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There goes the neighbourhood
Lock down and thenewwfhnormh ave seen city slicker sf lock to rural spots in search of the‘ simple life ’. But, argues clover stroud, the resulting disney fi cation is robbing the countryside of its true magic
The battle for the countryside. By Clover Stroud
Iwas sitting in a neighbour’s garden, for one of the first proper parties since lockdown, when a woman dressed in white with expensive-looking hair told me she was dreading the drive back to London. She’d spent the day in the next county looking at a farmhouse that had a cottage attached, which she was planning to do up as a holiday let, while also checking out the local prep school for her son.
‘It’s near Soho Farmhouse so I already know a ton of people in the area, it’s just like a rural Notting Hill,’ she informed me, surveying the green views around us. ‘And I’m in love with country life – isn’t it tranquil? I’m a fan of slow living and rural life is just so… simple.’
I sensed her practically shivering with delight at the fully formed fantasy she was cradling, of wandering across dew-wet grass in the early morning, wearing a floor-length Victorian nightie, carrying a trug, to deadhead roses before gathering fresh eggs from the hens that, she assured me, she ‘had on order’.
I inwardly snorted, deciding not to reveal the details of my day so far, which had started at 5.20am when I’d had to wring the neck of a chicken after a fox had massacred half of ours, leaving the rest flapping and flailing on the dung-covered floor. This was followed by standing for two hours with the local vet as she castrated one of my ponies, which had become rampantly obsessed with a mare. Mopping up blood among the straw had made me late for lunch and I resisted telling her that rural life is massively unforgiving to white clothes. I had to leave, anyway, to drive 20 minutes to pick my teenage daughter up from a bus, something I spend many hours a week doing in my ‘slow’ and ‘tranquil’ life.
Life in the country, I wanted to tell her, is often beautiful, but it’s not simpler than life in a city. And for a lot of people already living in the country, the idea of a rural Notting Hill is, frankly, utter hell.
I grew up in Wiltshire and have spent most of my life living in the countryside, apart from a stint in Oxford (a city often referred to as ‘the country’ by Londoners) during my mid-20s to mid-30s. We moved to a pocket of rural Oxfordshire eight years ago, on the edge of a very small village. The village where we live is beautiful and, thankfully, beautifully unkempt. There are no muted paint colours on the houses and the grass on the village green grows long, apart from the occasions, several times a year, when cows are put out there to graze it down, often making a huge mess in the process.
I don’t know anyone who commutes to London or has a weekend cottage here. It is, crucially, about 40 minutes’ drive to the nearest train station, which, when you factor in parking and buying a ticket, plus the train journey, makes it too much of a thrash
for most people to do a daily commute to the City. I know there are people who do, but you rarely see them since they leave before dawn, ashen-faced and exhausted. The fact that this area is not really commutable keeps the villages alive. Most of my friends were born here and have lived here all their lives.
The truth is that the reality of country life is much muddier, bloodier and noisier than the current exodus of city people, seduced by an Instagram-perfect lie of rural-lite living, might like to believe – and my fervent wish is that it stays that way. Living as I do in the countryside, it’s impossible not to notice the correlation between swathes of urban dwellers moving to rural areas, having sold extortionately valuable London properties, and the fact that the villages they move to can start taking on an almost Disney-esque quality, as otherwise messy, often decidedly unpicturesque rural life is prettified and gentrified. The rusty corrugated iron patching the hole in the overgrown hedge vanishes, gates that have been held together with baler twine for generations are replaced with spanking new fencing, hedges and verges are clipped to within an inch of their life and, in more extreme cases, church bells are silenced and complaints made about loud tractors and smelly farm animals. A friend in Somerset who farms sheep there recently told me that the couple who rented a weekend cottage backing on to her farm had complained – not once, but three times – that her sheep were too noisy most of the time, but especially during lambing season.
