Laurie Lee's 'tangled woods and sprawling fields' at risk from Cotswold homes plan

Dan Glaister, who lives in the Slad Valley, finds surrealism and scepticism at the inquiry that could seal the Cider with Rosie land's fate

The elderly man made sure I was paying attention, fixing me with one eye, with his back bent to the sky. "There was a time," he said, "anything like this happened, Laurie would write a letter to the Times and it would all disappear." The words felt a little like an admonition.

Laurie was Laurie Lee, who wrote Cider with Rosie, his memoir of a prewar childhood in the Slad Valley, a modern classic that has been in print since its publication in 1959.

Seventeen years after his death, however, and a month from the centenary of his birth, the threat that Lee would make disappear is on the brink of permanently changing the landscape he so treasured. Gladman Developments, which specialises in finding edge of town greenfield sites, buying them, obtaining planning permission and then selling them on to builders, has come to one of the most idyllic spots in England with a plan to build houses where there are now fields, and to create an artificial park where there is now natural woodland.

I moved to the Slad Valley three years ago, enchanted by the sweep of its landscape, the fall of the light through the woods in the summer, seduced by the myth and memory of the place, the sense that I was stepping back in time. Two miles from Slad, where I live, is the market town of Stroud, the two separated by a sliver of green, like a finger pointing from the wilds of the countryside to the heart of the town. It is along this strip of land, bordering the Cotswold area of outstanding natural beauty, that Gladman wants to build 112 homes. And a park. The only thing the plan lacks is concrete cows.

Last week the application went to a public inquiry after its rejection by Stroud district council. Gladman appealed, as it usually does, and so we found ourselves, 50 or 60 local people, a cauldron of lawyers and the representatives of two pressure groups, sitting in the ballroom of Stroud's Subscription Rooms.

"I'd like to speak on behalf of the land, sir," said one participant.

The inspector looked nonplussed.

"You're a landowner?"

"No, sir, I wish to speak on behalf of the land as a spiritual body."

The inspector granted the applicant his wish and the next day, clad in a long blue cloak, a leafy branch poking out of his top pocket, the man – "people call me JJ" – addressed the inquiry.

It was not to be the most surreal moment of the day. That came when the barrister representing the developers engaged in some light literary criticism in an attempt to diminish the significance given to the landscape because of its association with Lee.

"The long hills slavered like Chinese dragons, crimson in the setting sun," he intoned, summoning all the passion of someone reciting the court circular rather than the climax to Cider with Rosie. "The shifting lane lassoed my feet and tried to trip me up."

He shuffled his papers and glared around him. "The concern," he said, "is that it is rather easy to make references and allusions to Laurie Lee and what he wrote, but more difficult to relate it to the appeal site."

The inspector sat in his chair fiddling with his pen and staring into space. He was not there, it seemed, to discuss literature.

"The planning system tries to breed the emotion out of you and make you focus on the policy," Phil Skill, head of planning at Stroud district council, told me. "Heritage and culture is about the soul. The first thing Gladman did when Laurie Lee's name came up was to ask us where it was on our local plan." The absence of a complete local plan is what is driving much of the frenetic activity of developers such as Gladman.

The government's simplification of the planning process, coupled with the largely unfulfilled requirement that councils draw up a five-year housing land supply, has created an opportunity for developers.

Gladman, according to its website, has 54 applications for residential developments on greenfield sites in England, from Great Ayton in William Hague's North Yorkshire constituency to Bampton, the setting for TV drama Downton Abbey, in the Oxfordshire constituency of David Cameron.

"We don't think the benefit of 112 homes is worth the sacrifice of this site," said Skill. "If we fail the Slad Valley it's almost open season. If we lose this one, where is the Rubicon?"

The poet Adam Horovitz, whose own memoir of growing up in Slad 60 years after Lee, A Thousand Laurie Lees, is published on 2 June, argues that the importance of the valley is more than can simply be seen.

"The landscape is one that stretches beyond what you can see and into the imaginations of people around the world," he says. "To have that development would irrevocably alter the sound of the valley, the spaces and the landscape."

I drive back into Stroud for another session at the inquiry. Along Summer Street, which borders Baxter's Field, site of the proposed development, bright signs declaring Save Slad Valley sprout from the hedgerows and gardens, yellows, oranges and greens calling in joy and alarm.

Gladman's barrister might be sceptical, but Laurie Lee did indeed have words to say on the controversial site. Back in 1995 he intervened the last time there was a proposal to develop the same place.

The Slad Valley, his biographer Valerie Grove recounts him telling a meeting about the development, "is the green lung of Stroud. If we permit this to go ahead without resistance, it will be a self-inflicted wound that not even time will heal. The word 'development' is just a euphemism for ravagement and exploitation … The valley, with its landscape of tangled woods and sprawling fields, should be left to rabbits, badgers and old codgers like me."


Dan Glaister

The GuardianTramp

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