At the point in the nineteenth century when Britain completed its transformation from a largely agricultural to a predominantly industrial economy, another transformation was all-but complete as a consequence of the changes. Every industry eventually had its own accompanying metropolis, boasting recognisably Victorian town centres resplendent with civic buildings, statues and squares, adhering to a familiar formula that also stretched to housing, encompassing both suburb and slum. The speed with which industry facilitated the urbanisation of the landscape gave the impression such locations were prototypes for the mid-twentieth century ‘New Towns’, as though they had sprung-up overnight, going direct from an architect’s drawing board to land that had previously been little more than mere fields.
The truth was, however, that most British cities had grown organically, at first filling in the empty spaces dividing networks of ancient villages and then swallowing the villages whole, absorbing them into the bigger picture. Although the areas of some cities today retain their village roots solely in terms of the rivalries between different neighbourhoods – sometimes even varying in their interpretation of the locality’s accent – there are others that defiantly cling to a townie’s ideal of village life, complete with the conveniences genuine village living lacks and missing all the inconveniences that come with the country.
A friend of mine once lived in such a ‘village’ on the outskirts of a certain town famed for its production of footwear. Her account of the so-called community seems like an accurate barometer of those who want the best of both worlds. The majority of homes were hidden from view behind high hedges and fences; everyone resident there travelled to and from their castles via the internal combustion engine, so anybody passing through on foot would be immediately suspected of being up to no good. Children playing on the street were notable by their absence on account of so many being dispatched to private schools, and the high price of housing meant anyone born and raised there couldn’t afford to retain their roots in the vicinity, anyway.
Communication between dwellers of these miniature citadels would be limited to sharing complaints about planning applications to build a genuine village necessity such as a shop, i.e. something that threatened to despoil the pseudo-rural facsimile; otherwise, nothing beyond a communal gripe could unite the disparate residents. Once the commute from the workplace was done for the day, inhabitants would retreat behind doors that caused a regular headache for the postman on account of lacking something as common as a number. This ‘commuter community’ was essentially a collection of isolated properties populated by people for whom the substance of the environment in which their home was situated would be restricted to its superficial surface.
All to a man were city expats that had fed into the urban notion of countryside, one that the actual countryside isn’t exactly conducive to. Natives often comment on how new arrivals to rural neighbourhoods tend to moan about sonic disruption from cockerels at the crack of dawn or church bells indulging in Sunday morning pealing; they whinge to farmers about the aroma of manure and view traditional country practices vital to the agricultural calendar as disruptive to the bucolic idyll derived from TV shows wherein smug, moneyed middle-class couples convert decrepit barns into homes possessing all the mod cons their past address possessed, basically transplanting their London life to prettier surroundings with no attempt to adapt to those surroundings at all.
When her house was on the market, it seemed at one stage that my friend’s home would be purchased by a pikey-ish Irish builder bearing more than a passing resemblance to the late lamented actor Brian Glover, a man not known for playing urbane sophisticates. I think the prospect of the upset such a gruff and ‘uncouth’ character – along with his brood of children and grandchildren – would cause her snooty neighbours appealed to her mischievous side, though the exchange unfortunately fell through due to the builder’s eagerness to do a cash-in-hand deal because he didn’t have a bank account.
Fear of the rougher element they imagined they’d left behind in the city bringing down the tone of their new neighbourhood is extended to the locals on occasion by these nouveau-riche villagers. One such local is stable-owner Linda Watson, whose exasperation with the attitude of those who have colonised her village in Cambridgeshire led to her publicly declaring they were ‘up their own arses’ following council rejection of her plans to build temporary accommodation for her stable workers thanks to village opposition. In response, she has tapped into their deepest fears by offering to sell her land to travellers, provoking a further storm of protest in the process.
The plot in question has an estimated value of £350,000 and Linda Watson says she’s already been flooded with calls since she made an announcement which sounds more of a cry for help. ‘I have had it up to here and I want to leave and move abroad,’ she says. ‘I can’t do this any longer. I would be a bastard to offer this land to a family that wants to use the land for stables because the neighbours make keeping horses here a nightmare.’ She does add a conciliatory note, however, by saying ‘I would welcome any villager to come and see me and talk to me and know that I’m not an ogre. I’m just at my wit’s end and I have had no support from the village.’
Relocating to the rural is a luxury of the wealthy, but the relocation is on their own terms; they often bring little to what’s already there, especially if it doesn’t square with their idea of what the rural represents. But in their attempt to remodel the rural in their own image, they’re ironically killing what made it such an alternative to the urban in the first place.
© The Editor