Friday, 24 August 2007

Daylight snobbery


What is ‘country’? I ask this because I stayed recently with my sister-in-law and her partner at their home in Lacey Green, just outside High Wycombe.

I regard visiting them there as a trip to the ‘bright lights’, to civilisation, to somewhere with daily buses, pubs, shops and entertainment within walking distance. I do not regard it as a visit to the ‘country’. But then I found myself in the middle of a maize maze and had to reassess my opinion of the area. The maize happened to be a maze too, but its primary function was winter fodder for the cattle. It was a great bit of diversification on this particular farm, a farm which, undoubtedly, is in the countryside, but jump into a car and head south and after a few minutes you’re in London (unless there is a traffic jam, then it takes and hour and a half to inch a couple of miles).

I suppose to someone from the middle of the city, that village is countryside, but countryside not as I know it. Countryside to me means wild remoteness, mountains full of sheep, cattle poo on the road, wide open spaces and gaps between houses, except perhaps in the ‘towns’ which are so vastly smaller than Lacey Green, one could argue their right even to call themselves a ‘village’.

Lacey Green, a village with a few shops, several pubs and a school, surrounded on all sides by arable land, with a working windmill and fields with fatly grazing cattle, is still a ‘country’ village, but with all the advantages of a town.

I suppose I am admitting here that I am an inverse rural snob, but what I really should be saying is that I have just woken up to the fact that there is a rural hierarchy. At one end of the scale you have villages within shouting distance of London (or Cardiff or Edinburgh) and the advantages (and, arguably, disadvantages) that proximity to the capital brings. At the other end of the scale are remote settlements on teeny tiny islands in the middle of the sea where you get post once a month.

In between these two extremes are a whole gamut of villages and rural hamlets. The nearer you get to the cities the more expensive property becomes and outside every house is a Porsche, Mercedes or BMW 4x4. The postman visits everyday, groaning under the weight of the Boden parcels ready for the weekend trip to Cornwall. The further away you get from the cities you start to hit the disadvantages of remoteness – it takes ages to get anywhere, you can’t walk to school, the nearest supermarket is 17 miles away, you can get cut off in the winter and you would love to wear Boden, but local wages are so much lower than in the cities you may only be able to afford a few pieces in the sales or second-hand from Ebay.

But perhaps the pressure is less, the further down the rural scale one resides. You don’t have to brush your hair in the morning because there is nobody to see, and if you do pop to the shop in sheep turd-encrusted wellies arms sticky with lanolin from the fleeces in the middle of shearing people won’t bat an eyelid. Although you might encounter someone from a city who has bought a picturesque stone cottage in order to live the country life who then has a lovely anecdote about the wild smelly woman with wool in her hair to tell to their city friends at the weekend.

How annoying is it that those who can afford to live in the country are those who live in the city as well, or have lived there in recent memory. Recent enough to have sold a semi in Hackney and then spend a fraction of the cash on a farm on a Welsh hillside. They can afford the renovations, the installation of shiny new Aga and the requisite 4x4 to negotiate the drive. They have a great time learning how to farm, then use their city-born entrepreneurial skills and marketing know-how to set up courses to teach other country-hopefuls how to do the same.

Meanwhile the farmer who used to live there could no longer afford to farm the land as the money came in at 1970s levels and went out at 2007 levels. He has to turn his back on generations of family farming and, perhaps because he hung on by the skin of his teeth until the bank owned everything, all he could do was sell up before bankruptcy claimed him.

So there are two tiers of rural living: the affluent rural and the cash-strapped rural. But hasn’t that always been the way? Twee Victorian paintings of ruddy faced yokels eking a living in thatched cottages with a pig in the garden and chicken scratching as they children played belied the reality of poverty stricken families starving while local rich squires hunted, shot and fished.

I am not sure if the residents of Lacey Green regard themselves as living in a rural area or not. But they have an excellent farm shop, thriving horticultural society and annual show, they can walk to a pub for a good meal and a pint. The village has its annual rituals, its windmill open day and its maize maze. In fact they have so many things that I’d like, I think I’m jealous! Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live somewhere where there wouldn’t be a discussion before going out as to who was going to drive and not drink, or where if you do have fish and chips it’s still hot when you get it home; where you can get a decent curry or pizza delivered to your doorstep.

But perhaps I’ll stay here in the hills. I’ll forgo the fish and chips and cook my own instead (with takeaway alcohol). I can go blackberrying and sloe picking any time I like. If I leave my front door open my belongings will still be there when I get back and I don’t need to lock my car when it is parked on my drive outside my house. Shopping for food takes more organisation, perhaps, but organic veggies arrive either in the garden or delivered from the wholesaler and if we should get snowed in there are five organic lambs in the freezer to eat. I can drive 75 miles in an hour and a half and listen to Sally Traffic on Radio 2 and just feel glad that it doesn’t affect me. At night there is silence, except for the occasional twit-twoo, and it goes completely dark apart from the stars.

