I got an email invitation to a walk a while back that pointed out the surprisingly rural nature of some land within two miles of Newbury, ‘inside the bypass’. It is indeed one of the most pleasant surprises about the immediate environs of our town, that between the busy A34 and the built-up area a slice of relatively ‘rough’ countryside persists undeveloped. It has issues, like anywhere – some of the sheep grazing is a little heavy for my liking, and a large block of mostly alder and willow was felled last summer in the name of combatting ash dieback, opening unwelcome new sight and sound lines to the speeding traffic. But overall, it is wonderful to have an accessible slice of countryside right on the doorstep of town, with a well-marked circular walk that is studded with display boards offering information on local history. It’s perfect for a muddy tramp with friends in the winter or for seeking out interesting insects that nectar on hogweed among the swampy blocks of woodland in the summer.
The Newbury bypass route was, of course, the scene of famous environmental protests in the 1990s, which I remember watching on TV as a child, along with those at Twyford down near Winchester, not all that far from our home village. I often wonder what it would have been like to live in West Newbury without the bypass, whether we’d notice the reduced road noise, if the predicted traffic apocalypse in central Newbury would ever really have happened, or if the bypass might in a strange way actually have saved this part of town from further development by reducing the value of the land. In a neat twist of history, much of the hardcore for the bypass was recycled from the Greenham Common runway, thereby weaving our town’s two famous protests into one story.
Most of us live inside the bypass – or motorway or ring road – in the UK. Perhaps we don’t think deeply enough about how all-pervasive the impacts of roads are. Our lifestyle and infrastructure planning (or lack thereof) make us dependent on cars, much to the detriment of the climate, air quality, wildlife and beauty of the countryside. I am grateful that we live in lovely West Newbury – life can be very good here – but it seems not before time to radically reconsider our relationship with the car, starting with not approving any more unnecessary bypasses or expressways to nowhere. Yes, I own a car and sometimes drive it along that infamous stretch of tarmac. Personal vehicles are going to be an essential for the field ecologist for some time to come, and for plenty of other professions too, certainly for anybody who lives outside of major towns and cities (rural bus services remain pitiful to non-existent). Fundamentally, it comes down to convenience and money, however green we may think ourselves*. We need the right nudges from government and preferably some radical action; unfortunately, our current political leaders are either too preoccupied with other matters or literally driving in the wrong direction.
*I recently researched a trip to York in mid-March for which our options are return train tickets for at least £175 or driving for £70 petrol (plus an appropriate portion of our car’s running costs). If you are starting from a position of owning a car, those economics rarely work out in favour of long-distance rail travel, though for comfort it would be my preference over driving.