VE Day 70th Anniversary: How the war changed the countryside

Horses on farmland
Image caption Before World War Two, English farming was inefficient, unproductive and carried out largely using horses

The vision of England as a "green and pleasant land" was essential in keeping spirits afloat during World War Two. But by VE Day - 70 years ago today - that landscape and those who called it home had been transformed forever.

Today, bread and cheese are staple foods but in pre-war Britain most of the grains used for white bread and the cheese we ate were imported from north America.

If you ate cheddar, the chances were it had nothing to do with Somerset but had been shipped over from Canada.

Far from being a bread basket, the English countryside could not feed its people.

Yet within just five years, rural England had been transformed.

Farming was mechanised and dabbled in chemistry while American airbases brought new roads, attitudes and amenities.

Reinvention helped rural England win the war and the legacy of that effort continues to be felt today.


Image caption Farmers' fields were concreted over and turned into airfields

Thousands of acres of land were taken over for new British and American airfields, resulting in more than 9,000 miles (14,484 km) of concrete being laid over the countryside.

"My grandfather started farming here in 1913 and he wasn't too happy they came here to plough up and concrete his valuable land," says Richard Taylor, owner of Grove Farm, in Debach, Suffolk.

"It was some of the best land in Suffolk before the airfield was built here."

Aerial photography shows the brutal reality of the airfield building - with vast strips of concrete cutting straight across old tracks, ditches and medieval lanes.

"It was incredible - a radical change that happened to the countryside," says archaeologist Ben Robinson. "And it happened almost overnight."

New roads

Image caption New roads were built to supply the network of RAF and American airbases

To take the heavy machinery and vehicles going in and out of the air bases, new roads had to be built.

Ray Hubbard was just 10 years old when the Americans arrived at Thorpe Abbotts, in Norfolk. He remembers the relentless laying of new roads.

"All the roads which joined the bigger roads up were nothing but grass tracks, lanes where the grass was high where horses hadn't walked for a while and where the middles were worn out by cart wheels.

"They were really rough.

"Then the Americans paid for them to be done so we gained with some good little roads."

Industrialisation of the landscape

Image caption The Bernard Matthews empire was built on a former airfield site which could no longer be ploughed after the war

"In terms of the landscape, it has never really gone back to what it was," said historian David Cain, who documents the American 8th Airforce in the east of England.

"It was agricultural before the start of the war and when bases were built, it became an industrial landscape.

"Nothing had been seen like it before and nothing has been seen like it since. The landscape you look at now was constructed in 1942 and it was built by the Americans."

Much of the concrete was never dug up and other uses were found for them. Some became poultry farms - the most famous being the home of the Bernard Matthews turkey empire.

Rural envy

Image caption Brian Ward said after the war, his family's quality of living improved radically

The Americans introduced rural East Anglia to a world of running water, electricity and luxury goods.

The disparities in their respective qualities of living were immediately obvious to the surrounding communities. The airbases meant the various networks needed were now in place and after the war, rural communities were quickly wired up and gained running water.

Brian Ward lived in a small cottage in Debach with his four brothers and a sister.

"We had one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs, no water, no electricity, no main drains and a toilet down the bottom of the garden. The war really changed all that.

"Suddenly we had electricity and we had mains and the whole thing became more sophisticated.

"It changed agriculture, it changed attitudes and it changed our living standards for the better."


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption World War Two triggered a huge rise in the use of tractors

At the start of World War Two there were more horses than tractors out working the countryside.

Farmers were given loans and subsidies encouraging them to invest in machinery and artificial fertilizers were used to increase yields.

Derelict farms were taken over by neighbours and brought back into production.

One farm in particular was held up by the authorities as an example of what was achievable: the Taylors' farm.

Old accounts show it started the war with eight horses and three tractors. Within three years, these figures were reversed.

Mr Taylor said not only were farmers encouraged to invest in machinery but also in certain types of crop. In his father's case, this meant a subsidy to farm potatoes, an important war crop.

The countryside re-imagined

Image copyright PA
Image caption National Parks were created after the war to protect outstanding areas of natural beauty from development

In 1942, Lord Justice Scott penned a report. Ostensibly about land utilisation, in reality the document went much further.

It set out a blueprint for the way in which post-war rural society should be reconstructed.

The countryside had provided during the war but the pre-war idyll had been shattered. The "green and pleasant land" had been scarred with roads and military installations.

The reconstruction effort, it was felt, should include protecting rural Britain's most cherished green areas.

This sentiment helped pave the way for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

According to Prof Alun Howkins, of the University of East Anglia, the Scott Report did for the countryside what the Beveridge Report did for the welfare state.

"It introduces town and country planning, water supply, it wants electricity but at its core, in some ways, it proposes the creation of National Parks - areas of outstanding beauty which forever would be preserved."

The First Days of Peace: Rebuilding the Countryside will be broadcast on BBC1 in the east, on Monday 11 May, at 19:30 BST.

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