Go to hell? You live in it
Two weeks ago, we published an article in which townies attacked that sacred cow, the British countryside. Here, Duff Hart-Davis speaks up for bumpkins
Tuesday 25 April 1995
Busy streets are bad enough, but fouler by far is the London Underground: to me, the dead, stale air pouring up out of the tunnels is the breath of hell, and fully indicative of the conditions prevailing down below.
The worst feature of these smells is that they do not change from one season to the next. The exhalations of Hades remain the same in spring, summer, autumn and winter, numbing the minds of those condemned to troglodytic travel, and weakening their contact with reality.
In the country, by contrast, the smells are ever-changing. Townies find some offensive, I know: cow muck is sharp, silage effluent sharper, oilseed rape flowers nauseating. But the point is that they come and go, continually reminding one of the time of year.
At the moment, the smells round us on the Cotswolds escarpment are glorious. On the frosty mornings last week an astonishing mixture of bluebell and wild garlic, nicely chilled, came flowing down out of the woods on the escarpment and washed across the fields, to mingle with the scent of balsam drifting from the poplars. In a couple of weeks, all three will be over and gone, but then in June we shall have the incomparable delight of hay baking in the sun. And so it goes on throughout the year.
"The country's so beautiful now that it would need wild horses to tear me away from it," declares the novelist Jilly Cooper, who once lived in the capital but has long since gone to ground in deepest Gloucestershire. "I adore London, but the country's a gentler place, where you can hide away a bit." She confesses her need for a "dogshit-free, shouting zone" in which to exercise herself and her pets every morning.
And what of that essence of winter evenings, the scent of woodsmoke? I could not live in a place where I was forbidden to indulge in mild pyromania, for an open woodfire is the centrepiece of any living room and the warmth produced by a wood-burning stove is infinitely more comforting than that of central heating.
Leave aside the fact that one's chances of being accidentally knocked down or deliberately mugged are infinitely greater in town. Think instead of cars, and the nightmare of trying to park anywhere in a city centre. The search for a refuge is enough to drive a stranger to frenzy, and the rate at which meters devour pound coins comes as a paralysing shock.
Somebody in the last article complained that country people talk about nothing except each others' affairs. What else do city folk talk about, for God's sake, unless it is jobs and transport problems? What could be more tedious than to hear that someone has been sacked or stuck on the M25? Of course we talk about people's affairs - and half the fun of a small community is that gossip crackles round at an incredible rate, because the circuit it travels is so tight.
Time to talk: that is one of the vital differences. In cities, people are always in a rush, tense with stress as they fight their way from home to work. Here in the sticks, folk stop for a chat. Indeed, I know that if I meet Dave (another keen moocher) on the way to the village, the 10- minute walk will extend to 20 as we discuss such burning topics as the chance of more rain, the best man who was hospitalised with alcohol poisoning the night before the wedding, and the goshawk which has been killing tame pigeons ("Fred had his foot on the bugger, but he were too bloody slow.")
The novelist Joanna Trollope sees living in a rural community as "rather like being on board a ship. You know people of every age and type, and you've got to get on with them all." She feels that if she and her husband, the television playwright Ian Curteis, lived in London, they would see only people of their own kind, "to do with books and television - and that's not good for anybody."
Townies suppose that we yokels are bereft of serious conversation. Far from it: there are plenty of intelligent, amusing people about, but, like foxes or badgers, they have the sense to keep their heads down and remain out of sight when yuppies hit the pubs at weekends.
Another erroneous supposition is that we are cut off from live culture. On the contrary: the Theatre Royal in Bath has an excellent repertoire; the Welsh National Opera gives admirable performances in Bristol, where seats cost about one-tenth of what one would pay to hear a single yelp from Pavarotti, and local bookshops have high-speed systems, so that most new books we order arrive next day.
Restaurants? All over the place, and first-class. As for food, things tend to be fresher and cheaper than in cities. But if you live in the country, you have the space to grow much of what you eat. And even those who don't want to dirty their hands can pick up good bargains through barter or local purchase. We produce our own beef and lamb all year round, fruit and vegetables all summer. In no shop can you buy new potatoes like those cooked within 20 minutes of being dug. My honey would fetch fortunes in Harrods.
Above all, we have our own eggs. Recently, this newspaper carried an article giving lengthy instructions about how to search out free-range eggs in shops. Forget it: the only real egg is the one you've seen your own hen lay, the one whose ingredients you can vouch. Our eggs are built on a capital diet of grain, grass, worms, insects and the occasional mouse filched from one of the cats.
Another important consideration is real beer. Chas Wright, proprietor of our village brewery, originator of the stunning Pigor Mortis ale, has lived in Leeds and Bristol, but would never return to a city. In the country, he finds, "it's easier to perceive people as individuals". Rather than "commute like an ant", he prefers to earn less money in more congenial surroundings. Most customers are friends who keep the kind of traditional pubs he enjoys, and he likes "being able to go into a pub and have a crack with the landlord, not with some snotty jerk of a barman".
Finally, the hills. Edinburgh and Durham do, I have heard, go up and down a bit, but show me a decent hill in Birmingham, Manchester or York. As for London, I recall with pleasure the words of that eccentric 17th- century traveller John Taylor, known as "the Water Poet", on reaching the Scottish Highlands. Compared with the mountains there, he wrote:
Shooter's Hill, Gad's Hill, Highgate Hill, Hampstead Hill are but mole- hills in comparison, or like a liver or a gizard under a capon's wing, in respect of the altitude of their tops or the perpendicularity of their bottoms.
Alas, I do not live in the Highlands, but behind the house I do have a one-in-in four hill, from the top of which I can not only gaze at the Welsh mountains 40 miles to the west, but also look down with pity on the masses who swarm in one-dimensional conurbations.
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