But when I visit places like Lacey Green I wonder whether I’d like to live there. Maybe it would be fun if I was rich enough to afford to live in the Preselis too.

15 comments:

  1. A very interesting blog. Have you been to North Northumberland? It's wonderful if you like remoteness, houses far apart and shops that you have to remember everything you want due to them being such a long way away. I enjoyed reading your blog.

    Crystal xx

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  2. That was fascinating. I jumped guiltily at the thought that I am affluent rural, the result of hanging onto the ends of my working and city life because I am scared of losing my independence. I don't feel affluent and certainly don't look it, but I do have someone to help in the garden. Life is still quite hard from the sheer volume of work that needs doing to keep the dream going but wouldn't swap it for the world. We are somewhere in the middle, not the manicured and easy access beautiful country, nor the wilds of Northumberland or West Wales, porrer and ahbbier than the first, more accessible than the second. really interesting blog.

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  3. whoops, sorry about lost spelling - posted without reading it, poorer and shabbier was what i was trying to say.

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  4. Yes, thought provoking blog. Elizabthm's comment strikes a chord too "...to keep the dream going". In the end, no matter where you are or how you make your living, it's all about the dream of country life and to what to degree one pursues it.

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  5. A foot in both camps would be great!but then we would have to be very rich, And imagine the Headlines FARMERS BUYING UP TOWN PROPERTIES AS SECOND HOMES there would be an uproar LOL xx

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  6. Yes, I agree there are definitely degrees of countryside. Maybe you hit the nail on the head with the category of 'hamlet' and 'village'? To me, one implies semi-isolation, the other a community. We live in an 'affluent village'(although we live at the top of the village where, shall we say, the farmhands used to live!) with a similar village life to the one you described, but we are lucky to have a couple of farms about and Ashdown Forest, etc so it is very rural for the South East. But at night, I know we are in the country because of the starry sky and the foxes/owls. Quite nice to have the mix - not far from civilisation, but tucked away nicely. Interesting blogging!

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  7. Great blog Mags, I just logged on as a respite from packing and really enjoyed this. I know Lacey Green and other parts of Bucks and Herts well; I used to think it was real country when I lived in London! Now it seems like town. One thing I can never get over when I visit the south east is how many people there are; I have got so used to living in a very low density population area where the pace of life is very slow. I suppose to some people we will always be incomers - but having taken the local salary route, we can feel more at one with the farm hands you described!

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  8. we live in herts and are in no way rich incomers but incomers we are. we have been touched by how welcoming people were first when i was pregnant and then once we met folks at school. we know some who have been here since the year dot, born and bred and some who have come with their london money to buy up huge houses and send their kids to private schools but one thing we do have is a real community and people who come together to help out in a time of need.
    for me that's it, a rural or town community - you can have either but personally i prefer the rural (and i know we aren't really that rural compared to some) as it gets me and the kids close to nature and the seasons. they know where food comes from and they know the rhythms of life.
    lovely blog and it gave me something to think about, thanks!

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  9. Good blog. Not sure where i stand..... 'affluent' is a matter of opinion like 'rural' isnt it? I'm semi both I think!

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  10. A great blog as you touch on a lot of things that I feel as I am also living in the Welsh hills though not as far west as you obviously. I also travel back 'down south' from time to time and visit their 'rural villages'. People seem very stressed in the south-east and the traffic is a nightmare. I can't wait to get back to the hills, our Welsh air, our traffic free roads and our sense of 'community'. I have only lived here for 17 years so am still considered an incomer but everyone gets on well, locals and people from 'off'. My son in law has a good saying 'Nothing is Perfect, how true that is. There is always a price to pay. We were drop outs really, not affluent and happy to be so.

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  11. I live with a view of the South Downs,Butser Hill, far reaching views to Blackdown and Midhurst and far beyond. Its a small friendly hamlet, with a church a pub and a village hall and no shop. I still not sure its in the country lots of my fellow inhabitants think it is but me I am not sure, its lovely and I love it., but sometimes I would really love to live in the country.
    Blossom

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  12. I agree that there are all sorts of countryside, but remember villages have their problems too. Us villagers in shouting distance of towns are having to shout very loud in order to stop being eaten up by the nearest connurbation. And with house prices that would make your eyes water,there is plenty of rural poverty within a short drive of the nearest fish and chip shop. If you are lucky enough to afford the car, as there probably won't be a bus.

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  13. You know you live in the country when you dont lock your front door.

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  14. Ahhh hah the true definition of living inthe country is when Tesco's won't deliver to you and there is no such thing as delivery within 24 hours. We can get warm fish and chips from the chip van in the village - only a six mile round trip.

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