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Interview: Candida Lycett Green, author, broadcaster, journalist

14 December 2012

'I don't see that church buildings mind being used for secular things, do you?'

People love a bit of England to cling on to in uncertain times. The last book I wrote was called Seaside Resorts - my top 50 of them.

I'm used to the solitariness of writing. I like being on my own, as long as there is company or a good soap to look forward to at the end of the day.

I wrote Nooks and Corners for Private Eye in the early 1970s, when half London was being pulled down. [She is a friend of Richard Ingrams, and collated and stapled the first copies of Private Eye.]

I help churches where I can. I served on the churches and cathedrals committee for nearly ten years when I was a Commissioner of English Heritage, and now do what I can for the Churches Conservation Trust, of which I am a vice-president.

Churches were built to the glory of God, and their architecture is often sublime. They have soaked up centuries of prayer. They deserve being cared for.

Cathedrals should be teeming with people. When I last went to York, it was particularly busy, because you can walk through it as a shortcut from place to place. It felt like it might have been 500 years ago, a truly loved place. There were clutches of people gossiping, the choir practising . . . life!

Churches have to keep themselves central to the community by whatever means, within reason. I was involved in the Country Life "Village Church for Village Life" awards, which meant going round the country, seeing how local clergy and their communities were managing to keep their churches alive and vi- brant, by using them not only for services, but for secular things as well. I love the idea of churches' being used as village halls, crèches, local-produce markets, wedding-reception and music venues, etc. . . There were even sleepovers for children in one church we went to.

They are, after all, at the heart of things, and are usually such incredible buildings. I don't see that the buildings mind, do you? So many churches have such tiny congregations now, anyway.

I didn't enjoy church-crawling with my father [Sir John Betjeman] as a child, but I was certainly brought up to look at things.

Seeing Shobdon Church, in Herefordshire, at the age of 12, changed my mind. It's all white Strawberry Hill Gothic inside, with crimson pew cushions, like a very glamorous drawing room, not a gloomy old Gothic job. Nowadays, I find it hard to pass up an unseen church without looking inside.

I'm just fascinated how buildings evolve, who commissions them - the human aspect, not the academic aspect. I'm writing about a house for my column "Unwrecked England" in The Oldie as we speak. What I'm really interested in is who lived in them, who loved them, who embellished them. Did the architect fall in love with the client's wife? I think these things interest women, because they are the nest-makers.

I'm a contributing editor for Vogue, and I've just written on ash trees for them; but I write about the countryside or artists. I don't write about fashion. One of my maxims is, Stick to what you know.

The areas I feel happy in and passionate about are, basically, landscape, horses, architecture, gardens, art, railways, canals, England.

I'm very moved by industry, I suppose. I love Stoke. It's a moving place, not least because of the lost potteries and collieries. I love those northern towns, like Liverpool and Newcastle, with their incredible strength, energy, invention, and all that has to do with their people. You don't get that feeling in London, because it's all too muddled up now. That singular strength was what moved me so much about the Chatterley Whitfield colliery, which I was involved with saving in the '90s.

Private Eye is vital because it's a leveller. It holds nobody in awe or reverence, and knocks the pompous stuffing out of people. It doesn't suffer those who take themselves too seriously, and nor do I.

If I could change one thing about life in England now, I'd stop the present Government making a balls-up of the planning system. It doesn't sound very interesting, but it's astounding what they're about to do. They're about to sell England down the river for quick financial gain. Our glory, our green fields, and our tourist attractions. They can't see that. There's no big vision. We don't have a say. They are over-riding every recommendation from every heritage and landscape body. They will be the Government to go down in history as wrecking England.

Marrying Rupert - our gold wedding is coming up in 2013 - was the most important choice of my life. We have five children and eight grandchildren.

My biggest regret? Not asking my parents enough stuff. Oh, and not going the whole hog with Mick Jagger.

I don't want to be remembered, except as a good friend and as someone who made people laugh.

Saul Bellow: I love him as a writer - he gets to the heart of human feelings like no one else. The Adventures of Augie March is easily my favourite book.

I remember Trevor Huddleston's sermons when I was at school.

I love the Berkshire Downs - all around the Ridgeway and the Uffington White Horse. I was brought up among them, and live at the foot of them, and look on to them.

It's chalk country, and I feel comfortable in it. There are wonderful orchids in spring, and small patches of bright blue squill, but only in certain places now. Agricultural chemical sprays are killing our wild flowers, bees, beetles, bugs, and consequently birds. It's terrifying, really terrifying.

I like Daniel in the lions' den; I'm bored by the Old Testament lists of names.

I love the sound of waves on Greenaway, a rocky beach at Trebetherick. We're now four generations of Trebetherick maniacs.

Greedy developers' building on Richard Jeffries's sacred greenfield landscape outside Swindon is serving to make me unbelievably cross. They have unused brownfield sites in town. The short-termism of it!

I'm happiest with my husband, friends, and family.

I pray most for my children.

I'd like to get locked in a church with Richard Dawkins. I could so easily win him round.

Candida Lycett Green was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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