Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Primrose Paths - a walk on the Surrey - West Sussex border

It was, said one of my walking companions lyrically, as though someone had strewn them in the path of a wedding couple. Never, in many years of walking in Britain, have I seen so many primroses.

So many were there close to the Surrey-Sussex border last weekend that you could almost overlook the little diggings which suggested some throughtless strollers - not serious walkers, surely - had helped themselves to enhance their gardens.

Less unexpected among the trees was a miasma of bluebells, floating before the eyes, and a sprinkling of wood anemones, like spring snow.

And in the boggy places, of which there were many, were clouds of lady's smock, sometimes called cuckoo flower, though there was no sound of the bird with whose first annual call gave it that name. Lady's smock was once used as a guard against scurvy. It contains some 15 times as much vitamin C as the average lemon.

We walked along soggy bridle paths flanked by low Anglo-Saxon dykes, raised as territory boundaries, indicating the historic importance of timber and game. Unseen woodpeckers drilled nests. A yellowhammer flitted briefly between branches.

The Alfold village pub we were aiming for, though shown on a relatively recent OS map, was boarded up and wire fenced off - a reminder that this British institution is under as much threat as the cuckoo. But there was another, a short walk further, and we blessed the advent of all day opening over long anticipated pints in its quiet, sun filled garden.

Before finishing out route across damp meadows, we looked in at the church of St Nicholas, its 11th century font carved with long shafted Maltese crosses. The staple that fastened its lid  reflected a 14th century edict that fonts should be locked to prevent holy water being stolen for magical purposes.

In the churchyard is the grave of a French glassmaker. Glassmaking hereabouts was brought by the Huguenots and died out in the early 17th century. They say that you can still find shards in nearby Sydney Wood, and traces of a small factory. We couldn't, but the mere thought such industry, half a millennium ago, intensified the delight of the day and reminded us, if we needed reminding, that when it comes to country walking there are few finer or more interesting countries than England.

Would airports break up add capacity?

Would cracking BAA's monopoly ownership of London's three biggest airports encourage the faster addition of runway and terminal capacity? The final conclusions of the Competition Commission will be fascinating.

I have already argued (see earlier posting) that such a move would be largly futile in terms of stimulating new routes or airline start ups. The Commission, however, is investigating whether separate ownership of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted would increase the pace of expansion. It wants to know the extent to BAA's plans to get one job out of the way before embarking on another might be slowing that pace.

If single ownership is indeed applying a brake a break up could clearly provide more capacity, which in turn might improve the passenger experience in terminals and maybe - eventually and for a short period until the extra capacity is absorbed - reduce fares.

But it would not alter the fact that Heathrow is the honeypot for major airlines. It would surely not bring expansion there any earlier, especially given the vehemence with which the green lobby is opposing the proposal that a third main runway should be built there.

The most likely result of a break up would be earlier availability of more elbow room and peak time departure and arrival slots at Gatwick and Stansted.

The Commission may decide that's justification enough - but it is hardly likely to create a revolution in customer choice and service.

And anyone harbouring a vague feeling that somehow monopoly was the blame for the recent Terminal 5 debacle at Heathrow must surely realise that a break up would hardly be guarantee against a similar calamities at London's other two airports.