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.

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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.

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