The countryside certainly came into its own during the past year and as with every cloud there is a silver lining, which for us was an increase in membership. A number of people wrote to tell us that they had ‘discovered’ the Forster Country during lockdown and of course last April, the area was looking its best. Thanks to the glorious sunny weather there were any quantity of celandines, primroses and violets in the churchyard, cowslips, stitchwort and bluebells blooming along the pathways and blackthorn, cherry and hawthorn producing frothy clouds of white blossoms in the hedgerows. The Avenue too was a delight with white chestnut candles scenting the air and slowly falling like confetti.
Suddenly people were everywhere. In place of the usual runners, pedestrians and dog walkers, crowds descended and it felt that a fairly quiet byway had turned into a motorway. Families with young children, pushchairs and dogs, runners, cyclists, horse riders, young and old, fit and not quite so fit… everyone wanted to be out in the fresh air. I lost track of the number of people I chatted to who told me they had no idea that such a treasure lay on their doorstep.
As the footfall increased, so the pathways widened as people tried to observe the two metre rule. Others abandoned the designated footpaths and created their own routes, walking along field edges and down farm tracks, stopping for a picnic on occasions, enjoying the wonderful view across to the Chilterns and listening to the song of the skylarks and the mewing of kites and buzzards.
Spring turned to summer, dog roses appeared in the hedges and spindle trees, with their tiny flowers, lined the route out towards Chesfield Lodge and Back Lane, the road which descends to Graveley past the chalk pit. By this time some restrictions had been lifted, however there were still people in evidence everywhere. Some of our committee members did a head count at the churchyard kissing gate and recorded between 100 and 150 people using the area each day.
Since our last Newsletter of October 2020, we have had to digest the sad news that the Outline Planning Application to build on Forster Country was passed on 8th December 2020 by the SBC Planning Committee. Voting was seven ‘for’, five ‘against’ and one ‘abstain’. Our efforts to persuade planning councillors to vote against this application did not succeed although we feel that our views were heeded and there was at least an abstention.
We considered the overriding requirements of Government and sitting under that the Stevenage Local Plan which was passed by the Inspector in 2017 and finally formally adopted in 2019. The Chairman of the Planning Committee emphasised the primacy of this Local Plan and we regard that emphasis as fair. We believe that such emphasis would have weighed with the planning councillors.
We were disappointed that the Chairman of the Planning Committee had not been bold enough to institute a planning meeting to consider the current validity of the Local Plan bearing in mind the huge decrease in housing requirements for Stevenage predicted by the Office for National Statistics whose work had formed the basis for the Local Plan in the first place. SBC argued against this on the basis that a plan finally passed only in 2019 should not come up for reconsideration only a year later.
We are sad to announce the death on the afternoon of Monday 8th March 2021 of Margaret Ashby, co-founder along with John Hepworth of the Friends of the Forster Country. Margaret was born locally and spent all her life in Stevenage, at ‘Flaunden’ – No 10 Pound Avenue. She was heavily involved in education and was for a time Head of Learning Resources at Hertford Regional College.
Margaret worked tirelessly to defend Forster Country applying her diplomatic skills to the task over a period of more than 30 years. She emphasised the beauty of the Forster countryside with its views of the Chiltern Hills some 8 miles distant. These views would have been those loved by E M Forster on his wanderings as a child and adolescent to Graveley or Weston. He described this countryside as the loveliest in England.
She was hugely knowledgeable about the life of E M Forster who lived at Rooks Nest House between 1883 and 1893, overlooking what we now call Forster Country. She understood his realisation about the unjust nature of class in our society. She was instrumental in the purchase and placement of the “Only Connect” monument in St Nicholas Churchyard at the very edge of Forster Country. Forster used this to mean connection between the head and the heart, the cerebral and the passionate and Margaret followed this mantra always retaining a balance between clear logic and a sympathy for people’s feelings.