I was surprised by the unexpected and most flattering invitation to become president of the CPRE; how could I possibly follow where such distinguished people had walked before me? Bryson, Puttnam, Scales, Dimbleby, Hastings... All differently daunting, and of course most recently Andrew Motion.
Andrew's time as President from 2012-2016 was defined largely by the Government's new planning legislation, the National Planning Policy Framework, a document that purported to make planning easier but which actually simply made releasing countryside for development much easier.
This was a document considered so pernicious by the Telegraph that it launched its Hands Off Our Land campaign. Andrew's AGM speech, delivered 3 years ago this month, was a stinging attack on this document and the Government's track record on planning.
Andrew served the CPRE with grace, energy and purpose. He supported moves to reduce carrier bag waste, led publicly for greater Green Belt protection, and argued forcefully that everyone should be able to live in the countryside. I look forward to building on his work, and indeed working alongside him as he has kindly agreed to be our new Vice President.
In fact I'd like to jump in here to say that I want to throw my weight behind the CPRE litter campaign. I've got a real bee in my bonnet about plastic water bottles. Just think of that terrible, terrible plastic continent in the Sargasso Sea. It is clear that deposit return systems have worked effectively in other countries, so I believe that governments in the UK should introduce deposit return schemes for bottles ( and cans!) as soon as possible. And over time I think we should reintroduce public drinking fountains, these can be beautiful as well as practical and environmentally hugely beneficial.
Many of you will remember Andrew's moving readings last year of some of the poems that inspired his feelings for the countryside: he rekindled my love of Wordsworth, quoting from Lines written above Tintern Abbey whilst perfectly explaining the intense relationship we Britons have with our unique and ravishing landscape. Like him, and like so many others, I feel deeply rooted, and also explained by my love of, and connection with the landscape of Britain.
My earliest memories are of trailing along muddy farm tracks out behind our house as mum pushed my little brother and sister in the pram- she would forge on ahead, and as clogs of mud grew on my gum boots I remember an awed feeling of being a tiny speck under a vast sky. All around were sweeping Hertfordshire fields, planted with brussels sprouts in rows in all directions as far as I could see. Our straggling village, Bassingbourn, had wide verges under pink horse chestnut trees beside the church, where prize winning saddleback pigs from the farm over the road were walked out as training for their appearances at agricultural shows. A few miles away lay Royston Heath where we tobogganed in the snowy winters of the sixties, and where, one spring my granny took me to hunt for Anemone Pulsatilla, which grows, she told me, only where Saxon blood was shed.
In 1968 we moved to Oxford where my brother, sister and I soon discovered that living in the city didn't cut us off from outdoor life, we went exploring on our bikes with a gang of children across the nearby open expanse of Port Meadow, across the river to the treacle well at Binsey. This ancient meadow is a magic place, some 500 acres of untouched grazing beside the Thames, which often floods, and sometimes in the winter it freezes to create a vast outdoor rink, perfect for skating parties with bonfires and sausages as the sun sets.
Mum frequently mustered parties for picnicking by the Thames, or in the dreaming meadows of the Cherwell or the Evenlode. She had a great love of swimming in what she called real water- the term wild swimming hadn't yet been coined- and she passed this on. Once the picnic was done she would put on an old and probably holey bathing suit and wade into any vaguely tempting stretch of water, be it the slow green rivers of Oxfordshire, the bracing tea-coloured North Tyne, a lonely gravel pit near Cricklade, or the North Sea from the agonising stony beach at Salthouse. It didn't have to be a hot day, though if it was it helped, she simply knew that she wanted a deeper immersion in the landscape: and I caught the bug, and I know that floating on my back down a river looking up into the willows is deeply grained into my sense of happiness and completeness.
Summer holidays with my dad always took us to Cornwall for a fortnight of surfing on the north coast. For him it was, still is as he turns 80, something of a religion: he taught us to be bold and I loved the dangerous thrill of swimming out far enough, clutching a plywood surfboard, to catch the waves before they break. If this works, and you haven't already been knocked over and somersaulted about painfully beneath the surface, it's a huge buzz as you feel the full power of the sea lift you and rush you up the beach. If the weather changed and the surf went flat, we clambered down into a steep nearby cove to swim. This cove is a place you usually look down into thinking of shipwrecks and boiling cauldrons as huge waves crash and swirl, but the lull in the weather transformed it into an idyllic swimming place, if slightly scary to climb into and out of. Both these high adrenaline activities made my love of the secret shell strewn beaches and thrift-studded Cornish cliff tops all the more vivid.
For each unspoilt green place has its own special beauty and the particularity of these experiences builds up in the geology of our personalities: Hertfordshire with its endless skies and dawdling villages laid down a bedrock of faint melancholy for me, overlaid in successive strata by the golden glow of happiness associated with the water meadows of Oxford, followed by the energising charge of Cornwall, or the spirit-cleansing effect of the salt marshes on the Norfolk coast, marked out with medieval churches. And so it goes on.
We are all formed by the places we inhabit, which is why the restorative beauty of landscape is not a luxury, it's not a commodity to put a price on, nor an asset for securing risk- instead it is a fundamental need. And our extraordinary national landscape makes this available in a myriad of different places, each with their special magic, for every one of us.
