Quiet is not the same as silence, it is much more nuanced. Silence is an absence of sound, a void. It is alien and unsettling. Quiet is the distant, gentle, reassuring sounds of the world. Distant laughter, birdsong, the swish of grass. Sounds that comfort, rather than intrude. Quiet is a space that allows the soul to unfold and be its true shape.
St Mary’s Church in Binsted occupies that kind of quiet. It has stood there for 800 years, a gentle stone structure that looks out onto fields and woods in all directions. In the churchyard, ancient gravestones have been scrubbed of their inscriptions by centuries of lichen and frost. Promises of eternal remembrance were forgotten generations ago.
Besides the church, a footpath runs through a field and down into a valley. Now, in high summer, it is a temperate jungle of trees, flowers, greenery and grasses. A dragonfly will be a companion for your stroll, just wait for one to come along.
It is the intention of Highways England to shatter this sacred quiet forever. The proposed Grey Route for the Arundel Bypass is planned to pass 100 metres from the church, elevated on a concrete viaduct above the lush wetland valley. This construction project will cost £455 million (at least) and save up to 11 minutes from the journey across Arundel. The local MP, Andrew Griffith (Conservative) said that he was “disappointed” in the choice of route but would not oppose it as this was “progress”.
This is a familiar response. The old, natural and traditional are swept away in the name of progress, the underlying assumption being that progress is better than what proceeded it. But increasingly, we see that this is not necessarily true.
Roads and the vehicle traffic they carry are an aspect of modernity that looks more and more like an insatiable monster. Vehicles promise freedom, but too many vehicles is the exact opposite. More and bigger roads are demanded to restore the freedom to move which in turn attracts more vehicles. The road network becomes a cancer that covers the land with the deadening shrouds of tarmac and noise. Try an experiment. Walk along a busy road that you would normally drive along and experience how noisy it is. Then move away from the road until you cannot hear it. You will need to go a considerable distance. In a built-up area, you will probably encounter the noise of a second road before you lose the noise of the first.
Once land is made into a road, it is crushed. The life of the soil is taken away it becomes inert, no longer a source of life, rather a source of noise, particle pollution and noxious emissions. It then contributes to the global crisis of pollution and emissions, the global crisis that threatens humanity with a hot, violent, unstable future.
The idea that this quiet, beautiful, abundant corner of Sussex should be subjected to this devastation is obscene. It is also completely unnecessary. Arundel already has a bypass, the A27 runs south of the town through open land. The Grey Route is to relieve the current road. Highways England claims that the new road will save up to 11minutes from the journey east to west past Arundel. 11 minutes. The centuries-old sacred calm of St Mary’s church will be destroyed forever so a driver can save the time it takes to have a shower and get dressed. A rare chalk stream, an ecological rarity, will be pierced by concrete columns so that a driver can save the time to make a sandwich and a cup of coffee. A peaceful, unspoilt area will be ruined forever so that a driver can listen to two songs fewer on the radio. 11 minutes.
If this is progress, we should perhaps question the whole narrative of progress. Do we need faster, cheaper, bigger? Can we have infinite economic growth? Can we go on like this? More and more people are saying, no, no, no to these questions. We need to step back, slow down and pay more attention to our own souls and the beautiful planet which nurtures us.
In November this year, Britain hosts the major environmental conference COP26. As always, all eyes will be on the host nation to set the tone for the negotiations. Sadly, Britain is building a new coal mine, licencing new oil exploration and has a £27 billion road-building budget (enough for 54 Grey Routes). That is setting a tone that is utterly deaf to the suffering already happening across the world. It is no example for the rest of the world to follow. No doubt, the commitment to net-zero by 2050 will be earnestly restated, but how can that be achieved when all the activities that caused the climate crisis are still going on?
A good outcome from COP26 will not be targets, it will be immediate action. Cancel the oil exploration, cancel airport expansion, cancel the new coal mine, cancel the Silvertown Tunnel, cancel the road-building programme, cancel the Grey Route. Stop doing the things that make the crisis worse, and do it now.
Stop the relentless march of “progress”, turn off the bulldozer and put down the spade. Forget about building a road through a haven of wildlife. We don’t need more concrete, tarmac, carbon dioxide and noise, or to save 11 minutes when driving from Worthing to Chichester. Sit down in the long grass by the footpath and admire the tiny wildflowers that look so frail yet thrived in the recent summer rain. Think about what we have and what we stand to lose.
The local MP’s idea of “progress” is pushing us into a brutal, dystopian but not inevitable future. There is still time to reject concrete and choose life.