This blessèd plot

There is a small T-junction just on the border between the counties of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, pictured above. The unclassified road behind us goes to the small village of Wormleighton and the road going off to the left would take us to the slightly larger village of Priors Hardwick.

If you bisect the angle between these two country roads and walk straight across the countryside that you see spread out ahead, you will be following the planned route of HS2, heading towards Birmingham. This is no ordinary countryside; it is an area of ten square miles of farmland that has avoided most of the impacts of the last three centuries of industrial development. There are no metalled roads crossing it; only the occasional farm track allows access. The only buildings are farm buildings. A single feature bears witness to the industrial revolution; the Oxford canal meanders gently through it seeking level contours and looking more like a river as a result.

This area has been designated by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) as an area of special tranquillity. It is so peaceful that the sound of the wind in the trees and birdsong appear deafening. It is the best of English countryside and much of it has been protected and cherished by its farmers under countryside stewardship schemes for a number of years. It is a beautiful place, valued highly by the walkers and riders that make use of its footpaths, bridleways and towpaths.

As I stood at the road junction I studied the route map produced by HS2 Ltd. It showed that where I was standing would be in the middle of a cutting 11 metres deep at its lowest point and that the junction would have to be realigned. I wondered how the small Glyn Davies Wood nature reserve by which I was standing, which is managed by the Banbury Ornithological Society, would fare when the construction gangs arrived.

From the top of Berry Hill, which overlooks Priors Hardwick, I could see much of the countryside that will be affected by HS2. Lowland scenery doesn’t get much better than the view that was before me, but unfortunately the route of HS2 will cut right across it.  The Landscape Guidelines drawn up for Warwickshire by the County Council sums it up thus:

“Perhaps the most important feature … is the remote rural character of the landscape. There are few roads or settlements and in places there are extensive areas of largely inaccessible empty countryside.”

The County Council’s management strategy for this area, as expressed in the Landscape Guidelines is to: “Conserve and enhance the overall structure and remote character of the landscape”. It is rather unlikely that building HS2 will contribute anything to this aim, but armed with its Hybrid bill HS2 Ltd will be able to overtrump Warwickshire County Council in this respect.

The hand of man has had a fairly light touch on this area. The two settlements of Priors Hardwick and Wormleighton between them are home to fewer than three hundred souls. Many of the properties are constructed of the local ironstone, the golden hues of which sit well within the landscape.

The area is steeped in history. The settlements date back to Saxon times. The church in Wormleighton is Norman and Grade I listed, the example in Priors Hardwick dates from about one hundred years later. At Wormleighton and Stoneton mounds in the ground reveal the presence of settlements deserted in medieval times.

The Lords of the Manor of  Wormleighton are Princess Diana’s family, the Spencers, and the manor house was a home to this distinguished family until it was set fire to by Royalist forces in 1645 and the family moved out. This must have been particularly galling, as the family were supporters of the King. The gatehouse which remains, built in 1615, gives a good indication of how grand the house must have been. HS2 will run within about 800 metres of this building.

The beauty, peace and sensitivity of this area mean that HS2 will have a much more severe impact here than at other places. Surely this is just the sort of “demi-paradise” that Shakespeare, who was a local chap after all, had in mind when he put the words that are the title to this blog into the mouth of John of Gaunt.

The Government really must come to its senses and do it quickly. This is total madness.

PS: If you would like to learn more about the history of the area, please look here. If you really want to get stuck into the detail then read the sections on “Feldon Ironstone Fringe” in the Landscape Guidelines here.

Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to Michael Hawkins and Joy Redfern for showing me their “other Eden” and for providing information that I have used in this blog.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ggrrllaa on September 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    The problem is that if you are going to build ay sort of new transport infrastructure in the UK you are almost bound to end up passing through uninhabited areas. Not to do so means you end up building through built-up areas – which of course affects far more people to a far greater extent than building through open countryside. If you wanted to build a road or railway through the town where I live, I would probably oppose it, and ask why you can’t build it through the surrounding fields instead.


    • Hi again “ggrrllaa”; welcome back and at least your comment is on the environment this time.

