Growing up in the countryside is no clichéd rural idyll.
If you think the series W1A is just a comedy, ask a BBC employee about it. You’ll hear answers like “that thing writes itself” (from the longer serving) to “I thought it was a documentary” (from the fresh faced).
Similarly, the brilliant BBC mockumentary This Country could have been my teenage-hood – it’s so close to what it was like growing up in the Cotswolds, just one town down the road from writer Daisy May Cooper’s series. People don’t believe me because my parents didn’t have an accent so neither do I.
But beware making judgments. Listen to Henson: he sounds like a Wurzel but rides horses and went to private school. I can’t ride for toffee and went to the local comprehensive in Tetbury, a town with a posh high street where Prince Charles has a shop (I don’t think he puts in a shift), but has more depth if you head into the estates on the outskirts.
It was here at my school that the ‘crisp bar’ served 10 different potato snacks; where our maths teacher spent lessons telling us about her salad days as a journalist in London interviewing Hendrix while we looked out of the window (and got so desperate we even tried mushrooms one lesson); and where one of the sharpest drug masterminds of his age – years before Breaking Bad – walked the corridors.
But it didn’t start out like that. Like many rural primaries, mine was small – at one time there were fewer than 30 pupils – offering a gentle introduction to learning. I don’t remember a great deal of it but I do recall emphasis on the harvest festival, country dancing and May Day during which we danced around the maypole, and crowned a May King and Queen with days of celebrations. Looking back, it was quite pagan, making the connection with nature.
It was only when I hit secondary school that the ruse of the rural idyll evaporated. There’s a misconception that country schools are more wholesome than their urban counterparts. But with less going on for young people in the countryside, we just get started earlier. Most of our trips to Dursley to go mushroom picking were unsuccessful and we didn’t have the wheels to get to the Promised Land: Wales.
But my friend’s parents were pretty liberal and had a generator so we whiled away weekends in the rave scene. Long before Facebook, I remember her stresssing because strangers had heard about it and were coming “all the way from Cheltenham” to bring trouble. Even at school, the ice-cream van – which parked in the playground to offer nutritious snacks – sold cider lollies and more besides.
But it wasn’t all horseplay. There was sadness and suffering, too. During my time at school, one pupil managed to track down his birth mother just weeks before she was murdered and, tragically for everyone, one pupil killed his adoptive mother when he was just 17. Like many rural areas, having the freedom to drive was essential and there were young men with new licenses finding out how breakable we all are.
School catchment areas are bigger in the countryside so commutes are longer. In the early days, my journey was a 25-minute walk and a 45-minute bus ride (homework copying time). The children from the hills with little traffic sense would crowd around the door of the bus as it was still pulling up, in a desperate bid to sit near the back. Anna Norman from the fourth year getting her foot run over didn’t seem to teach anyone a lesson. Too many boys missed their stops when their ties had been fastened to the infrastructure of the bus.
I remembered our bus more fondly recently when comparing experiences with a friend who went to a boarding school where there was little chance to escape the odd characters. Every day at 3pm, we knew we’d hop on board and get out of there with a “see you later, weirdos” attitude. Back home to watch TV in peace.
This was the country I knew. It was of course made up of landowners and farmers and horse riders – just as people imagine the country is – but I didn’t know any back then. What I knew was a countryside full of teachers, ice-cream van owners, bus drivers, police detectives and ravers. This is my country.
Watch Ellie on Countryfile on Sunday evenings on BBC One.