Looking both ways Posted on April 23, 2012

Is this a moral dilemma, or an aesthetic one – or is it a dilemma at all?

You possess a building which all agree, monotonously, in describing as ‘iconic’. One view of it, from a public road and across a riverside meadow, is as well-known (all right, then, iconic) as any view in the country. The catch is that the reverse view, from the building and its surroundings, is the public road, emphasised by traffic lights and the resulting line of the brake lights of waiting cars.

Is there an obligation on the proprietor to leave the view open, both ways, or would he be justified in planting appropriate trees to screen the road from his own viewpoint?

The building, you may even have guessed, is King’s College chapel in Cambridge. During the summer coach parties of tourists make an inevitable stop to photograph the view.

members of the college learn to accept the traffic across the summer view, softened by leafy trees. In winter it is different. From teatime on there is only one thing you see across the Cam from the college: winking red lights.

There are worse problems, I know. But there is also the hope of a solution, at least in part. The college has just succeeded in ‘respacing’ (which means felling) half the trees between the road and the river. Italian alders planted 40 years ago as a nurse-crop for oaks (this was the plan when we lost all the magnificent elms) have finally gone – in the nick of time: the oaks they were ‘nursing’ were almost shaded to death.

In their place are planted more oaks, lots of hawthorn, and an entirely new feature for the Backs: a crowd of Chinese dogwoods, which will make a mass of white flowers at May Ball time in June, and (I hope) colour up in an orange/harlequin way in October.

Flanking the rather stark and lonely stone Back Gate of the college we are planning to plant a pair of weeping willows: the first step in screening the intrusive traffic lights. In other words, no obvious move; just slow and sensitive improvements.

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