Griff: My love for beautiful East Anglia

IT'S inevitable the countryside will come under pressure to change, but if we hold our nerve we can make sure change works for rural England and does not ruin the delights we hold dear.

IT'S inevitable the countryside will come under pressure to change, but if we hold our nerve we can make sure change works for rural England and does not ruin the delights we hold dear.

That's the message from writer, comedian and presenter Griff Rhys Jones, who has a home just outside Ipswich.

In a piece penned for a new book published to mark the 80th anniversary of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, he talks about his love for this region's understated charms and the countryside in general.

Griff's claims the public is exhorted to think our heritage is only properly valid if it attracts tourists in their numbers. Not true, he argues.

“The only values that must be allowed to count are the values of evolved beauty and slow development.” The countryside has always been braced for change, he points out. There might well be airports, new buildings, and city folk attracted to rural idylls.

“The important thing is to look change in the eye and manage it well. We are not in a crisis. The rush to accommodate the lowest common denominator will kill what makes any of our countryside valuable. We need planned accommodation on the basis of . . . diverse value, not fashionable ecological principles, not short-term economic panic, not desperate grasping at holistic, centralised solutions.”

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Small is beautiful, he says, and local is good.

“Individual imagination is paramount. Suffolk is slow. It has evolved that way, protected by its muddy creeks. Let it be so still.”

Griff's family lived at Epping in his younger days, and holidays were often spent on the rivers of the east coast. He told the EADT he must have been about eight when he first went to the Walton Backwaters.

Dad had a bit of an anti-social streak and liked nothing better than taking the family to a lonely muddy creek somewhere off the Butley River near Orford - trips that undoubtedly fostered in his son a love of the starkly beautiful geography of Suffolk.

It's a love he'd prefer to keep secret - and that goes for the prettiness of Essex, too.

Luckily, thanks to the marshes and inlets that mitigate against it, there isn't a just-by-the-sea coastal route to make the tourist's journey an easy one. The A12 is necessarily inland and most visitors don't stray too far from it, he points out, with gratitude.

“Walberswick, Aldeburgh and Southwold are popular now but were scorned in the past because they were dull. They are dull,” he quips. “The beaches are stony. There aren't many piers. The houses are undemonstrative. As a result they have become the most expensive in England.”

Libby Purves, another high-profile writer and broadcaster to have adopted East Anglia as her home, has also written a piece for the book - entitled The Meaning of Mud.

“Glance from the train at Manningtree one day and you see nothing but water, bland and innocent, with little yachts bobbing at anchor,” she says. “Next time, at a different tide, you glance through the same window and there is a world of shining pockmarked mud haunted by a thousand wading birds.”

Then there are rivers like the Ore/Alde - “half threat, half promise; on the one hand you might sail downstream and out to sea and find a whole world, where the water glows green and blue instead of brown, and nothing can stop you from sailing on to Rio or the Cape. On the other hand rivers are brown sneaks, probing into the safe lush countryside. Invaders might creep up them and stake a claim, as Vikings crept up the Deben to Sutton Hoo”.

Intriguingly, it's the sight of a man-made breakwater that most moves her spirit - “symbols of determination to set forth on unfriendly waters, and tokens of faith in a safe return”.

Nature didn't make the coast safe or predictable, she points out, and Man knows that. There's compelling evidence here on the east coast, where the port of Dunwich thrived in the 14th Century, but is long gone.

A Portrait of England combines beautiful landscape photography with quotes, poetry, celebrity reminiscences, anecdotes and opinions. A percentage of the profits will support the work of the CPRE - a body that has been instrumental in the creation of national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and green belts.

The book is edited by Joanna Eede, who says that “Even in our increasingly urban and materialistic world, it is clear . . . that rural England still inspires: by sailing the muddy creeks of Suffolk; by foraging for field mushrooms in the New Forest; by watching eel-fishers on the Dart; by witnessing a lamb being born or a sparrowhawk hovering.”

She adds: “Importantly, the articles also highlight how many people are moved to protect the English countryside - from the worst effects of industrialised food production and consumer culture, from characterless dormitory developments, from a slow death due to thousands of unintended acts of thoughtlessness.”

Max Hastings, former editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph and president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, writes that the landscape has always been shaped by mankind.

The countryside has always changed, and must keep doing so. Very few changes of the past 80 years have been destructive, he points out, and although we might feel sad at any recent mistakes and excesses, “what is extraordinary is how much beauty survives. Anyone who knows the extraordinary diversity of the English countryside . . . knows that it is still one of the most beautiful in the world”.

He hopes the book will inspire.

“To paraphrase the old line about democracy, all that is needed for the English countryside to perish, amid the host of pressures which it now faces, is for good men and women to do nothing. For our landscape to survive, to succour and entrance our children and grandchildren, we must fight and keep fighting for its cause.”

He adds: “Our purpose is not to demand that the countryside should be pickled in aspic, but rather that is precious qualities should be acknowledged in every decision that is made about its future: particularly concerning bulldozers and concrete.”

Portrait of England is published by Think Books on October 5, priced £20. ISBN 978-1-84525-013-3

IN A Portrait of England, actor Ralph Fiennes writes about the impression coastal Suffolk has left on him.

Born in 1962, he was the first of six children. His father, Mark, was a photographer and his mother, Jini, was a novelist, painter and travel writer. The actor's film credits include The Constant Gardener and Schindler's List. He writes:

“I was born in Suffolk and spent the first six years of my life growing up just outside Southwold. Although thought of as 'flat', the Suffolk landscape is full of unusual undulations, small mysterious roads that make a beguiling network through land that changes with unusual subtlety.

“The coast and marshes near Walberswick and Dunwich are well known, but I have strong childhood associations with the beaches there. I remember playing on Southwold beach thinking I would try to dig through the sand to Australia.

“The North Sea carries an ominous power - its grey green waves swollen by Arctic winds. The East Anglian skies are massive and their vastness is overwhelming and uplifting. The Suffolk horizon line, often broken by the silhouettes of churches and woodland, contrasts the ordered farmland with the unremitting presence of the sky.”

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