      You seem to be saying that we have no choice in this matter. We really do have choices regarding HS2 you know and it is important that we make the right ones.

      The first choice is whether we really need to build it at all, and I think here that the counter arguments put forward by 51m, and others, are sufficiently compelling to require the Government to take a proper look at alternatives.

      The second is whether a predominantly greenfield solution is the best one. An HS1 type solution, where the route generally follows an already blighted transport corridor, was dismissed by HS2 Ltd because such a solution did not satisfy its own 400kph specification. The 400kph specification, which has so far not been submitted to proper scrutiny, should also be reviewed to determine if it is really necessary.

      The problem with HS2 is that the assessment in the two tables in sections 1 and 2 of Volume 2 of the Appraisal of Sustainability is that it is effectively not a sustainable proposal, and I will be posting some blogs to justify this claim towards the end of this month. The Government claims that “sustainable development is at the heart of the planning process for all new development” and so badly needs to demonstrate how HS2 can be made a sustainable project.


  2. Posted by ggrrllaa on September 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    Hello again,
    I was deliberate in my response to talk in generalities, rather than being specific to HS2, as the points you raise in your original article are applicable to any infrastructure project. Basically if something has to be built (whether it be road or rail) then you face hard choices as to where to build it. Following an existing rail or motorway corridor is likely to be both more expensive and more disruptive to a greater number of people than building through sparsely inhabited open countryside. Towns and cities have grown up alongside the existing railway to such an extent that building a new line close by would involve massive demolitions. Open countryside is a valuable resource to us all, and we must not get rid of it lightly, but given a choice between demolishing a village or going through open fields, your new road or railway will be forced into the open fields every time.

    Of course all this presupposes that you have to build anything at all, and that “do nothing” is not an option. I happen to think we do need to do something, but I perfectly well understand people who disagree with this view. The 51M view is that of an ostrich – stick my head in the sand and wait for the problem to go away. Once they have stuffed the railway up for a decade with further tweaks of the existing network to extract the maximum possible, and the passenger growth has reached the limits, what happens next? 51M has no answer to that – which is why we need to plan now for the high speed rail future. Whether it happens in 2026 or 2046 is unimportant to me – but we need to be prepared for it to come.

    As for HS2 dismissing the motorway corridors because it didn’t meet their self-imposed 400 kph criterion, I think there is more to it than that. Because of the curvature of a 70 mph motorway, even a conventional speed railway would never be able to follow the curvature of the M40 very closely. As for the M1, to reach that AND serve Heathrow you would be in to massive amounts of tunnelling under north London – as I don’t see any surface route out from London other than the one HS2 have chosen via Ruislip.

    I assume that if Hammond gives HS2 the go-ahead in the New Year then they would have to start a full scale Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed route, rather than the Appraisal of Sustainability to which you refer. I guess such a document – if ever produced – would form the basis for your further discussions.


    • Thank you very much “ggrrllaa” for your well-written and intelligent comments. I do have sympathy with some of what you say and think that we both agree that, putting aside some of the more polarising arguments on both sides, there is a large area of “grey” in the centre ground.

      I am glad that we agree on the value of open countryside and I obviously concur that “we must not get rid of it lightly”; this is where I have a problem with HS2 – and excuse me for concentrating on the one project rather than generalising as you did, but the blog is called “HS2 and the environment” – I don’t feel that the environmental issues are being given proper consideration in that they are being brushed aside in the Government’s enthusiasm for HS2.

      The environmental work in support of the design, detailed in the AoS, has missed out important impacts on sites that have local significance as it only takes account of sites of national or international significance. The consequence is situations like the one in my home locality, where the route maps show a deep cutting driven straight through an ancient wood. The EIA will pick up such environmental problems and mitigation will be considered, but the worry is that this will be so far down the design process that the options to lessen the environmental impact will be severely limited. It also seems likely that the EIA work will reduce the sustainability rating of HS2 to even lower than it is now. Many of us in the “No” camp feel strongly that the EIA work should have been done before the decision on whether to go ahead is taken, not after.

