RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Hint of magic in sceptred isle walked by Keats

Nature trails - The view from the top of Kingley Vale, 1850
Nature trails - The view from the top of Kingley Vale, 1850

There are proposals to expand Chichester into suburbia on its western flank at Whitehouse Farm.

Who am I to object? All I know is my 40 years of feeling, on escape from traffic, into that lung beyond the railway bridge.Countryside! So close to our cathedral spire, our Roman walls, our Georgian houses, our compact and friendly city, our history, our home!

Cross that bridge on Centurion Way and you are in the woods and fields, the coppice chestnuts of Fairyhill, the type of quintessential England that inspired Elgar and produced his Cello Concerto for the world at Brinkwell near Fittleworth.

The city is lovely, its surrounds are lovely. One sets the other like figures in a Gainsborough landscape. One of my treasured memories of over 40 years ago is walking the road past Whitehouse Farm with Bernard Price – “Mr Chichester” as he became known with his chronicles of times past and time present, his broadcasts and his books, his search for the perfections of this world.

He grieved for the spoiling of our historic buildings at the city cross, the obliteration of the meadows under what is now the industrial site on the south-west side. This for him had been as timeless as the haunts of Richard Jefferies.

We crossed the bridge and came into the fields. There was a small pond on the right just before East Broyle Copse. We slipped through the hedge and walked towards it. A snipe rose and zig-zagged up into the sky.

“Magic,” said Bernard, ‘“and so close to the city! Where else can you get both so close together?’ Later in the year we explored the copse again. Bluebells were out, nightingales were “in full throated ease”. “A draught of the warm south” stole in from the harbour below. Keats had walked this way a century-and-a-half before, as we reminded each other, his presence felt.

Forty years on, another jewel dropped casually onto this quiet place. A butterfly so rare as to be almost unknown on our “sceptred isle”.

The Queen of Spain Fritillary arrived. She saw the fields and hedges, the sheltering trees and glades and left her own indelible memory for us to think about. This butterfly, almost unknown to Britain, had selected Chichester’s close countryside to start a family. It was again a little hint of magic.

Do Cicestrians care about this green space? Just walk to the top of Kingley Vale and look south to the sea and the cathedral spire rising from its green surrounds, like Excalibur rising from the green waters of a lake.

It was described as “the finest view in Britain” by Sir Arthur Tansley of The Royal Society. In 1947 he began the business of conservation for the nation and on into the world after seeing the view of Chichester set out below in its emerald land.

Cathedral cities are exceptional places everywhere, especially when set in the countryside. They are revered worldwide. Flowers, fields, and the rural ways set them apart. They must not be allowed to be choked to death.

This is too precious a place to sully. The picture shows the view south to Chichester from Kingley Vale as painted in 1850, 160 years ago. There have already been some encroachments on the scene. What will that view be like in the future?