Drama and reality on the land
This country church, high on a hill-top in Worcestershire, England, has had a long connection with The Archers, the world’s longest-running radio drama. Back in 1951 the carol service in the show’s fictional St Stephen’s Church was recorded here. Then at Easter, 1955, an even bigger event took place – the wedding of young Philip Archer and Grace Fairbrother. It was a marriage destined to end in tragedy. Grace was killed trying to rescue her horse from a stable fire.
On the day of the big wedding more than 500 Archers fans packed the pews in this lovely, 13th century church. Outside the lane was so blocked with cars, the BBC’s outside broadcast vehicle couldn’t reach the venue. The real-life parish rector had to call out the registration numbers of cars that needed to be moved before the recording – and the wedding – could take place.
These days things are a little quieter. There were no crowds on the day I walked up to the church. No vehicles passed me in the tree-lined lane. After its brief frenzied moment under the nation’s gaze, this quiet corner of England had returned to its usual slumber. Even so, the steep climb in the summer sun turned out to be worthwhile. Built of handsome, red sandstone, the church of St Mary the Virgin, Hanbury is a beautiful place occupying a dramatic position overlooking the Worcestershire countryside.
From the church gate I took the path through the churchyard with its lichen-covered gravestones. While some of the grassy areas had been mown, most had been allowed to grow tall and lank, presumably to encourage wildlife. Bees and butterflies flickered among the grass seed-heads. A large, tiger-striped Cinnabar moth caterpillar chewed on a ragwort plant.
At the edge of the churchyard a grassy bank dropped steeply away to the south, providing a spectacular view across Archers country. The Ordnance Survey map told me I was looking across Worcestershire towards Evesham and the River Avon, with the distant Cotswold Hills to the south-east and the distinctive spine of the Malverns to the south-west.
This was what the map said but I knew the truth. I was in the county of Borsetshire, location of Ambridge, Penny Hassett, Loxley Barrett, Darrington and a host of other villages whose names were known only to Radio Four listeners. Seen from the churchyard, it was a land of gentle hillsides, fields and hedges, copses and slow, meandering waterways. Among them were a scattering of farmhouses and cottages, many black-and-white timbered or of mellow red brick.
In the July sunshine it was easy to imagine this landscape hadn’t changed in ages. When butcher’s boy Godfrey Baseley cycled across it delivering his dad’s meat, most of the houses and cottages were occupied by farming families. This was overwhelmingly a landscape of small, family farms. They’d created a mosaic of small fields, hedges, orchards, meadows and pastures, plentifully stocked with cattle and sheep. And teeming with wildlife.
When the war came Baseley again travelled the countryside, this time making farming programmes for his new employers, the BBC. Soon he would be working on the new rural drama series that would take the nation by storm. His inspiration was the south Worcestershire he knew so well, a land of thriving village communities. But even as he planned his new drama, the centuries-old farming pattern was beginning to unravel.
The politicians were about to embark on a US-inspired experiment in food production. It would end the traditional practice of ecological farming based on natural soil processes. Evolution had refined a solar-powered system by which energy-rich products of photosynthesis were transferred to soil organisms through plant roots. Carbon had been the currency that supported food production, wildlife, our classic English landscapes and village communities.
Now fossil energy in the form of nitrate fertilisers was to be injected into this sustainable system. Soluble nitrogen salts, not carbon, were to be the new, dominant currency. The rules of biology would no longer apply. From now on farms would be run like factories. They would become large, mechanised and specialist, with cereals grown in prairie-style fields, chickens trapped in cages, pigs and sometimes cattle shut up in sheds.
Over the decades gas-powered industrial farming has given us a surplus of starch and a lot of cheap protein. But it’s also robbed us of real food and a good deal of our wildlife. It’s taken away our food security, added to climate disruption and destroyed much glorious countryside. Maybe not such a great deal!
Today western agriculture is run principally for the benefit of the fossil fuel and biotech industries. It’s they, not farmers, who’ve profited most from the billions spent on public subsidies.
Looking out on Archers country from that beautiful, hill-top churchyard it would be easy to conclude that all was well in rural Britain. Yet in reality the future looks bleak. For all the chatter about re-wilding, little has changed on the two-thirds or so of our land that’s occupied by farms. Much of it remains under chemical attack.
The latest data from France on the widely-used weedkiller glyphosate – formerly marketed as Roundup – is a reminder of the control the pesticide industry has on our food. The new study shows that no less than 99 percent of the French population are contaminated with the toxic chemical. Things aren’t likely to be any better in Britain or the US.
Looking down from that hill-top churchyard I reflected on how badly we’d messed up our planet. This gently-rolling countryside could be a paradise of healthy food, abundant wildlife, clear water and beautiful landscapes. But we’re rapidly turning it into a wasteland where even our food is toxic. All in the interests of corporate profits and shareholder value.
In my time as a writer on The Archers I did my best to show there was a better way of farming this land. I had Adam sow his flowery ‘herbal leys’, providing nectar for pollinators, enriching the soil, boosting insect populations and supplying nutrient-dense feed for cattle and sheep. I had young Ed Grundy discover a way to make a living – not from factory farming – but from a small-scale dairy herd where the milk was sold direct to local people.
It was my way of showing in a low-key way, there was a better, kinder way of farming our land. It remains there for the taking if only we would wake up to the damage we’re doing to the earth.
No doubt there are many Archers fans who’d be happy if farming never got a mention in the drama. It’s the stories of human emotions that matter to them – the loves, hates, jealousies and conflicts that characterise community life. But I’d argue that farming needs to remain at the heart of the show just as it’s always been. It’s a reminder of who we are and how we can live better on this planet.