Ifeel intense sympathy for local people when their otherwise sleepy village or quiet rural town suddenly appears in a Sunday supplement as the ‘hot new spot to move to’; when the overly tasteful colours of certain paint companies suddenly start adorning every piece of woodwork in a village, it actually means the rot is setting in. Because once that happens, every cottage becomes a ‘doer-upper’, every barn no longer a place for bored teenagers to smoke among broken mowers, but the place for the hot tub and yoga studio. At that point, the village shop will morph into an artisan bakery, its Happy Shopper orange squash and Mother’s Pride white sliced bread replaced by almond lattes at £3.95 a pop and sourdough loaves that leave little change from a tenner. And house prices, inevitably, will become unreachable for anyone who doesn’t have a London property to sell.
This has been especially acute in Cornwall, where locals have, quite understandably, reacted with fury at the fact that in certain areas housing has become totally unaffordable. St Mawes has seen property prices rise 48 per cent in the last year; a ‘quintessential end-of-terrace former fisherman’s cottage’ costs well over half a million pounds, and you can guarantee that no local fishermen will be living there. Although it’s still not as expensive as Padstow, where, largely thanks to Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver, the average house price is £576,888 and former council houses are being snapped up as second homes or holiday rentals. There are moments, of course, when a flat white is very welcome, but gentrification – and prettification – also means something incalculably precious will have been lost, which is the beating heart of a local community with ties to that area for generations.
I know I am absolutely not alone in feeling a gathering sense of dread at the link between the rise of rustic chic and the sense that it is, quite frankly, ruining the countryside, turning it into a giant theme park. Back in May, I wrote an Instagram post decrying the Disneyfication of rural life. I issued a cry for verges to remain overgrown and paint to stay peeling. The post got 1,195 ‘likes’, and I was inundated with comments and messages from people all over the country complaining about the same thing. In Stroud, I was told, ‘Locals are priced out and new people moving here have very little understanding or tolerance for local/country ways.’ ‘House prices are BONKERS,’ said one, while
For people already living in the country the idea of a rural Notting Hill is, frankly, utter hell
another complained that ‘the existence of Daylesford Organic is destroying the village I grew up in, making housing so expensive, filling up the village with shiny Land Rovers that will never see any mud and pushing out the younger generation’. Someone in Frome wailed that the town had been voted ‘most desirable place to live in the UK’ five times by a Sunday supplement – death to those who already live there.
The mock-rural effect has been especially pronounced in the south-west, where I live, because of the mushrooming of rural private members’ clubs and uber-smart hotels – but messages of despair rolled in from around the nation. ‘Ride-on mowers everywhere here in Cheshire, tidying the canal banks, destroying the wildflowers,’ one message told me, while someone else commented, ‘It’s starting up here in Northumberland too, in fact it’s well underway, the creation of so-called “country living” style – catering to the “every holiday cottage has to have a hot tub or it’s not worth listing” crowd.’ Sleepy coastal villages, said the commenter, are ‘being over-developed with surf cafés’. ‘Happening in Devon too,’ I was told. ‘In the village where I grew up we had a working farm, post office, shop and local pub serving rough old cider and frequented mostly by bikers! Now the cottages are full of professional Londoners and llamas! Locals priced out and now living in nearest town full of new-builds.’
The impulse to tidy up the countryside isn’t new, but it has certainly been fanned by the pandemic and the way it’s made so many people rethink their lives. Last summer alone, Rightmove reported a 126 per cent increase in enquiries from people relocating from the city to the country. It is fuelled by the ridiculous impulse, largely driven by social media, towards a romantic (and bland) version of country life that even has a name (thanks to Instagram, of course): ‘cottagecore’, which promotes an ersatz fantasy of ‘slow living’ in the country. A filter is drawn over the reality: the smell of silage, the inconvenience of the complete absence of public transport and the wants of true locals, who would generally far rather their pub stayed as a proper boozer than was turned into a version of a private members’ club.
