The speaker was telling the viewers that she is kept awake by birds chattering all night long. She lives in a house that is near a huge industrial-size glasshouse that grows salad crops, somewhere in Brittany, France. The documentary, on Al-Jazeera, then moved to various nature experts and old people who were making observations about what 24 hours of light does to the natural cycles of many species, including mankind. It is the nonflickering piercing blue light that is the worst, apparently. The camera gave us a clear shot of the menacing light shooting up from the salad-growing glass-houses. The areas of dark skies, not blighted by such artificial lighting, have to be protected. In the UK, this is achieved by the regulation of “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” (AONB).
This week the consultation on the local AONB was published. There is an online survey form for responses with the closing date of 5 November for comments. There are 34 AONBs in England. Our local AONB is the High Weald area that spans Sussex and Kent, inside the surrounding arc of the chalk downs. Five percent of it is in Kent, mostly in the western districts of Ashford, making up 14% of the borough. A management plan is required every five years, and it is the principal legal tool for protecting “natural beauty”. The system of AONB classification started in 1983.
Natural beauty is carefully defined. It is not nature without human intrusion, like some of the remote forests or Arctic regions of a David Attenborough programme. The High Weald is a landscape that has been made by human settlement and activities.
The High Weald is an outstandingly beautiful landscape cherished by people and celebrated for its scenery, tranquillity and wildlife. Its ridges and valleys are clothed with an intricate mosaic of small fields interspersed with farmsteads and surrounded by hedges and abundant woods, all arranged around a network of historic routeways. One of the best surviving mediaeval landscapes.
As my childhood was spent in this landscape (at Benenden), I have special links to this area and had, in fact, already looked at the local plan which contributed to this amalgamated plan.
The area is characterised by small villages (less than 3,000 inhabitants) linked by winding roads with high hedges or overhanging trees. Many place names that end in -den show that this was a place in the oak forest (weald in Anglo-Saxon) where the pigs were sent in to rootle. The structures of past human occupation are all around: more than 3,500 historic farmsteads, 5,274 listed buildings, 57 medieval parish churches, and 64 village conservation areas. 98.3% of the households are in areas classified as rural. One of the main effects of the 1983 classification is that no large-scale developments have been allowed ever since. A structure like those glasshouses in Brittany would not have been allowed.
Dark skies is one of the important features of this AONB, with the Milky Way beautifully visible. This is possible because the villages do not have street lighting. If you want to visit a neighbour, you go with your torch. I now realise how privileged I was in childhood to get such frequent sightings of night-sky phenomena, such as Comet Bennet in December 1969–70, and the first satellite which we were thrilled to identify moving slowly over the horizon. The AONB report helpfully gives the key to different sorts of light pollution, including the Kelvin measures of blue light.
The natural darkness allows nocturnal animals to flourish, such as 17 out of 19 UK bat species are found in this AONB, and hedgehogs are more numerous.
The routes that connect the villages pre-date the car by many centuries. Wild flowers and birds flourish on the hedgerows and verges. But any straightening or widening would not now be permitted under AONB regulations. The deep lanes with sharp corners are in fact quite dangerous for cyclists and horses, because the drivers familiar with the routes go fast around the bends. My grandchildren get car-sick from the motion around the curves. There are some routes that have never been adopted or even tarmaced, old green driveways through the woods, or footpaths from the farms to the local church. As children we explored these old paths and lanes, and also the old boundary stones between villages, carefully placed even in thick woods, and often hard to find in the overgrowth. In those days of the poor laws, it could be a life or death matter which parish you belonged to, and which workhouse you could be sent to.
About one million people now live in this southeastern AONB. Why should they have the privilege of natural beauty, preserved from the unsightly density of new developments in the adjacent areas? I think you have to calculate the pros and cons. Yes, they have the tranquillity, the green countryside and the starry sky, but they also have to put up with poor internet connection, poor roads, possibly ancient listed houses that can’t be altered much, poor public transport (one bus a day, if that, in some villages), longer journeys to hospital or shopping centres and so on. Personally, I am glad that this area has been maintained as AONB for 40 years, even though I would find it hard to live in it now and be a car-dependent pensioner.