When I was 15 I lived in a council house on Goodwood Estate in Leicester. There I dreamed that one day I would live in an old house, by the side of a river, in the middle of nowhere. Now, 50 years later I live in such a place. It is in a hamlet called Spernall. It is so small that my Dad would have said, “if you blink you will miss it” It is one of “The Lost villages of England” which Beresford wrote about in the 1950s. The records say that the village was abandoned after a “pestilence” in the Middle Ages. The later Enclosures and the decline of gypsum quarrying were also factors in its demise. Today it is just a group of farm buildings with an abandoned church.
It is only famous by association. It is home to the Purity craft brewery, makers of the delightful Ubu, Mad Goose, and Bunny Hop. It borders the Coughton Court Estate, now owned by The National Trust. This was a stronghold of Catholicism in the 15th and 16th Century. It played a role in the Gunpowder Plot, when an oppressed and excluded minority tried to overthrow the King and the Government by blowing up the The House of Lords. “The only people to enter Parliament with good intentions” as my more radical friends would say.
Spernall is also the site of The Heart of England Forest. The vision of Felix Dennis who in his later life became known as “the planter of trees.” For those of you who remember the 1960s, Felix was once famous for something else. He was one of the three defendants in the Oz Trial. This was a cause celebre of its day, pitting the various elements of the underground movement against the might of the establishment. Oz was a magazine at the centre of a counter culture which brought together music, art and politics in a challenge to what was then seen as the forces of reaction. This challenge reached its peak in 1968, the year of student revolt in Europe and America. Ironically Felix went on to make his fortune in publishing as part of the establishment in the United States. A fortune which he eventually invested in planting a forest on my doorstep
Part of his dream was that the forest would be open to all. However on my walks recently I have noticed that the high fences that surround it to prevent deer from damaging the young trees are being made more secure to prevent access by people. Part of the enclosures are now restricted to the wealthy few who can afford to pay for the shooting rights. I see it as part of my duty to continue to walk the forest to open up the restricted areas just as the militant ramblers did in the 1930s when they “trespassed” in the Peak District.
During my walks I reflect that a similar thing is happening in social housing. In the post war years, social housing and council housing was created to provide homes for all. In recent years people on very low incomes have found it increasingly difficult to access these homes. They are being excluded and priced out of a tenure that had once provided them with a lifeline.
In the immediate aftermath of the war there was also a housing shortage. This gave rise to a squatting campaign to open up homes that were often owned by rich people and organisations. Many of the squatters had also taken part in the campaigns to open up the countryside. The shortage of homes and the subsequent outcry led to the housing boom of the 1950s when both governments recognised the benefits of investing in social housing for all.
History is full of examples of excluded people taking action. I believe that those who are excluded now from social housing and are suffering the worst effects of austerity will begin to take action and eventually the government will be forced to change its policies as it has done in the past.
Nothing is certain in life. But I fear that I will not live long enough to see the Heart of England Forest grow to full maturity. We plant tress for our children and our children’s children to enjoy. I hope by then they will have full access to its beauty. I believe that I will live long enough to see a time when social housing is again accessible to all. That is something all of our children should be able to enjoy in future whatever their status. I think it is something that is still worth fighting for. I hope you do too.