By Hunt, Tristram
History Today , Vol. 56, No. 7
IN 1933, THE BRADFORD born author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley set out upon his 'English Journey'. Leaving London along the Great Western Road, Priestley was transfixed by the never-ending sprawl of light industry, suburban housing, advertisement hoardings and traffic. Here was an England he had never experienced before:
This is the England of arterial and bypass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches ... and everything given away for cigarette coupons.
Its birthplace, he felt, must have been America. 'We might suddenly have rolled into California.'
Those who have experienced modern America can instantly sympathize with the sentiment. For a journey through today's Texas, Florida, or California is a journey through similar exurban excess: town and country merging imperceptibly into an endless conveyor belt of consumerism. It was a determination to avoid this spectre that eighty years ago on December 7th, 1926, led a band of planning pioneers led by Patrick Abercrombie, President of the Town Planning Institute and Guy Dawber, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to establish the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE). And by the time of Priestley's journey, CPRE had already started to demand development codes, national parks, regulation of advertising and reforms to architectural design.
The interwar years saw some of the greatest land use changes to the English countryside since enclosure in the eighteenth century. They witnessed a seismic cultural and political retreat from the dense urban ethos of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the garden city and suburb movement, politicians and planners were unleashing the city onto the country.
The 1909 Town Planning Act had signalled the shift from urban to suburban living. It was followed by an influential polemic from architect Raymond Unwin, Nothing Gained by Overcrowding (1912), which passionately made the case for low-density, green spaced garden suburbs. New homes for First World War heroes adhered to the suburban mould and were then followed up by private developers exploiting strong housing demand on the back of historically low interest rates. The result was an avalanche of concrete across the countryside. During the 1920s and 1930s, an average of 300,000 houses were built every year with 1936 seeing a peak of 350,000. Overall, the interwar years saw 4 million new houses go up, consuming some 60,000 acres of rural land a year.
With them arrived modern car culture. Between 1924 and 1936 the price of the car fell by 50 per cent and production increased by 500 per cent. Previous geographical limitations on the growth of cities melted away as the car followed the tube, tram and train in prising open the suburbs of suburbia. Accompanying the car were roads, filling stations, pollution and noise. As Kenneth Grahame so memorably recounted it in The Wind in the Willows (1908), the stoats and weasels of modern suburbia were destroying the romanticized England of his childhood--all on the back of Toad's motor car.
But at the same time as the urban tentacles were spreading, there arose a remarkable surge of interest in the English countryside and its meaning. This was the age of Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, of H.V. Morton and the search for England. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin could announce to universal acclamation that, 'To me England is the country and the country is England.' Meanwhile, cycling, rambling, even folk culture enjoyed an unprecedented vogue amongst the broad middle class. By the mid-1930s, some 100,000 men and women were regularly hiking across the British landscape. According to one recent history, 'Never before had the pull of nature been more popular than in the interwar years. …