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England Vanishing

22nd September, 2006

How do we define ourselves in time and space? A new book England In Particular suggests it is the commonplace, the local and the distinctive that tells us where we are

Look around you. Local distinctiveness is everywhere. Buildings, plants, food and landscapes are the elements that give a place character, that give people a sense of place and make us happy to return home from work or from our travels abroad.

Local distinctiveness is essentially about places and our relationship with them. It is as much about the commonplace as the rare; the everyday as the endangered, and the ordinary as the spectacular. The charity Common Ground has been exploring and developing the concept and the result is the group’s Campaign for Local Distinctiveness and a joyful book, England in Particular, which brings to life those distinctive local characteristics that together make England so English.

Although it is a celebration of England, similar volumes could easily be written about anywhere else in the world. Every place is its own living museum, dynamic and filled with tributes to its own uniqueness.

As uniformity and monoculture threaten to engulf us all, it’s worth asking some questions: How has it happened that we can stand in many high streets, factories, fields or forests and feel we could be anywhere? Why does McDonald’s force upon our high streets an idea born in corporate strategy meetings thousands of miles away? Why are we planting the same trees everywhere? Why does the pursuit of standards now result in standardisation?

Such questions inevitably trigger other questions: Why are only mountains ‘beautiful’ landscapes, and big and old buildings worthy of care and attention? Things need not be conventionally rare, picturesque or spectacular to be special. There is value and local meaning to be found in trees, beach huts, natterjack toads and village greens. God, as they say, is in the details.

Fingerposts

Before 1964, when the Worboys Committee demanded their replacement by standardised signs, fingerposts varied considerably from place to place. This particularity lingers here and there. The oldest may offer quarters and eighths as well as whole miles left to travel. West Yorkshire, Dorset and north Berkshire have some
fingerposts with grid references; the Ministry of Transport commissioned them in 1930 as an experiment. Wartime saw a general removal of all signs to confuse the enemy (and the visitor – a rural sport still practised, together with the realigning of swivelling metal signs).Somerset has retained about twelve hundred cast-iron
fingerposts, usually round white posts with a pyramid-shaped

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2006

 

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