Is the “Good Life” really that good? Charlotte Philcox reflects on two lessons from history about living on the land that tell both sides of the story.
Is it really such a ‘good life’?
There’s nothing quite like a bit of gentle gardening to take away the stresses and strains of modern life. I’m not talking about the anxiety of “must dos”, like a lawn which needs cutting, but the soothing effect of getting your hands in the soil, helping plants to grow, sowing seeds, and being out in the open air.
I was lucky enough to grow up on what many people would now call a smallholding. My parents grew much of our own food, and we kept donkeys, chickens and geese. Most of the time, I loved it - unless, of course, it was my turn to clean out the hen house. And it was then that I realised what a lot of hard work it all involved. Unfortunately, the “Good Life” isn’t always as idyllic as it looks, and these days despite all its joys, even my own modest garden can overwhelm me.
The idea of going back to the land is nothing new, and over the centuries, many town dwellers have tried to “live the dream”. Norfolk’s own Fanny Burney, who became the best-selling author of her time and had a big influence on Jane Austen, was someone who tried the rural life - albeit briefly.
Born in King’s Lynn in 1776, Fanny lived a life worthy of one of her own romances. A highly successful writer, she later became a lady-in-waiting at the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte, before marrying a penniless, exiled French general, called Monsieur Alexandre D’Arblay. Shortly after their wedding in 1793, the newly-weds moved to the country, renting a cottage in Great Bookham, Surrey, where they attempted to grow fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, they hadn’t much of a clue, and their idealism about country living was soon to pale.
Fanny wrote in her diaries about the pleasures of eating fresh cabbages from the garden - although these had virtually run to seed before the couple realised that they were edible. She also described her husband’s attempts at gardening. He appears to have attacked the garden with military
fervour, and after having a go at pruning, which she wrote that he carried out “with his utmost skill and strength”, their landlady begged him to stop spoiling her fruit trees. He then went on to attempt the “mowing” of a hedge with his sabre. At one point, his work with a spade resulted in his digging up and destroying an asparagus bed by mistake.
The D’Arblays’ good intentions finally came to an end when someone left the garden gate open, and animals from the neighbouring farm escaped into the vegetable plot, trampling on their plants. It must have been a relief for all concerned when the couple finally left the cottage for good and moved to a newly-built house of their own.
Another idealist from London was to play a part in establishing the hamlet of Brookville, near Methwold in south Norfolk. In late Victorian England, agriculture was in the doldrums, and Prime Minister Gladstone encouraged people to take part in “La petite culture”, or the taking up of productive smallholdings. In 1889, this inspired London businessman Robert Goodrich, to leave the city and attempt to live on two or three acres of Norfolk land, taking part in a movement which was very much in line with contemporary thinking.
Goodrich started by building his own simple house, Brook Glen, two and a half miles from Stoke Ferry railway station, and planted most of his land with fruit trees. He was soon selling surplus produce directly to contacts in London. Initially successful, his project expanded, and fellow idealists (again, mostly from London) were invited to join him, on some 50 individual two to 10-acre plots, which were made available as part of the new, co-operative Methwold Fruit Farm Colony. There, for around £ 500 each, settlers could build their own small brick or wooden cottage home, sink a well, buy tools and seeds, and start putting the land into production, selling any surplus in the same way as Goodrich. The only requirement was that most of them, like him, had to be vegetarian.
So popular was the venture, that after 10 years, the settlement covered an area of around 160 acres, and even had its own small jam factory and printing press. Much of the fruit, honey, eggs, butter, vegetables, flowers, jam and tobacco produced, was sent directly to customers in London, via Stoke Ferry railway station. Members also made poultry houses, beehives and “rustic” furniture for sale, planted osier beds for the making of baskets, and employed local people. They even had plans to start a Thrift Industrial Home for boys, to educate them in practical skills, and to train girls in horticulture.
So successful were things becoming that in 1912, a Post Office was set up and since the head Post Office in Norwich didn’t approve of this being called “The Fruit Colony”, the name Brookville was chosen instead.
However, the enthusiasm of the smallholders was short-lived. Some say that they didn’t have much idea of how to go about marketing their produce, but it is more likely that the outbreak of the First World War must have taken its toll.
The venture came to an end shortly after the death of Robert Goodrich in 1917.
Portrait of Fanny Burney.
Some of the archive material about Brookville, kindly provided by Chris Stone of Methwold.
THE GOOD LIFE: Many people think that life on the land will be easy, but it takes hard work and skill.