Keith Skipper: New priorities should be our countryside code

Steady progress with real horse-power down yesterday’s Norfolk lanes. Now big challenges in our coun

Steady progress with real horse-power down yesterday’s Norfolk lanes. Now big challenges in our countryside require new priorities - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper says care is needed when building the future of rural Norfolk

I have heard this sigh-laden lament so many times over my Norfolk years … “Well, the old place will never be quite the same again”.

Understandable regret, of course, when the genial squire died, village pub and chapel closed, bus service changed, blacksmith retired and the sprightly ole gal at Comfrey Cottage who paid good pocket money for freshly-picked blackberries went to live with her daughter in the Midlands.

For all that, post-war community fabric was usually strong enough to embrace best of the new and knit it in with what always seemed to have been there. A predominately agricultural county held on to sufficient habits, hedges and rural history to sustain some distinctively different qualities.

Perhaps an inexorable march of mechanisation across our farming world, along with a proud land army being put out to grass, signalled start of a radical new agenda “to reshape and revive” the countryside. As one who has watched that programme unfold, I fear we are fast approaching a point of no return.

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A mere glance at the way Norwich and all our towns have gorged greedily on green fringes to spread a seemingly unstoppable urban pallor provides ample evidence of why even more shrill cries for “economy-boosting building” are downright dangerous.

I can remember when places like Horsford, Mulbarton, Rackheath, Ringland, Weston Longville – and even Long Stratton on a good day-- seemed safely distant from city life and influences. Now they and many others drained of independent spirit are easy prey for an expansionist agenda packed with blatantly obvious environmental and social risks.

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More houses, more road “improvements”, more traffic more pollution, more accidents, more false promises about jobs, more pressures on already-stretched schools, doctors and recreation areas – and more ridicule for those daring enough to carry on complaining.

Just about the only thing we’re not getting more of is proper scrutiny of another avalanche of planning applications, including a worrying number for what can still be called countryside locations.

Smaller communities surrounded by prime crop- growing acres and grazing meadows are no longer immune to marauding developers backed by highly imaginative planning advisors, eager-to-sell landowners and compliant councillors.

Reckon we’re in for a rash of those “rural dreams” schemes pledging “green” villages, pastoral care and woodland views, all ignoring the fact these desirable spots have hitherto served valiantly, some for centuries, as idyllic havens of unspoilt Norfolk.

One of the oldest tricks in the housebuilding book, of course, is to propose new developments with alluring names of natural glories they are replacing. Take a bow Primrose Glade, Blackberry Mews, Chestnut Green, Lilac Way, Cowslip Corner, Ashtree Crescent, Bluebell Drive and Hemlock Park.

Very few, if any, of these rural--flavoured charmers are within the reach of young families anxious to stay in Norfolk and put down country roots like their parents and grandparents. Such feelings for rich local tradition are dismissed all too often as naïve, sentimental and outmoded.

A similar pattern has emerged along our coastline, especially where affluent incomers and second-homers have colonised so much of it from Cromer to Hunstanton. “More jobs and homes for the young” carries a hollow ring in too many parts of Norfolk and across our region in general.

A vital strand of the lockdown legacy unfolding in what looks like being a prolonged economic depression must be acceptance, however grudging, that there’s nothing weak or wrong in not wanting to be like everywhere else

Norfolk’s differences, including defiance of national and local government dictums on where “essential” developments should go, can offer far-reaching protection against a rising tide of opportunistic schemes camouflaged as saviours of our local economy during the next few years.

Our MPs and local councillors should find more courage to oppose destructive forces, especially in a countryside where young people want to settle, work and play key roles in supporting the twin environmental forces of farming and wildlife. A new crop of properly-paid green jobs and affordable homes are priorities for a post-pandemic list.

These are not fanciful notions of a misty-eyed remnant from a golden age of plodding horses, glistening furrows and community cohesion. Nor are they wrapped in any belief about bucolic powers easing the country-dweller’s load. There’s sweat in them there fertile acres and leafy woods. Hours can be long and lonely.

Even so, building Norfolk’s future can’t be just about more loads of bricks and mortar.

Skip’s Aside: As one whose favourite occupation is flitting from reading pillar to writing post, a prolonged period behind closed doors has not been without rich consolations.

Trouble is I concentrate far too much on renewing acquaintance with old favourites rather than tackling fresh challenges from big piles of unread books in my study and other rooms.

There’s been ample time to keep tabs on Harnser Press, the publishing company launched with elder son Danny last October. My 45th volume since 1984 with a pronounced local flavour, The Norfolk Almanac, was first off our own production line.

Like many other fledgling projects, it had to be put on hold due to the virus pandemic. Now, with restrictions easing and stores preparing for reopening day, we are back in touch with enthusiastic supporters of the Norfolk cultural cause.

Exiles from various parts of this country, as well as far-flung “foreign parts” like Australia, South Africa, USA and Canada, have been contacting us with a chorus of appreciation for “a breath of good old Norfolk” to lift spirits in dark times.

Readers nearer home are also sending uplifting messages about an offering designed to provide a cheerful tonic for every day on the calendar and a chance to see if you share a birthday with a famous Norfolk character.

Other special occasions, like wedding anniversaries and retirements, also spring to mind – along with Father’s Day coming up shortly on Sunday, June 21. Personal messages can be added by request now the Harnser Press shop is open again.

Contact the website – – for full details on how to order a copy to be sent by post. You can also read about how this family venture came about and plans for the future.

Of course, many other Norfolk literary treats are available online and in local bookshops when they reopen. Please support local writers, publishers and outlets during what is bound to be a long chapter of hard going.

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