We met on 4 April at Wimblehurst (the name of H G Wells’s Tono Bungay town, Midhurst), at the grammar school where Wells was a pupil and later taught. Now it’s the South Downs National Park’s visitor centre. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the South Downs National Park. Owen Plunkett, the energetic Hampshire Rambler, has organised such an event every year. This was the first time he had held it in West Sussex rather than Hampshire.
The visitor centre is impressive, the authority has gathered a lot of information in a small space. Wells’s influence is still there.
The confirmation order and plan for the national park, both signed by the environment secretary Hilary Benn shortly before the last election, have pride of place.
The day began with a welcome from Margaret Paren, chairman of the national park authority, who was a leading figure in the South Downs Campaign. She told us of the park’s aim to produce a novel local plan based on ecosystem services, to develop a ‘shared identity for the park’ and for the park to become part of an International Dark Skies Reserve—amazingly, the skies are darker in parts of the park than they are in the Northumberland National Park.
I spoke as president of the Ramblers, congratulating the park on its five years of achievement, the culmination of a long campaign. It was lovely that 98-year-old Len Clark had joined us, travelling from his home in Godalming on the number 70 bus. Len was present at the second reading of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill in 1949 and campaigned doggedly for the South Downs National Park.
I said that we mustn’t be complacent. The national park is close to many population centres which is both a problem and an opportunity. There are numerous pressures for development close to its boundaries, threatening its grand landscape and its dark skies, and it is a vital place for refreshment and reinvigoration, especially for urban dwellers.
We need more open spacces on the downland, to join the scattered, disjointed mapped areas many of which are inaccessible. The South Downs Society is doing a splendid job devising walks which take in access land and link up the sites. You can find these on the society’s website.
It is essential that the next government recognises that to put money into national parks is an investment, because they provide clean water and clean air, and health and happiness. The Campaign for National Parks’s Stop the Cuts campaign is aimed at ensuring that our national parks are properly valued.
Jasper and George Stride led us on a seven-mile circuit from Midhurst. We took in part of the Cowdray estate with its lovely old trees.
Then it was back to the centre to drink a toast to the national park.
For many months during the campaign we were threatened with a ‘chalk only’ national park, excluding the greensand of the Western Weald. Our walk from Midhurst showed why it was so important to embrace this lovely area within the park boundary.