It’s in our DNA

Why lov­ing the coun­try­side is a pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish am­bi­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Mark Hedges Pho­to­graph by Martin Birks

Liv­ing in the coun­try­side is a pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish am­bi­tion, points out Mark Hedges

I Nthe beau­ti­ful church­yard of St An­drew’s, Mells, is a me­mo­rial to Prime Min­is­ter’s son Ray­mond Asquith, who was killed dur­ing the First World War, as well as the grave of the poet Siegfried Sas­soon. Their close ties to this quiet cor­ner of Som­er­set coun­try­side tell us much about our na­tion.

The only peo­ple who yearn to live in the French coun­try­side are the Bri­tish’

The wars of the 20th cen­tury made peo­ple ques­tion what they were fight­ing for and the coun­try­side was used as pro­pa­ganda. It cre­ated feel­ings of pa­tri­o­tism and nos­tal­gia and pulled at the heart­strings.

Many fought for a coun­try­side they had never seen. Visit a ru­ral par­ish church and you’ll find dukes, earls and aris­to­crats buried there. This doesn’t hap­pen in France, for in­stance; the coun­try­side there was for peas­ants, not no­ble­men, whereas our coun­try­side is for all. It’s in the Bri­tish DNA; our homes are our cas­tles and we build our Jerusalems in this green and pleas­ant land.

I was once in­vited to the Ja­panese em­bassy. Over lunch, a se­nior of­fi­cial told me: ‘We have a big prob­lem in Ja­pan. We can­not get our peo­ple to live in the coun­try­side. Every­one wants to live in Tokyo or Osaka. What does your gov­ern­ment do to make peo­ple move out of towns?’

I ex­plained that it was the op­po­site in the UK, where peo­ple as­pire to live in the coun­try­side. A move to the prov­inces is seen as a mark of suc­cess. This de­sire for ru­ral life is a defin­ing part of our na­tion, but doesn’t hap­pen in France or Italy. In­deed, the only peo­ple who yearn to live in the French coun­try­side are the Bri­tish.

Why do we have such a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with our ru­ral land­scape? When COUN­TRY

LIFE did a sur­vey with a well-known poll­ster, we asked ‘if you could, would you like to live in the coun­try­side?’. More than 60% said yes, although only 14% ac­tu­ally do.

Bri­tain has more var­ied ge­ol­ogy than any other coun­try of com­pa­ra­ble size. An­cient tec­tonic plates sculpted this is­land into the most beau­ti­ful, var­ied land­scape in the world. The rocks be­neath de­fine the land: the chalk downs in Hamp­shire and Sus­sex are as dif­fer­ent from the gran­ite of the West Coun­try as the an­cient vol­ca­noes of the Grampians are from the lime­stone of the Peak District. If you drive 100 miles across Bri­tain, the land­scape will thrillingly and con­stantly change.

Be­neath these beau­ti­ful hills and dales, there once lay great seams of coal that drove and pow­ered the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. It couldn’t have hap­pened with­out it, but the vast fur­naces and mills elicited a re­ac­tion against the smoke and grime.

Move­ments such as the Pic­turesque and Arts-and-crafts sprang up. Wilder­ness, once re­garded as waste­land, be­came pop­u­lar. The Lake District, which re­cently be­came the UK’S first na­tional park to be awarded UNESCO World Her­itage sta­tus, fi­nally had some­thing to of­fer.

Our lit­er­a­ture is lo­cally dis­tinc­tive—our great­est writ­ers are of a place. Think of

Hardy, Austen, the Bron­tës or Wordsworth, and you think of a par­tic­u­lar part of the coun­try.

Roy­alty also played its part. Vic­to­ria and Al­bert led the way by buy­ing Bal­moral and San­dring­ham. Get­ting out of Lon­don be­came fash­ion­able. Add the in­ven­tion of the car and the ex­ten­sive rail net­work and an es­cape from the black­ened cities to the gar­dens of Eden be­came ever more pos­si­ble. It was at this point, 120 years ago, that Coun­try Life was launched. It has thrived ever since and sells more copies than it did a decade ago.

In­ter­est in the coun­try­side is now at an all-time high. Fewer peo­ple than ever work the land, but mil­lions more are beguiled by it. The BBC’S Coun­try­file vies with Eastenders as the most watched pro­gramme on tele­vi­sion; the Na­tional Trust is the sec­ond-big­gest mem­ber­ship or­gan­i­sa­tion in Bri­tain with 4.5 mil­lion peo­ple. Walk­ing is the sin­gle most pop­u­lar pas­time in Bri­tain. Our coun­try­side is a new re­li­gion.

How­ever, these masses want a dif­fer­ent sort of coun­try­side to the one that we now have and de­ci­sions made over the next few years will de­fine what it will mean to call your­self a Bri­ton in the fu­ture.

I be­lieve that there will be a new democrati­sa­tion of the land­scape, thanks to its pop­u­lar­ity and the fall­out of Brexit. Any sub­si­dies paid to farm­ers af­ter 2020 will come with in­creas­ing strings at­tached; there will be calls for more ac­cess, more ac­count­able en­vi­ron­men­tal schemes and less in­ten­sive farm­ing. Then the ques­tion will be, who re­ally owns the land?

The lure of work­ing in cities will di­min­ish, with ever-higher rents and longer and more tire­some com­mutes prompt­ing more of us to work from home. As su­per-fast broad­band is even­tu­ally rolled out, vil­lage life will un­dergo a re­nais­sance, these set­tle­ments trans­formed from dor­mi­to­ries to work­places. Many of us will move back to the coun­try­side, the place we re­ally want to be. Our DNA is call­ing.

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