Glum Faces in God's Country
The Daily Telegraph
February 5, 2011
A high-speed rail link that will cut through Earl Spencer's manor has left villagers feeling angry and betrayed...
By Clive Aslet
The first thing that you'll see if you visit Wormleighton, in Warwickshire, is a gatehouse, rustily baronial, made of the dark yellow Hornton ironstone that also built the church. Wormleighton's post office closed when decimalisation came in - it was too much for the post mistress. With only 68 names on the electoral register, there is no pub or shop. Yet this hamlet was once the cradle of a noble family, the Earls Spencer, whose present representative still owns most of it.
They came in 1506, building a great mansion: that most dashing of cavaliers, Prince Rupert, stayed there before the Battle of Edgehill. But the house decayed with their royalist fortunes (some of the panelling seems to have ended up in the church). Their main base became Althorp, and nothing ever came of a proposal to convert the surviving block of Wormleighton Manor into a home for Diana, Princess of Wales. If she'd lived here, the gatehouse, where broken panes can be seen in the upper windows, would no doubt have been pressed into its old defensive use, against the paparazzi.
To villagers, it now symbolises resistance against another threat: that of HS-2, the super-high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, which cuts plumb across Lord Spencer's land.
Like other magnates whose estates will be despoiled by the route, including Lord Rothschild, the Earl won't speak publicly about his feelings. Irvin Klegerman, chairman of the parish council, however, is more forthcoming.
I meet him as he makes his way to the churchyard: having a passion for woodwork, he has been called upon to replace a rotting noticeboard - an example of what some might call the Big Society, but in the countryside is simply known as getting on with it. I am shown the church, early 12th century in origin, its floor uneven with tiles taken from Stoneleigh Abbey. The screen, removed from the nearby village of Southam to stop it being smashed by Cromwell's men, contains the earliest known depiction of a figure wearing spectacles. One of the stalls is remarkable for what Pevsner, rarely coquettish, describes as a "well-endowed hound".
Having walked to the end of the village, past an intricate thatched roof, we look out over a swelling plain. Was it only that I had been listening to Haydn's Creation on my iPod in the Chilterns Railways train, or did the Angel Gabriel have Warwickshire in mind when he described God's handiwork?
With verdure clad, the fields appear delightful to the ravish'd sense; This is truly the heart of England: a landscape of hedgerows and ditches, of a kind that makes the most sedentary of townies want to jump on to a horse. A cold wind may nip in January, because, at 500ft, it is - I was told - the first patch of high ground west of the Urals; but on a fine day you can see as far as the Malvern Hills, 40 miles away. In springtime, there are bluebell walks to raise money for the Warwickshire Air Ambulance. Soak it in. The scene won't be the same when the bullet trains of HS-2 are roaring past, half a kilometre away.
Struggling to evoke the impact of what is planned, Graham Long, who is masterminding local opposition from the nearby village of Ladbroke, reaches for some comparatives: "Imagine a track that, with verges, is as wide as the football pitch in Wembley Stadium and up to 15 trains an hour, travelling faster than a Formula One racing car. The effect will be shattering. It is bad enough after harvest, when the grain drier at the top of the village is in operation day and night; the boom of the trains will be, in Mr Klegerman's phrase, Chinese torture."
Once construction work starts in 2017, lorries and heavy machinery will grind their way down lanes that are more used to tractors and horse-boxes. Wormleighton is angry, not just because of a natural and deep-felt Nimby-ism, which wants to preserve the tranquillity of a historic place. There is the outrage, shared, surely, by many voters, at the grandiosity of the project, brought forward at a time of national belttightening.
"The cost will be £37 billion," observers Mr Klegerman. "That is ludicrous. Like every other government scheme, the end sum will probably be vastly more. I'll be dead but our great grandchildren will still be paying for it."
David Moore is not only furious but frustrated. "This is an absolutely beautiful part of the countryside: why do they have to ruin it? I feel powerless." When he and his wife Isabella bought their cottage - the closest to the new line - 15 years ago, it was with thoughts of retiring to it. He has since restored and added to it, hauling out a couple of tree roots from the garden on the day of my visit. One day, though, he expects he will have to sell his home to pay for his old age, but HS-2 will have slashed its value.
Even if Mr Moore qualified for compensation, none would be available until the first train has run down the line, at some date in the future. The Big Society has let him down. "There has been no consultation. Nobody has come to speak to us about it." Nor will there be a public inquiry. The matter will be decided by means of a hybrid Bill in the House of Commons. This device, used by the Georgians and Victorians to push through canals and railways, throws the Town and Country Planning Act out of the window. In terms of the democratic deficit, the residents of the villages most concerned feel themselves doubly disadvantaged, because no MP whose constituency is directly affected can appear before the select committee inquiring into the bill.
It would be wrong to suggest that the view of Wormleighton is monolithic. Sophie Howe, David Moore's daughter, runs a translation company in Leamington Spa. She can see that the economic uplift in Birmingham that may follow HS-2 could spill over into the Warwickshire hinterland. "Lots of people in the Chamber of Commerce are pro."
But oh, how easy life would be if only the new line could be placed beside the M40, which has already spoiled the countryside through which it runs. But superfast trains couldn't cope with the bends. On balance, Sophie Howe is therefore against the proposal, because of the sacrifice to the precious, shrinking asset that is the countryside of these crowded islands.
Will Lord Spencer speak up for Wormleighton? Half a millennium ago, his family got a bad name when the old village was abandoned. (In truth, it was not his forebear's fault, since the previous lord of the manor had already decided to farm sheep rather than collect rents from the peasantry.) Now he could help to save the village.
It would be too much to say that, if HS-2 goes ahead, today's Wormleighton will go the way of its Elizabethan predecessor and be abandoned. But the peace of this hamlet will have been irreparably destroyed, and England will have lost a fragment of its soul.