Background: The origins of the Chaucer Fields Picnic Society

In the summer of 2011, Chaucer Fielder, a local resident committed to the preservation of Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes for the benefit of all, and keen to foster respect for this area’s environment and heritage, got together with other local people  to hold an impromptu picnic on the fields. In so doing, we were following decades of local custom and practice, when local people have simply gone up to the fields to ‘hang out’, allow their children fresh air to breathe and space to safely play, and contemplate the views and the setting. However, this particular gathering was a bit different too. It was  also a ‘picnic with a purpose’, in the sense that we wished to raise awareness of the character of this place, the opportunities in provides as a beautiful unspoilt area, and the sensibilities it fosters amongst those who know and love it across Canterbury, Kent and beyond. So some material about the occasion was sent to local newspapers to publicise our enjoyment of, and commitment to, this remarkable place, and to welcome more people to share it with us – whether they live nearby, work and study at the University, or be visiting from further afield. The emboldened text that follows below is a slightly edited version of what was sent to the newspapers (and part published in one).

What could be more evocative of a Kent summer than families and friends coming together at the weekend to picnic in a beautiful setting surrounded by oak and apple trees, hedgerows and wildlife? The picture here shows a group of local Canterbury people doing just this. At one level this is very ordinary, and was happening across the District as people came out to enjoy the weather get fresh air. But appearances can be deceptive: What was extraordinary about this particular gathering was that it had a purpose: to send a message from local people to University bosses and Council decision makers that the ability to enjoy our green space is fundamental to the Kentish way of life. It was also extraordinary because of the heritage value of the setting.

This picnic was taking place on Chaucer Fields, a place on the Southern Slopes of the Stour valley between the University of Kent and the City, a unique place rich in history. Just 150 metres or so north of the picnickers stands the fifteenth century Wealden Beverley farmhouse, at the centre of a remarkable medieval field patchwork stuctured by hedgerows, and with breathtaking views of the Cathedral, Westgate Towers, St Dunstan’s church and now the new Marlowe Theatre. The picnic was not formally organised, but was suggested as a good way of making a point about the value people attach this this place as it is – a wonderful unspoilt semi-natural place epitomising what makes Canterbury and Kent such a special place to live – and all on the doorstep of people otherwise relatively deprived of open space. Local people shared stories, gossip and food, and played tunes; children played in the fields, climbed trees, and played rounders.

A local resident said: “the idea for the picnic emerged more or less spontaneously from people exchanging emails expressing their disbelief that the destruction of this place – to be lost forever to make space for  a profit-maximising hotel, soulless conference centre and ugly student accommodation blocs  – is being considered, let alone taken seriously. The community picnic idea all happened quickly, and given the busy lives people lead these days, it is amazing that we had around 50 adults and 20 or more kids over a three hour period willing to come together at really short notice to do this.  But its just the tip of an iceberg – we’ve seen hundreds of objection letters to the Council and hugely critical responses to the University’s own consultation. An enormous petition bears out that this is an issue for people way beyond Canterbury, not just people who live close by. The community is speaking with one voice and saying : “Don’t do it here!”

There may be a case for further development, the resident suggested, but he added “it is no accident that local people and expert opinion agree it can and should proceed elsewhere. The Save Chaucer Fields campaign has done an excellent job in expressing that view on behalf of local residents’ associations, but this perspective goes way beyond any one group. The Canterbury Conservation Advisory Committee, comprised of experts from across the District, takes this view; the Canterbury Society, for the city as a whole, concurs; as do Kent Wildlife Trust, the English Hedgerow Trust, PROTECT Kent (CPRE in Kent) and many other voluntary organisations.

So, it is important to stress this is not just another ‘nimby’ campaign. The reason all these different people and groups are saying ‘think again’ is because environmental, heritage, economic and social considerations are all pointing in the same direction: proceeding in spite of this tide of opinion and evidence would be a foolhardy gamble and a massive mistake, whose cost will be borne by future generations.

If you would like to participate in picnics on Chaucer Fields or the Southern Slopes more broadly in the weeks ahead, please email chaucerfieldspicnicsociety@gmail.com. Local people, visitors, University staff and students can get in touch – all are welcome.

Once this successful gathering had dispersed, we decided to keep in touch, and plan further gatherings for the future. Hence the idea of a ‘Chaucer Fields Picnic Society’. The CFPS Blog that has been inspired by this occasion is an attempt by Chaucer Fielder to build on the remarkable good will, sense of community, and respect for this wonderful place that was so evident on that sublime Kentish summer’s day.

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