The British countryside: Pastoral idyll or rural fantasy?

The UK is one of the few countries in the developed world that is experiencing counter-urbanisation – that is, people flocking from towns to the country rather than the other way around.

And there seems to be quite a number of reasons why – since the Romantic period of the early-to-mid-1880s, lots of Brits seem to have had quite a nostalgic, pastoral idyll-type view of rural life, with a thatched cottage and roses round the door being a common ideal.

So as broadband becomes increasingly available, it becomes more and more possible for people to work away from urban centres and live the dream, while also providing the kids with more space to play safely.

As a result, more than half a million businesses are now registered in England’s rural areas alone, accounting for just under a quarter of the national total and contributing nicely to a rural economy worth £210 billion.

Moreover, as urban living becomes increasingly expensive, especially in big cities such as London, those who can afford it have started looking elsewhere for a housing bargain, weighing up the cost of commuting against a lower or getting-more-for-your money mortgage and better quality of life.

That’s certainly the case here in Saffron Walden, which despite its hefty one hour train journey into London Liverpool Street, has morphed in the two years we were away in South Africa from a sleepy backwater to commuter belt-land for creative types – designers, marketers and writers of various forms by the score. It’s all a bit disconcerting really.

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Anyway, another distinct group that has progressively been wending its way country-wards is the artistic community. A key driver here seems to be that creatives, and visual artists in particular, need cheap space to do their thing, but as gentrification continues apace across urban landscapes, they are increasingly being priced out.

But even the big boys and girls of the art world are at it, with Britart’s Sarah Lucas locating herself near Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Damien Hirst treating himself to a pile in the shape of Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire.

Dark underbelly

What this all means though is that the English countryside’s population is expected to grow by 6%, which equates to more than half a million people, over the next decade. Some 9.3 million people, or 17.6% of the national total, already live in rural areas. But such a big influx of newcomers does raise certain questions as to how the existing infrastructure will cope.

In Saffron Walden, for instance, none of the schools are now taking new kids. Most, if not all, of the NHS dentists have shut their books, and innumerable houses continue to be squashed into wherever there’s a bit of free land with no concomitant upgrading of the roads, sewage or water system. Which is all a bit concerning for the long-term health and wellbeing of the place really.

Beyond such concerns though, it also seems that many beautiful country areas have a rather dark but rarely talked about underbelly – rural poverty.

Although on the surface of it, communities may appear well-heeled and affluent, in reality as many as one in five rural households in the UK, which means 700,000 children, live below the official poverty line. While about half are in households where someone is working, the problem is that most traditional employment in the countryside is seasonal, low-skilled and poorly paid with few or no prospects for career progression.

But things are also made worse by energy bills that are on average 27% higher than in urban areas. Chocolate box country cottages cost a lot to heat, particularly if you have to use expensive oil due to a lack of gas supplies in your area.

Then there’s the issue of poor rural transport services, which have been badly hit by austerity-driven funding cuts, leading to widespread reductions in scheduled bus services. But even if you do have a car, there’s still the issue of having to travel further to the nearest shop, cash point or bank, which again all costs money in petrol.

Certainly, one community that has been struggling financially for some time is the Cumbrian hill farmers. They’ve been looking after Herdwick sheep, which are native to the Lakeland fells (mountains) and have been bred for centuries to suit the landscape, for 1,000 years.

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The sheep were believed to have been introduced by the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries and their name is derived from the Old Norse ‘herdvyck’, which means ‘sheep pasture’. Lakeland children’s author Beatrix Potter also bred them and even won a number of prizes at country shows for her efforts.

Herdwick fell farming

When she died, she bequeathed 15 farms or 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, with strict instructions that the local Herdwick shepherds have access to it as common grazing land, a stipulation that still stands to this day.

But towards the end of the last century, it became progressively difficult for them to make a living by farming the breed without external support. Open market prices for fleeces routinely fell as low as a penny a kilogram, which is the equivalent of the weight of wool from a single sheep.

And without European Union farming subsidies and direct monetary guarantees for wool prices from the National Trust, it would cost farmers more to shear their sheep than it would to sell the wool. As a result, until the National Trust started acting as a merchant in order to negotiate prices directly with the British Wool Marketing Board, many farmers had no choice but to simply burn their fleeces.

Most now manage to get by due to the subsidies, by selling lambs and even doing other jobs on the side to supplement their income – as does James Rebanks who wrote the recently published ‘The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District‘ and who has a second job consulting on the impact of tourism around the world for Unesco.

The aim of his excellent book, which is well worth a read if you get the chance, was to try and make people aware of a way of life that is utterly different to the romantic view of the place put forth by the likes of William Wordsworth – and which passes mainly unnoticed to the 16 million or so tourists who flood into the area every year.

Anyway, it seems that the sheep farmers now have another advocate in the form of Spencer Hannah who runs local award-winning design firm, the Herdy Company, which sells gift items inspired by the Herdwicks.

Herdy

But Hannah has now taken it all a step further and created a Herdwick brand, which he launched as a fashion label at the 165-year-old Grasmere Lakeland Sports Show at the end of August. The aim is to sell designer hats, flat caps, scarves and bags made from a blend of the sheep’s coarse wool under the firm’s Herdy Country range in a bid to take on the Western Isles’ famous Harris Tweed.

It is also hoped that the move could help boost sales of Herdwick meat, which used to be so well regarded that it was served to the Queen at her coronation banquet apparently. In 2013, the meat even joined another 64 UK products such as Melton Mowbray pork pies and blue Stilton cheese in receiving Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union, the aim being to protect its reputation and promote traditional agricultural activity.

Which just goes to show that, even when things seem impossible, a bit of creative thinking really can go a long way.

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