Stanley Johnson visited Crowcombe last week, as guest of honour at a Friends of Quantock party to celebrate their newly-acquired status as owners of part of the Quantock Hills. They bought the 400 acres of Custom Common and Thorncombe Hill from Somerset County Council who wanted to divest themselves of various assets. Locals and visitors can go on enjoying the Quantocks for generations to come. The hills were designated the first AONB in England.
Lady Gass, Lord Lietenant of Somerset and President of the charity, introduced Stanley, who is a lifelong conservationist and author, and is passionate about caring for endangered land and species. He is chairman of the Gorilla Organision, helped write the EU’s Species and Habitats Directive and has been on the Countryside Commission. Brought up on Exmoor and living in London, Stanley appreciates the space and calm of open countryside like the Quantocks. He was insistent he should walk the land beforehand and high above Crowcombe, on a grey and windy afternooon, exclaimed, “This is marvellous! The view from here is absolutely wonderful!”
Speaking to about 100 guests, Stanley talked about his wide travels. He confessed that although he had driven across the Quantocks many times from the M5 to Exmoor, he had never stopped before. He chuckled, “The Quantocks are to Exmoor what Quito is to the Galapogos Islands – on the way – but really worth a visit!” He commented on the obligations of land ownership, and the costs which SCC had wanted to avoid. Although the Friends of Quantock paid only a ‘peppercorn’ £2 for the land, they will need up to £5,000 a year to maintain it, with necessary work to car parks, footpaths and trees. Stanley went on, “It is so important to preserve the AONBs and the National Parks. The Friends of Quantocks must be doing government a favour.”
Andy Harris, ranger with the AONB for many years, spoke of some of his encounters with endangered species on the hills. A first sighting of the brimstone butterfly had recently reminded him of a previous occasion when a herd of 21 red deer appeared. “The children have been playing at tracking deer all the holidays; that’s a sight they will remember for the rest of their lives.” He told the audience about the rare pied flycatcher which arrives in the spring, nesting boxes on Over Stowey Custom Common and the importance of wildlife surveys to aid understanding of the effect of changes in climate.
Thorncombe Hill is a stronghold for skylarks too. Out on the hill Stanley had looked up at an insistently trilling skylark being tossed in the gusts and said “Isn’t that wonderful! I’m so glad I can hear that!”
Taking out a volume of Coleridge’s biography, he quoted a piece from the 1790s about a skylark heard on the Quantocks. Stanley concluded, “The hills have not changed for hundreds of years. Countryside like this is vital to the well-being and enjoyment of us all. What the Friends of Quantock have done must be pretty much a first. They have done us all a favour and they are to be congratulated. Well done to the Chairman and all of them for their hard work.”
Chairman Alan Hughes thanked Stanley for coming and asked people to join the charity as an individual or a business member for from the small sum of £12 or £20 respectively. “We need as many members as possible to help us to maintain the land, but also to show that we have support so that we can approach other funding from grants and trusts.”
See www.friendsofquantock.com for a membership form and advantages of becoming a member, or contact the Secretary on 01984 656633.
Stanley Johnson’s latest book on his conservation travels is called Where the Wild Things Were.