am. “This has always been public space. There is huge affection for it. My own family uses Great Wood regularly – it is one of our favourite spots. This is a sell-off too far, and I’ve told the council so.”
He adds: “The council is courting universal unpopularity – and for what? The only possible buyer for Great Wood is the Forestry Commission, which already has a 999-year lease on it. So one public body buys it from another, using public money? Where’s the competition? What benefit is that to the public?”
And even if it is sold to a well-meaning organisation like the Forestry Commission, this would not guarantee its safety in the future. “It’s about accountability,” explains Hen Anderson, a spokesman for Save our Woods, an independent group that was set up in response to the proposed forest sell-off last year. “When any land is sold off, there is no accountability to the public. Even ownership by a public body like the Forestry Commission is not secure. Who is to say there will be a commission as we know it in five years’ time? What will happen to the land it owns then? No one knows.”
Independent parish councillor Mike Rigby, of Friends of the Quantocks, is equally stunned. A climate change consultant, Rigby who lives in Nether Stowey, says: “I’m very concerned; the public are furious but there is no mechanism to stop the sale going ahead.”
So why would Somerset take such an unpopular step? Councillor David Huxtable, the Cabinet member in charge of the sale, says it is necessary on financial grounds. “The land is much valued by the county council and by the public,” he has said. “But these are tight financial times and we are looking to invest to save where we can.” Whatever that means.
Mr Liddell-Grainger says the land is estimated to be worth £250,000, which, he points out, will make no difference to the council accounts. Moreover, it is clear that apart from the Forestry Commission, there are no obvious buyers – although one may yet emerge, and who knows what their intentions will be.
The land’s AONB status – not to mention its lie and location – would preclude building houses or schools. There may even be protective covenants in place. No one seems to know how much the land costs to run, or how much – if anything – selling it will save. The council is yet to reply to The Daily Telegraph’s questions on this point.
A nihilistic exercise? Cllr Huxtable has formal support. At a full council meeting in February, called to debate the issue after the national advocacy group 38 Degrees gathered 40,000 protest signatures in a month, a vote split on party lines with 28 Tories voting for the sale, and 22 Lib Dems voting against it.
Coalition is the name of the game in Westminster, but what about local level? “There is no such thing,” says a furious John Bailey, a Liberal Democrat councillor and environment shadow spokesman. “They are not just selling the national silver, they are giving it away. This is causing huge acrimony.”
The sale is causing deep concern at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, too. CPRE spokesman David Lloyd says: “There is an extraordinary attitude in Somerset – the council has stated that it is not their duty to manage land, something most other counties do well for the benefit of the people who live there.”
Mr Lloyd, a nature conservationist, points out: “People come here on holiday because it is so lovely. Firms are attracted to set up in Taunton as they can offer their staff this quality of life. Protecting and managing (and sometimes owning) the countryside is the smart economic view – it should be a priority.”
John Bailey claims that ideology is behind the sale. “At a meeting last month, Cllr Huxtable said: ‘We don’t know how much money it’s going to raise, we don’t care, we just want a smaller council’.” (By this, I suppose Huxtable means he is looking for fewer responsibilities for Somerset County Council.)
There has been no answer yet to my husband’s question about whether the Coalition will step in to protect Great Wood and Customs Common. Nick warns: “Serious though the threat to the Quantocks is, the problem is UK-wide. In the current climate, a huge amount of land that the public has had access to for generations could be sold off by local authorities. We have no national policy concerning public space and its conservation in the UK – and we urgently need one.”
So will there be a family pilgrimage to the Quantocks this year? Yes – even if we have to commit trespass. We’ll make pastry in the morning, and then set out with assorted children to find our delicious blue booty. Join us on the hills. This is our land, this is our Somerset – and it is not for sale.