The fields have been incomparably enchanting on several days this month. The combination of ample rain and periods of warm unbroken sunshine, as summer turns to autumn, have produced a spectacular combination of active wildlife, luxuriously verdant grass, and infinite gradations of green, yellow and orange in foliage. Especially earlier in the mornings and as dusk approaches, the light has been spectacular, and it has been a privilege and pleasure to walk, cycle or run amidst the meadows and hedgerows.
I’ve got some recent photos interspersed in this blog in the usual way, although doubtless they can’t even begin to do justice to the scenery – you have to be there to experience the extraordinary semi-natural beauty of the landscape, and to witness all that it offers for people and wildlife. On the latter front – its great to know that dragonflies have been in abundance well into late october, and the fields have been frequented by a bird of prey, apparently breeding on the Eastern part of the Slopes in summer. I’ve been guided by Mark Kilner, the local wildlife photographer and expert, in identifying the types of dragonfly (they’re hawkers) and confirming the persistent presence of the sparrowhawk on the fields (we don’t yet have photos of these particular birds, but in the meantime see some of Mark’s sparrowhawk images from other places on his flickr site here)
This blog will also provide an update on the timing some of the key local government decision processes which are going to be critical in determining the future of this place in the years ahead. It looks like early 2014-early 2015 will be the time period during which the destiny of the fields will begin to come clearer. I’ll finish with a further foraging note and draw your attention to a new musical tribute to the fields which will be going public next month for the first time!
Waiting Games: Village Green Application and Local District Plan
We have been experiencing ‘waiting games’ for some months in relation to the pending decisions by Kent County Council (KCC) and Canterbury City Council (CCC) regarding how the fields will be treated in the future in local public policy terms. And we know the University has been publicly silent on the issue for some months. This now seems set to continue: It therefore seems very unlikely that the University would choose to submit any further Chaucer Fields planning application over the next few months (for example, along the lines of the proposed “Chaucer Conference” hotel complex and accommodation blocks presented at their ‘consultation’ in 2012 – see the CFPS Blog of a year ago).
In relation to KCC, the Village Green Application – which, if successful, would protect the fields from predatory ‘development’ in perpetuity – has now been subjected to a further delay. As reported by the Save Chaucer Fields Group (SCF), a preliminary report on the scope of legitimate evidence – needed by KCC’s regulation committee as a prior step to conducting a public inquiry – is to be published later than originally hoped. And this is still at the ground clearing stage, meaning that the public inquiry itself is unlikely to begin until March or April 2014.
SCF also report that they are seeking to recruit further witnesses to strengthen the already powerful pro-protection case, and are seeking further donations, especially to cover legal costs relating to the inquiry. Please refer to their locally distributed Newletters or access the SCF Facebook page for fuller details, and offer as much support as you can.
The other local government policy decisions – or more accurately, set of decisions – which will be crucial to the future of the fields is the ongoing process of determining the contents of the CCC Local (District) Plan. This could, if policy makers choose, potentially protect this place for decades ahead, whatever the result of the Village Green Application. That’ll be the case if the final version ends up retaining or strengthening some of the proposed priorities in the existing consultation draft. Amongst the relevant considerations are:
- the draft LDP requirements emphasing respect for the Stour Valley landscape of which the unspoilt Southern Slopes are an integral part (in its own right, and because of its topographical ecological connectivity with that wider landscape)
- the LDP draft’s emphasis on Open Space, environmental sensitivity and account taking of biodiversity and heritage. At the moment the sorts of general sentiments being expressed in the draft seem to be in line with at least implicit recognition of the unspoilt Southern Slopes as a remarkable historical and green community asset. (However, the policy commitment would be laudably strengthened if these considerations were made much more explicit and the Slopes were to be given fully protected special green community space status, capitalising on the value of the land as revealed by Canterbury Archeological trust and the work of various environmental consultancy firms for CCC in recent years ); and
- the draft LDP’s explicit proposed requirement that the University of Kent recognise its responsibility to develop its Estate in a way that demonstably respects its own campus and the wider host community setting by producing a publicly defensible Master Plan. This implies a decisive moved away from the outmoded, disjointed and fragmented approach taken by the Estates Department of the University to campus development in recent years. This has evidently damaged the University’s environmental and social reputation, and undermined the efforts of the University as a whole to strengthen its community relations.