      Now I will freely admit that, as you have said, given the choice between the track going through South Cubbington Wood and the centre of Cubbington, all of our residents would chose the former option. However, the Wood and the surrounding farmland are very important to our village as a recreational resource and the Wood has wider significance as a wildlife habitat and a remnant of the ancient woodland that once covered a large part of Warwickshire (Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden).

      There are many such problem places along the proposed route, such as the Chilterns AONB and the area around Priors Hardwick/Wormleighton which was the subject of my blog.

      Of course, the impact of HS2 will not only be on open countryside; just go and talk to residents of Camden and Hillingdon for example about what it will do the areas where they live. We mustn’t forget Burton Green either, where the route does go right through the village.

      If the bulldozer is going to be given licence to destroy many of these special places in the countryside and people’s homes, we really need to be sure that the benefits merit the damage.

      My problem is that the Government has not persuaded me that this is the case. Now I admit that my “vested interest” in living near the line may mean that I am harder to convince than an impartial observer, but even I will have to give in to a compelling case. However, the Government has made an abysmal job of presenting the arguments for HS2. You only have to look at the way that the response to the public consultation by 51m has been able to tear the Government’s case, as set out in the consultation documentation, to shreds.

      Now I am going to suggest that you are rather unfair in your criticism of 51m. I don’t think that the “ostrich” tag is really deserved. The very detailed work by Chris Stokes in the 51m consultation response does appear to show, subject to counter-argument, that even the DfT’s demand forecasts can be met past 2043 without building HS2. What the demand will be then is a total mystery; who knows demand could even go down (it is at least a good bet that it will have saturated) or high speed trains could have been superseded by a new bright toy. The 51m alternative is preferable to HS2 in one very major respect in that it increases capacity incrementally and quickly and doesn’t carry the huge risk with HS2 of over provisioning if the forecasts prove to be wrong, as they have in the past.

      What is clear is that we will still need the good old WCML even if HS2 is built; all of those people by-passed by HS2 will still need a train service. My worry is that, far from being a solution for WCML, HS2 will actually be detrimental to the services on the existing railway. As I put to “HS2 is right” when he/she commented on my blog “More wisdom from the Warrington sage”, the Government information indicates that the seats available on the London/Birmingham HS2 service when it opens will be more than ten times the current passenger demand on WCML. This is bound to have a detrimental effect on WCML, which will lose fares revenue as a result. The Government information also seems to indicate that WCML subsidies will be cut; so it looks like a double whammy.

      If you have the time, take a look at my interchange with “HS2 is right”; perhaps you will be able to provide the response to my points that I failed to get there.


  3. Posted by ggrrllaa on September 6, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Hello again.

    We aren’t quite seeing eye-to-eye on this because we are starting from different (but equally logical) starting points. My basic point was that if you have to build anything then building through fields is preferable to building through towns and villages. I think you and I agree on that – although your fellow campaigners pushing for HS2 to follow one of the motorways out of London obviously don’t share that view.

    On the other hand, you are questioning whether HS2 needs to be built at all, relying on the work done by Chris Stokes on behalf of 51M to demonstrate this. I too have looked at his work in some detail and am far from convinced. It is a classic case of setting up your own version of the question and then bending the numbers to fit the answer you want to achieve. Specifically, by definingn the “problem” as being one of standard class seating capacity then concentrating solely on that as a measure of success (ignoring the effect on the highest fare-payers in first class) and averaging loadings out across the day, Stokes seems to make a compelling argument. In fact his proposals would crowd passengers out of first class in the peak hours, losing valuable revenue. Basically his proposals provide plenty of capacity off-peak when it is needed least, and insufficient in the peak when it is needed most. I can’t comment in detail on the timetable proposals since the graphic timetable on the 51M website is virtually illegible, but what is certain is that the journey times to our northern cities will be much worse than those provided by HS2, and the ability to provide better local and long-distance services to Watford Junction, Milton Keynes and Rugby would be much diminished.