With these formative experiences grained into me, it's hardly surprising that my first view of the West Midlands made such a deep and powerful impression on me. I simply was not prepared -my only previous experience of industry was a school trip to Early's Blanket Factory in Witney.
However, despite the battered look of Stoke on Trent, I fell in love: with the cheerful people who live there, and with the shadowy glamour of the city's past, the ranks of the ghosts of the great pottery dynasties -Minton, Mason, Ridgway, Coalport, Copeland - they all seemed close at hand, and I knew straight off that I longed to follow in their footsteps, to make beautiful pottery and to paint my name over the gate of one of the abandoned Victorian factories, of which there were many, for the ceramic industry was in steep decline when I arrived there in 1984. I wanted that factory to teem with life, inside, and in its surrounding neighbourhood.
Well, 32 years on we have done something along those lines: in an old Meakins factory in Hanley. Our business now employs around 270 and counting. We are training young people in the traditional skills of the Potteries and something like 30,000 people visit our factory every year. And now I can take stock a little, and what I can see is that Stoke on Trent is a city still coming to terms with its past, still affected by the loss not just of tens of thousands of jobs in the potteries, but also from the closures of more than 20 local coal mines, and two steel foundries. The cityscape is full of gaps where run-down housing has been demolished, or old warehouses and factories teeter, and spoil heaps have been smoothed over but not exactly forgotten. In short, like many of our cities it is growing on the outskirts and struggling to lift itself up again at its centre.
When I was asked to become your president, I must admit that I dithered. I loved meeting the sparky team in the organisation's head office, but I wasn't sure that this was for me. So Shaun arranged a trip to Sheffield; the sun shone and the impressive local team planned a tour of three of the challenging and confusing brownfield sites in the city. On the train journey home to Oxford I thought about what I'd seen, and it really came home to me that one of the best ways we can go about saving our beautiful countryside is by making confident far-sighted dynamic decisions about wasted inner city spaces. And the potential benefits are twofold, more green and beautiful countryside and re-energised and perhaps greener inner cities which might greatly improve the quality of life for their inhabitants.
Wouldn't it be wonderful, exciting, something to be so proud of, if we were to join together to clear up the mess we have made in our rush to build our livelihoods and our economy? Would we not benefit so much from a national conversation about what kind of landscape - how much green and unspoilt countryside around our cities and towns we want to keep and what quality of urban life we want to create right away, and also to leave behind us for our children and grandchildren to inherit? We could build innovatively, perhaps incorporating community orchards and allotments amidst intelligent housing solutions both urban and rural.
Let me be clear, I revel in the boundless questing energy which built our past industrial greatness and the lived-in eccentricities of our urban landscapes. But it is vitally important that we should develop a more coherent and better funded policy of re-cycling previously developed land while protecting our beautiful countryside.
Greening our cities with thoughtful development can do so much to reduce the pressure to build on our precious green belt and the wider countryside. Moreover, a vital restorative for people who live in cities is to be able to walk out into unspoilt countryside.
And when I reflected on my visit to Sheffield and looked back again at CPRE's Wasted Spaces campaign I realised that I had met an organisation that shared that enthusiasm and energy- for it is this cause which inspires me as I join CPRE as its president.
I can't leave you today without of course acknowledging that we are looking at a very different political situation from only a week ago. After the Referendum, Britain is entering the unknown.
However, a democratic decision has been reached and we must follow through on this. And while on one hand there is great uncertainty, there is on the other hand an exciting opportunity to protect and sustain our farmers, environment, landscapes and rural communities. I look forward to working with you to ensure that we make this into a great chance and seize that chance with both hands.
For as you know, and I am discovering, this is both a thoughtful organisation that has many experts in policy detail, and also a radical organisation full of visionaries. CPRE's tenets are progressive and ambitious - but also fundamentally sensible. They are lucidly explored in Olly and Peter's excellent new book- 22 Ideas that Saved the Countryside, setting out the principles that have enabled our country to prosper for 90 years while respecting, protecting and enjoying the beautiful landscape we cherish.
We must remember that these ideas and ambitions and changes that are now considered normal, maybe even bastions of conservative, middle class Britain, were once difficult and forward thinking. They were the ideas that managed to check the consequences of an untrammelled desire for growth. Just think how glad we are! for example, that Sheffield and Peak campaigners- led by Ethel and Gerald Haythornthwaite - saved the Longshaw Estate in 1931 when it was to be flooded to make a reservoir. That land was not only protected, but handed over to the National Trust and it later became part of our first National Park- the Peak District. And so many many other green and much loved places have also been saved from being buried in concrete.
In this time of uncertainty and opportunity, and as we come up to CPRE's 90th birthday, this organisation provides real inspiration, challenging us to do more and better.
Because I truly believe that we can plan our villages, towns and cities better. We can build much better housing. And we can make a better fairer country. For planning is a crucial part of the evolution of our society. And I know that you and all your friends and colleagues will join me in campaigning for the changes which will bring this about.
After all, as we all know, when our beautiful countryside is gone, it is gone for good. But if we protect it, we will be handing on this vital beauty to all the generations to come, for all to share.