I’ve often wondered why ours is the first generation to need so many signs, explanations, labels, interpretation boards and notices wherever we go. If one sign appears, several more follow in their wake. They seem to breed like rabbits. There is a roundabout on the way to Stow on the Wold which has 53 different signs jostling for attention on its approach roads. Twenty years ago there were 12. As a result of research during their ongoing anti-rural clutter campaigns, The Council for the Preservation of Rural England in conjunction with the RAC Foundation found that around seventy percent of road signs in the countryside may be unnecessary and that by removing them, road users are more likely to take notice of the important signs that remain. the brown signs annoy me. Those promoting “Historic” towns for instance, as though they are superior to other towns. Every town in the country is historic, including Milton Keynes and Poundbury. The description is meaningless.  Then there’s the enormous brown sign which appeared on the A34 heralding “The Ridgeway”. It’s the oldest road in Europe and hundreds of generations of our forbears have had no trouble in finding it whatsoever. Yet this generation needs to be told where it is by some bossy committee who have decided to label the Ridgeway after 250,000 years of its existence.

The “Heritage” and “Environment” industries have a lot to answer for. Though much of their signage is discreet and fitting, particularly that of the National Trust and English Heritage, a lot isn’t and I have often found trails of visual clutter in insensitive places. There is a presumption that everyone who visits anywhere should or needs to have endless explanations/interpretations.  Sometimes this can be patronizing. For me the whole point of the Ridgeway, for instance, is its loneliness – the sense of history unfurling along it is almost tangible, as are the ghosts of fellow  travellers from  past millennia. The plethora of notices and signs  at Ridgeway crossings detract from  all that. Too much information can diminish the romance of a place and leave nothing to the mind’s eye. The Uffington White Horse has captured man’s imagination for thousands of years – that’s the moving thing about it. It’s a place of tradition, memory and myth and nobody really knows why it’s there. But ours seems to be the generation which demands explanations and certainties right then and there when we might be standing looking at a breath-taking view.

betjeman parkThere is a lovely, small wooded park in the middle of Wantage that an enterprising group of locals saved from development over a dozen years: a green lung in the heart of town.  It is named after my dad and runs beside the Letcombe Brook and the footpath where we used to walk to church together. There are circles of sarsen stones, winding ways, log benches and carefully chosen lines of my dad’s poems, relevant to the area, which have been beautifully carved on winding ribbons of stone or on uprights by the sculptor and letterer Alec Peever. The Betjeman Millennium Park is a fitting tribute to one of Wantage’s famous sons.  Suddenly three clomping great eight foot high, vandal-proof, laminated, double-sided “education” boards have appeared in prime spots through the park and completely dominate the landscape around them. “Interpretation” consultancy is a new and thriving business which the HLF seems happy to fund even though the result has completely demeaned the moving elegance of the carved poems and negated the peace of the park. As well-intentioned as the collages of my dad’s life and work are they do not belong here. (Neither do photos of what you might find in the park, like daffodils: can schoolchildren really not see daffodils growing in the grass for themselves?) The nearby Vale and Downland Museum is the perfect place to tell the story of my dad. He loved Wantage and would be happy with that.




Ridgeway sign: Wikimedia Commons / Phillip Halling

Sculpture in Betjeman Park, Wantage: Steve Gamage


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