    [Anecdotal evidence – the other morning I travelled on a Pendolino in which first class coach G was out of use. The remaining 3 carriages were absolutely full, and that is in a period when some people are still on holiday. Given several more years of passenger growth – last heard running at around 6.5% per annum as opposed to the 2% that HS2 have estimated – the trains will be full and standing in the peak in both first and standard class.]

    Obviously if you are directly affected by the proposed route then you are not exactly predisposed to being convinced by the proposals – and I don’t blame you for that. I would feel just the same in your boots.

    My view is that the West Coast Main Line has already had billions of pounds of our money sunk into it in order to make it fit for purpose, but that there is a limit as to how much can be squeezed out of the existing infrastructure. Network Rail (who are not part of HS2) published their Route Utilisation Strategy and estimate the southern end of the route will be full to capacity by the mid 2020s. I find their independent work rather more compelling than the 51M Group paying Chris Stokes to manufacture evidence with which to berate HS2. So I believe we will need HS2 in the future. Precisely when is something I leave to the demand modellers, economists and politicians to fight over, but we really cannot afford to ignore the rail capacity issue which is at the heart of this matter, and to which HS2 is the only credible solution.


    • Thank you again “ggrrllaa”. I don’t know what you have against Chris Stokes, but mentioning his name does seem to be a bit like a red flag to a bull.

      I don’t think that 51m is claiming that it has a fully worked solution, just that it feels that it has done enough to suggest to the Government that there is an alternative approach to HS2 that deserves a closer and more objective look, before the Secretary of State gives the green light to blowing millions of pounds of our money. The 51m position is explained in its consultation response as follows:

      “Despite its huge resources and access to the rail industry, the DfT has failed to properly examine alternatives, and therefore has presented a thoroughly distorted business case for HS2. 51m has carried out an initial consideration of such alternatives, but obviously with only limited resources and expertise. It may well be that there are still better alternatives, or that some aspects of our work is open to criticism. This is a task which should have been carried out in the most scrupulous manner by the DfT. Until this work has been undertaken it cannot be appropriate to proceed with HS2.”

      As for the importance of first class, the Chiltern Line seems to get by perfectly well without it.


  4. Posted by ggrrllaa on September 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I have nothing personal against Chris Stokes at all. To the best of my knowledge I have never met him. What concerns me is purely the logic of his proposals and the conclusions he draws.

    I agree that HS2 and / or DfT should have done more than they did in examining the alternatives. (I guess HS2 would only be remitted to do the HS route, so DfT would be doing the alternatives – is that how it is meant to work?). However the thinking behind the “Better than HS2” website (featuring the Stokes 51M proposals) seems to be wanting to replicate the Swiss modus operandi. Getting anywhere in Switzerland is comparatively slow. Connections between trains and indeed other modes of transport are brilliant, so if you are trying to make a cross-country journey it is much simpler than in the UK. However the major Swiss centres of population are very much smaller than their UK counterparts, so the city to city flows are correspondingly weaker. I admire Swiss railways for many things, but wouldn’t want to import their timetable planning or rail operational thinking to the UK.

    As for Chiltern having no 1st class, they have just launched a Premium Economy Business Zone, which is 1st class accommodation in all but name. Before speeding up their services they couldn’t justify it, as all the 1st class high fare payers travelled on Virgin, but since their new services started they are trying to get a niche in that lucrative market. Another demonstration of the link between reducing journey times and attracting new business …


    • Hi “ggrrllaa”. I think that we are finally both heading towards a similar standpoint, even if we have approached it from different directions. We both now agree that the alternatives to HS2 should have been examined more diligently. Where that leads me, and where I hope that you will be able to follow, is that it is not too late to rectify this sin of omission. As its response to the public consultation and the recommendations of the McNulty report, the Government should announce a genuine (preferably independent) review of the alternatives to HS2. This may delay the implementation of HS2 but it will also protect the taxpayer from any unnecessary expenditure from public funds.

      I’m afraid that your comments about how railways operate in Switzerland mean very little to me; I’m not, as I think you know, a railwayman.

      Finally, I have to admit that you have got me regarding first class on Chiltern Railways. When I wrote my comment I was not aware that the Premium Economy Business Zone will be offered, on payment of a supplement, on the new trains.


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