Back to nature

For his latest series, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall goes in search of the downsizer's dream - the rural idyll
In the opening, animated title sequence for Escape to River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's new Channel 4 series, the presenter is pictured driving his convertible out of London. Stuck in nose-to-tail traffic on an urban flyover, he frowns while assailed on all sides by choking exhaust fumes, flying litter and blaring sirens. As soon as he progresses onto the open country roads, though, he hears birds tweeting and cows mooing, and his face brightens into a smile.

The cartoon encapsulates the yearning for the rural idyll experienced by more and more city-dwellers. The town-country debate is crystallised in Escape to River Cottage, as Fearnley-Whittingstall, a card-carrying urbanite, tries his hand at that buzz-phrase - "downsizing". Over the course of a six-part series, he kicks the city for a summer of rural bliss rearing pigs and growing vegetables on a picturesque Dorset smallholding.

Among townies, there's a deep desire to commune with nature that predates The Good Life or A Year in Provence by several millennia. "I hope I'm by no means alone in considering myself a rural-urban schizophrenic," says Fearnley-Whittingstall. "I live in the town, but I think I belong in the country. There are probably millions of us.

"It's a bit like transvestitism," he continues, warming to the theme. "We rush down to the country at weekends and put on a shabby coat and holey jeans to pretend we're farmers. Then we try to get as much mud as we can on our boots and under our fingernails.

"People who downsize very rarely regret it. Moving to the country is an itch that just gets worse until, at some point, you have to run for it."

In the first episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall meets someone who has run for it, downsizer Gary Fooks, who teaches the presenter how to spear fish off the Dorset coast. "Three years ago, I stood on these rocks thinking, `I don't want to be on that Tube tomorrow morning'," says Fooks. "So we packed up, left London and came down here. It gets better every day."

Isn't Fearnley-Whittingstall worried that his series will prompt thousands of townies to decamp and spoil his tranquillity? "People who like going for weekends might give it a whirl," he says, "but we're not going to see a mass-exodus from London or high-rise blocks sprouting up in Bridport."

Escape to River Cottage also features the sort of Fearnley-Whittingstall trademark "freshly picked from nature's kitchen" dishes that we've already seen in Cook on the Wild Side. But he stresses that the series is not mere foodie fare. "Most food programmes end at the point where the food is served up. But with programmes like this and TV Dinners, it's not just dinner, it's a party. A lot of programmes are trying to catch the next food trend and feed it back to the public as a slick recipe. The food in River Cottage is not fashionable, but good for company."

The series involves killing quite a few animals - in the first episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall shoots pigeons - and it is likely to annoy vegetarians. "I'm trying to address the hypocrisy surrounding meat consumption," he says. "There is no meat without killing. A lot of people who get hot under the collar about me eating squirrels are carnivores themselves. They're saying `How can you eat those creatures with fluffy tails?', while they're happily loading their supermarket trolleys with pork products from animals that have been intensively reared. It's all about consistency."

After six series on C4, Fearnley-Whittingstall's rugged charms have turned him into an unlikely heart-throb, but he is amazed by the idea. "I can assure you that people don't send me their knickers in the post. There isn't a gaggle of teenage fans out there baying to tear my clothes off - I wish there were."

`Escape to River Cottage' starts tomorrow at 7pm on C4

James Rampton