Summertime in the country: a soft gauze of morning mist on dew, the chirp of crickets in the grass, a summer melody of bees amongst white seas of clover, a carking parliament of rooks around the beech stand on the hill. Long, hot days spent behind the bailer, helping load a wain of rich-smelling hay and riding with it on its journey to the barn.
Or in winter, waking to a window with as much ice upon the inside of it as out; the sparkling frost, the rushing dance of snowflakes, the savagery of the gale; or with friends, stomping a deep white carpet on frozen feet waiting for a school bus that might just not make it today, and the cheerful snowball fight when it didn’t. Friends I grew up with; names forgotten now.
In all the travelling and city living I’ve done I remain a countryman at heart. Country lore is something I understand, and at the same time something not easily understood. Which is why I regard city dwellers that migrate from town to country with bemusement.
Why? Why move from an environment you understand to one you do not? If you have succeeded financially to an extent where you can afford the move, you must have intelligence enough to realize the idyll you chase is a fiction. Surely? No? Then at least beware of the more obvious mistakes.
First mistake: bringing the town with you. Sometimes it seems most city ex-pats would be happiest if they could put their existing house on a low-loader and drop it off in a field somewhere. They want a cottage, of course, plenty of oak beams, a ‘feature fireplace’ and a wood burning stove; but those requirements must also include a kitchen ‘large enough for entertaining’, several bathrooms and a studio. Land-wise, their intention to raise alpaca will require at least seven acres, in addition to a garden with extensive lawns – enough to ride around on a mower.
Second mistake: ‘the kids will love it’. Oh no they won’t! That Thomasina will love her horse is a dangerous assumption, and little Thomas’s cultured tones will endear him to the local children. Then expect teenage tantrums centered around the general theme of there being nothing to do, nowhere to go, etc. (An argument not without substance – there is nowhere to go, unless you drive them).
Third mistake: assuming the rules that governed your urban existence still apply.
In rural England, anyway, the farmer is law. Most farmers, indeed, have a very broad appreciation of the law, and obey it when it does not inconvenience them too much. They flout it outrageously the rest of the time, generally with the tacit understanding of the local constabulary. In town, the four-wheel drive takes precedence on the basis that might is right; but on a country lane a Range Rover is no match for a pick-up driven by a farmer’s lad who sees his future in Formula One, a tractor and trailer, or a combine harvester.
Seeing two foxhound puppies snuggled up together in your flowerbed is charming. Seeing two cows grazing in your flowerbed may stir other emotions. A couple of free-roaming sheepdogs engaged in a lengthy mating ritual outside your gate might be thought quaint, a liberally-minded sheepdog welded to the rump of your pedigree Weimaraner less so.
The timeless peace of country living is illusory. Bear in mind that land where no buildings exist is liable to be built upon. When planning permission is walked through the intensive rearing sheds proposed by your immediate neighbor can be erected in six weeks, tenanted by bawling cattle in eight. The quality of your country air may also bring things with it that are as unwelcome as they were unexpected. Muck spreading is a fast-evolving science these days: the constituents of the newer, more potent mixes will be amply explained by their odor.
Certain things do take longer. An internet connection weakened by nature’s thoughtless positioning of a hill, the bus which only runs four times a day, and the ambulance which comes to rescue you from the heart attack brought on by chopping wood for that log-burning stove.
My countryside no longer exists: how much of its demise is due to the communications invasion, and how much to burgeoning population and the new religion of the plc and ‘growth’ I do not know. I only know the reader of ‘Cider with Rosie’ would not recognize the environment Laurie Lee’s book describes. Farming now is as much an industry as any other, and health and safety decrees exclude children from much of the good stuff the country has to offer. Do I regret this? As a life it was always hard, and I do not miss the poverty, although being ‘poor’ had less significance then. But there was a fast, rapacious undercurrent beneath the superficial gloss of paradise, and the sun on the surf did not always conceal the dangers beneath. I remember Billy, whose arm was torn from him by a grain elevator. He was just sixteen. And old Jack, whose tractor somersaulted and crushed him to death.
So maybe no, I don’t regret change. However I do wonder, when the idyll collapses and the current generation of new countrymen’s children filter back to the city what will be left; how much precious heritage will have been squandered and how many gilded cages will remain as ‘investment properties’ – empty shells slowly returning to dust.