The village where I grew up was partly chosen by my mother because it was socially diverse, with lots of social housing alongside the old vicarages. As a result it wasn’t completely picturesque and certainly wasn’t one of the chocolate-boxpretty limestone villages up the road near Cirencester. Mum knew, even back then in the 1980s, that a scruffier village made for a village with more heart. She also believed in local life, so my sister and I went to the vil
lage school and the people Mum spent time with were not those who arrived on a Friday night and left on Monday morning. Some of my earliest memories are of her railing against anyone who tried to tidy up the cow parsley and bramble-tangled hedges running through the village. Something I inherited from her is a natural aversion to anyone (almost always a man) on a ride-on mower heading for a bank of cow parsley.
I feel incredibly lucky to live where I do and, although it’s in Oxfordshire, it’s not part of the Cotswolds, and neither is it in the socalled ‘smart’ area of Oxfordshire, favoured by former PMS, ageing rock stars and hedgefund managers. I live in fear, however, of a farmhouse-style country club, luxury farm shop or boutique hotel opening in this area. I have watched what has happened in the Cotswolds, which have become a Truman Show-style experience full of cloyingly pretty houses with monochrome interiors. Entire villages have been turned into utterly bland and safe versions of inverse ghettos, peopled only by the very rich, with village greens so immaculate, you feel you need to clean your boots to walk across them.
I had to unfollow a high-flying executive on Instagram who made her fortune (admittedly modest, at least for the Cotswolds, where the Bamfords, estimated wealth £5.6 billion, and Beckhams, estimated wealth upwards of £450 million, are neighbours) in the corporate world but who now waxes lyrical about her simple country life growing vegetables in her grand pile. During the first lockdown she left vegetable boxes in her village phone box for less fortunate residents – the irony apparently lost on her that she might as well have been leaving them in Mayfair, since hers is one of the wealthiest villages in the Cotswolds.
Rural poverty is an issue, of course – even somewhere like Gloucestershire. Those food boxes might have been very welcome down the road in Northleach, home of BBC comedy hit This Country, a mockumentary on the grindingly dull social isolation of rural life, starring real-life siblings Daisy May and Charlie Cooper. Leaving veg boxes by the bus shelter in Northleach would not, however, have looked quite so picturesque on Instagram.
New wealth moving to the country is not, of course, a new phenomenon. But from where I’m standing, the issue of rural division is hugely exacerbated by the state versus private educational system. In the countryside, those children from more affluent families – especially those moving from London – are almost always ferried off to private schools in grand houses with massive grounds and swanky sports facilities. All of my five children have been to the local village school and state secondary. My eldest son is 20, so I have watched his friends grow up. Some of them work as mechanics, some are at Cambridge, some work in the local supermarket, have gone into the Army or become plumbers. They are a socially diverse group of young people, who have learnt a lot about life, simply by being educated together. They have ambitions but, crucially, are also part of local life. I’ve met other parents at friends’ houses who simply go blank when I answer the name of a local state school after they ask me where my children go to school. There are many privately educated children living in the countryside who will never really know other locals, unless to employ them as a
plumber or electrician.
‘Now the cottages are full of Londoners and llamas – the locals are priced out’
Iam not sure what the answer to all of this is, since gentrification and prettification goes on everywhere, town and country. And, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with people moving out of cities into the country. Rather, it’s the impulse to change rural life, to tidy it up and put an Instagram filter over it, while patronising
locals about the ‘simplicity’ of their ‘slow’ lives, that’s robbing country life of much of its true magic. And real and lasting damage is done by those, like the lady I met at lunch, who want to transform every pretty village into a rural Notting Hill, turning cottages into holiday lets, since it completely kills local life.
I can’t see this changing. But in response, I’ll carry on sending my kids to local schools, leave the verges outside my house wilfully messy, and I certainly won’t be tagging my favourite, beloved by locals, pub, with the messy garden, broken garden chairs and excellent chips on my Instagram. That would ruin it.