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An untutored townsman's invsaion of the country

What happens when an urban greenhorn goes rural

The Land, November 2010


Last autumn, I moved from the city to the country. After fifteen years in Oxford, and with a young daughter now in tow, my wife and I shifted ourselves to a rented former barn on a hill farm in south Cumbria. It had been long in the planning, and it’s intended to be the first stage in a process which will lead us to finding our own land, on which we can build up some useful skills, provide for ourselves, spend less time staring at screens and breathe some air that doesn’t taste of diesel.

In all this, of course, I am very English. Ronald Blythe pinned down the vague feeling that so many of us townies have in his classic work of rural reportage Akenfield back in the late sixties. ‘The townsman envies the villager his certainties’, he wrote, ‘and, in Britain, has always regarded urban life as just a temporary necessity. One day he will find a cottage on the green and “real values.”’ Britain, and specifically England – the most urbanised country in Europe by some way – still believes it has a pastoral heart. The wealthy middle classes have been buying up its rose-covered cottages for decades in an attempt to prove this, which has had the result of disproving it as real rural communities have been replaced by commuter villages and dead islands of second homes.

Not that this has anything to do with me. My escape to the country is very different, or so I tell myself; inspired more by John Seymour than Country Life. I used to think this was quite pioneering of me, but it turns out that I am simply a minor player in a new wave of back-to-the-land-ists, the like of which hasn’t been seen since the seventies. Now, as then, thousands of people all over the country are planning their escape to somewhere half-broken down in the sticks, with a private water supply and a few acres. Now, as then, the inspiration is a mix of metropolitan ennui, desire to re-connect with the land, and fear of what the future is likely to bring. Not for us the Aga dreams of the Daily Telegraph set. We are facing the future with set faces and self-built chicken runs. We are going to grow our own mushrooms. We read the Oil Drum. We are preparing for civilisation to crash headlong into the buffers, and when it does we’re going to tell everyone that they should have listened to us.

In all this, we are just as predictably bourgeois as any shire Tory, and very urban with it. What I have discovered since moving here is that moving to the country does not make you a country person. It makes you an urban person surrounded by fields. Of course I knew this anyway, but it’s one thing to know something intellectually and another to know it because you live it. Take the farm I live on. It’s a beef and sheep operation, very well run by a cheery farmer with a lifetimes’ experience. He works twelve hour days, every day, mostly on his own, with occasional help from family and the odd contractor.

It’s a job I doubt I could ever do; I lack both the expertise and the stamina. I also lack the machines. Seeing daily how machine-dependent modern farming is has been fascinating. Here, the farm operates two tractors with a bewildering array of attachments, two quad bikes, a car, a digger and a pickup. It’s a stark illustration of how oil power has replaced muscle power in the rural landscape. One reading of it makes people like me, with our scythes and our self-sufficiency books, look nostalgic and silly. Another makes us look like an advance guard who are at least thinking about what to do once red diesel costs more than red wine.

Last year, in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a deliciously-titled book which I immediately bought. It was called The untutored townsman’s invasion of the country, and it was written in 1945 by someone called G. E. M. Joad. Joad was of both country and city stock, and was a leading light in the early Youth Hostel and Ramblers Associations. He was horrified by what over-development and commerce were doing to the countryside, and one of his solutions was to ‘tutor’ urban people in rural ways, mainly by getting them out walking in the hills. 65 years on, it’s fascinating to read Joad’s postwar take on the urban-rural rift:  

‘Most Englishmen have looked with indifference upon the decline of the countryside. As the interests of town and country came increasingly to diverge, some even regarded it with satisfaction. The interest of the towns was in cheap food which mainly came from abroad in the shape of imported corn, foreign meat and canned goods ... The townsman was certainly not going to give more for his food merely because it happened to have been produced in England, nor would he willingly pay higher taxes in order to maintain in solvency such an uneconomic luxury as British farming, merely because it happened to be on his own doorstep.’  

Joad’s book is now a period piece. His chapter on ‘The Country’s Enemies’ includes ‘camps and aerodromes’, this being just after the Second World War. ‘The sprawl’, another threat, is still relevant, though now it is perhaps manifested more in giant retail parks than lines of Betjeman-esqe suburban bungalows. The car – what he calls ‘the second industrial revolution [which] caused our towns to burst like bombs and scatter their debris far and wide over the surrounding countryside’ – has had the biggest impact on the integrity of the rural, as he predicted it would. One wonders what Joad would have made of the current threats to the land, imposed, like those before, to keep the inhabitants of cities in the style to which they have become accustomed. Superstores; second homes; motorways; and the new rash of ‘green’ energy projects, from turbine ranges to fields of solar arrays, owned by big energy companies and pushed by cosmopolitan environmentalists who attack local landscape defenders as ‘nimbys’ from the safety of their London offices.  

But though Joad’s book is history, as is much of the countryside he wrote of, it is far from irrelevant. He had picked out a moment in time, and put it down on paper. Many other writers before and since have done so, from Cobbett to Orwell via Daniel Defoe, Robert Blythe and J B Priestley. A couple of years ago I added my own modest effort, Real England, to the genre. That genre – I didn’t know this when I wrote my book – turns out to be an unofficial, unintended but poignant collective history of the impacts of advancing industrial capitalism on the British countryside. The process of enclosure, consolidation and profiteering was already well-advanced in Cobbett’s day, and today we see the same process – what Cobbett called ‘the Thing’ – still at work two centuries down the line. It has given us a countryside which is a combination of theme park and industrial park; a haven of wealth and isolation, its prettiest bits pickled for tourists and second homers, the rest layered with ‘development’ to keep the wheels of the urban machine turning.

People like me, with our mattocks and our books, are not going to reverse this historical process. What will? Joad reports a conversation he has with a taxi driver, a former Norfolk smallholder who had sold up and moved on:

'In the end,' said my driver, 'the whole place was swarming with townees. There was no peace and I had to leave.'  
'It will be worse after the war,' said I.  
‘It will indeed,' he agreed. 'If I were a younger man I would leave the country.'
'What would you do if you had your way,' I asked, 'to stop this sort of thing and keep the country as it was?'
'I'd sterilize them,' he said.
'Sterilize who?'
'Why a lot of these people from the towns. Stop them breeding. There are altogether too many of them.'

If nothing else, it seems our taxi drivers remain stoutly unspoilt by progress. Joad agrees that not much will get better till the country’s population gets ‘very much smaller’, though he rejects the driver’s brutal proposition. When Joad was writing, the population of the UK was 47 million; now it’s 60 million, and forecast to rise to over 70 million within a few decades. We long ago outstripped the country’s ability to support us with its own natural resources.

These days, people like me hope that peak oil and climate change will knock the machine off course, and force us to change direction: force us to relocalise for economic rather than sentimental reasons. Some of this is happening already: witness the rise of farmers markets, the official encouragement of low-impact development in parts of Wales, the government reports recognising the important of food security.  

Hopes of any planned, large-scale repulse of the Thing are probably false, however . Based on our past performance, we are more likely to push ahead with layering every inch of land with solar panels, giant wind turbines, high-speed rail networks and electric car charging stations in a desperate attempt to avoid having to change our lifestyles, selling this to our overwhelmingly urban population as ‘environmentalism’: the latest manifestation of the untutored townsman’s imperial project.  

In the meantime, this untutored townsman is going to continue with his attempt to find himself a few acres he can actually afford, and set to work with some pigs, a vegetable patch, fruit trees and a scythe. If nothing else, it will give the real farmers something to laugh about as they roll by on their tractors, which in itself is a service provided by the urban to the rural. It’s good to give something back.