As mentioned above, these are still draft policy proposals, although encouragingly, recognising the relevance of the the first two sets of priorities is in line with CCC’s provisional decision to reject the University’s application for the Southern Slopes to be considered as a site for mass residential housing development.. We don’t yet know whether these commitments will be carried over into the final adopted policy framework or not. Each could in theory potentially be strengthened, weakened, or remain unchanged as the plan is finalised (and presumably, a range of vested interests have been, and will continue, to lobby vigorously to have any such constraints on a ‘development’ free-for-all diluted or abandoned).
What’s the timetable here? Like the Village Green at KCC level, 2014 will potentially be a key year. CCC have confirmed this in specifing a timeline earlier in the summer in their document Canterbury District Local Development Scheme which sets out the transition from draft LDP status to adopted LDP. December 2014 is specified there as the formal target date for LDP adoption, but in correspondence this month, the Planning Department have clarified there may be some slippage: There seems to be some uncertainty, although not nearly as much as in the Village Green Application process. They have indicated that they are currently working through all the comments received in the latest consultation round which closed at the end of August. The actual timeline next year partly depends on the national Planning Inspectorate itself (which must sign off all LDPs as appropriate and robust before they can be adopted). So it could be that early 2015, rather than december 2014, is the moment when the content of the final adopted LDP is actually settled.
Foraging Update: chestnut time
Meanwhile, life goes on at the fields. The opportunities for members of the host and university community to harvest blackberries and apples from the unspoilt Southern Slopes have now passed, but others have come round. As thoughts turn to cold winter nights, for people relying on open fires or stoves for heating at home, plenty of kindling can be had from the wooded sections of the slopes. The two other obviously traditional ways in which nature’s bounty is still just about at a productive moment is in relation to chestnuts. Chaucer Fields and the broader Southern Slopes include some fine examples of both sweet chestnuts and horse chestnuts.
Sweet chestnuts can be simply roasted in said fires, or cooked using other methods as part of recipes. Personally, I have used them for beef casseroles in the past, although haven’t yet got round to that this year! Drop me an email if you’d like the recipe! By contrast, the horse chestnut provide us with conkers, used by generations of children for conker fights. As this game may be quite specific to the UK and Ireland, and this Blog now has a growing following of overseas readers, I thought I had better give a bit more information about this.
In “Conkers” a hole is drilled in a large, hard horse chestnut – “conker” – using a nail, gimletor small screwdriver. A piece of string is threaded through it about 25 cm (10 inches) long and large knot at one or both ends of the string secures the conker.
- The game is played between two people, each with a conker. They take turns hitting each other’s conker using their own. One player lets the conker dangle on the full length of the string while the other player swings their conker and hits.
- Scoring: The conker eventually breaking the other’s conker gains a point. This may be either the attacking conker or (more often) the defending one. A new conker is a none-er meaning that it has conquered none yet. If a none-er breaks another none-er then it becomes a one-er, if it was a one-er then it becomes a two-er etc.
- In some regions the winning conker assimilates the previous score of the losing conker, as well as gaining the score from that particular game.Source: Adapted from Wikipedia entry “Conkers”
So, warmth, food and fun can currently all be had by taking advantage of what the Slopes currently have to offer…
And finally…. musical endnote
Music has long been an integral part of the efforts to raise awareness about the beauty and value of Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes as unspoilt shared green space. Informal playing and jamming have been an important feature of many picnics; Richard Navarro and Brendan Power’s version of “Big Yellow Taxi” focussing on the fields received attention in the local media, and a huge hit rate on youtube; and at the end of last year local acoustic group Roystercatchers helped raise funds for SCF by running a ceilidh
Roystercatchers are now running their own regular ceilidhs in Whitstable and Canterbury (click here to see one of the dances). I mention this here because the next one – at 7pm, saturday 23rd November, St Stephens church hall, Hales Drive, Canterbury – potentially may feature the first even public performance of a “Southern Slopes Song”. This has been written to pay homage to the beauty of the fields, and seeks to raise awareness of its threatened status. If you would like more information, to hear the song, and to join the ceilidh (no traditional dance experience required), simply email firstname.lastname@example.org. They’ll be pleased to answer your questions, and tickets (£6 each) can be reserved for you in advance (the capacity of the hall is modest, this is advised to avoid disappointment). If the song isn’t ready for this particular event, it’ll be performed at another roystercatchers event in the near future instead.
Chaucer Fields Picnic Society