Country & Garden: Country Matters - Has rural life really changed?

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IT IS fascinating to read a description from exactly 100 years ago, particularly when it perfectly mirrors your own experience. Having just been maddened by the sight of thistledown drifting in over the hedge from unkempt fields next door, I happened on the following passage, written on 29 August 1898.

"The second sight I saw was that of long streams of thistle seeds being borne by a stiff breeze on to my land from territories in the possession of neighbouring powers. I believe that it has been declared by competent courts of law that an action lies against a neighbour whose fields produce an unreasonable crop of weeds ... I never heard, however, of such a suit being brought ... It seems to me that the damage would be very difficult to prove."

The writer? None other than Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon's Mines and many other rousing romances. As a young man Haggard spent six years in South Africa, but later he settled down to farm in Norfolk, becoming an expert on agriculture and forestry, and in 1898 he kept a detailed record of operations on his own land, later published as A Farmer's Year.

Then, as now, British agriculture was in a state of crisis brought on by the importation of cheap food from abroad. The author, though only 42, was in gloomy mood, and introduced himself as a farmer "engaged in a desperate effort to make my farming pay". In his daily observations he left a fascinating snapshot of rural life a century ago. The summer of 1898 was wretched and the harvest was late. Most of the corn was still cut by hand, but Haggard had just bought a new device: an American mechanical reaper.

Before the machine could begin, "a pathway for it must be mown round the field with a scythe. Then the thing starts, drawn by two horses. It is beautiful to see it work, for it cuts wonderfully clean, the arms sweeping the bundles of corn from the platform in sheaves."

However, the machine had its drawbacks. Haggard read in the newspapers of a "terrific accident", in which the horses had bolted and their owner, trying to stop them, was "thrown to the ground and so cut about by the knives that he died".

Haggard enjoyed seeing "a great white owl hawking silently in the twilight", and is delighted when, during the rebuilding of a cottage, a brick is found bearing the incised date 1393.

No doubt Rider Haggard would be horrified if he saw East Anglia today: the prairification, the disappearance of hedges, the traffic. But his journal shows how valuable a straightforward, day-to-day record of events and ideas can become for future generations.

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