The dark side of the rural idyll

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEKEND we visited some friends who recently moved to north Oxfordshire, to a little village that fulfils almost every unrealistic fantasy that city-dwellers have about the countryside. There were no ugly new bungalows, just ancient cottages and barns built out of honey-coloured Cotswold stone, clustered around a peaceful 12th-century church. The local pub had a clientele that looked as if it had been sent over from BBC central casting: a couple of very posh horsey types in muddy riding boots; a few cheerful old men smoking pipes and talking about the weather; and some friendly labradors lolling on the floor in front of the fire. And that wasn't all: this pub had locally-brewed beers, and home-made free- range sausages and pheasant stew for lunch, at prices so low that I thought the barman must have made a mistake. But no, apparently some days the food is free, because the proprietor is a nice man who brims with community spirit.

After lunch, I took my five-year-old son for a walk down to the stream, and we passed a farmer who invited us to see his calves. These were happy calves, frolicking in clean straw in a warm barn with two pygmy goats for company. We stroked and fed them, and I thought, this is how children should be brought up, out in the fresh air with animals and streams and fields and little tweeting birds.

By the time we'd got back to our friends' house, I had the future planned. We would take over the local post office, which is run from the front room of a picturesque cottage; and as there is no village shop I could step into the breach and sell organic bread baked by my husband, and wholesome vegetables from nearby farms, and delicious chutneys made by dear old ladies. Maybe I'd start a playgroup, too, and I'd also have chickens and possibly a bottle-fed lamb and a pony.

My children would thrive, apple-cheeked and snot-free. There would be no more need to plonk them in front of Postman Pat videos on rainy afternoons, because their lives would be like one long Postman Pat story, full of funny little interludes with cows and ducks and tractors. And I wouldn't have to read other people's copies of Country Living or Good Housekeeping any more, because my life would be like the pictures in those magazines, full of dried flowers and freshly-whitewashed walls.

When we left that evening, I told our friends to keep an eye open for houses that came up for sale in the village. With a bit of luck, I thought, we'd have moved there in time for the summer holidays.

It was my husband who put a dampener on things, as we drove back to London. "It wouldn't be easy," he said, "living there with two small children."

"Why not?" I said, feeling slightly offended. (What did he think I was? Some sort of ghastly Eighties yuppie who couldn't cope with the countryside?)

"Well, the village school has closed down," he said, "so we'd have to drive the kids five miles to the nearest town every day. And do the shopping there, too."

We had just reached the outskirts of the town at this point, so I peered at it through the rain. "It looks a very nice, friendly market town," I said, pretending not to notice the gang of spotty teenage bikers hitting each other on the other side of the road.

"I know it looks pretty," said my husband, "but I bet most of the shops have closed down because of some monstrous new superstore."

We sat in silence for a few minutes, driving down the strangely desolate high street, and then we reached the other side of the town, where all signs seemed to point to "The Retail Park". We did not enter The Retail Park, which sprawled over many acres, but from the road you could see its highlights: a huge Tesco; a Burger King; and a peculiarly large number of DIY stores.

I gazed at this dismal landscape, and suddenly my rural idyll began to crumble. For I knew, though I hated to admit it, that my children would end up not gambolling in fields full of buttercups, but fidgeting in the check-out queue at Tesco five times a week because I'd forgotten to buy the butter (and no, I can't churn my own). They'd probably turn into teenage heavy metal fans, with nothing to do on a Saturday night except drink cider and fight.

The next day, I spoke to a friend of mine who lives in a village near the same market town. He confirmed that the streets were indeed plagued by frustrated young hooligans; that the secondary school was notoriously hopeless; that The Retail Park lured thousands of shoppers from surrounding villages, who then wandered aimlessly around the DIY stores in search of a reason to be there.

"But your village, isn't that nice?" I asked, trying to salvage a small part of my fantasy.

"It's OK," he said. "But most of the inhabitants hate each other, and have feuds and affairs and gossip a lot."

This somewhat jaundiced view of village life was echoed by my husband, who lived in Cambridgeshire for several years. "There were endless scandals," he said. "Most of them centred around the goings-on of the local publican and some neighbours and a life-sized rubber doll." Apparently, the publican's wife ran away with a lover, and the distraught publican drank himself to death. His decomposing body was finally discovered after he'd failed to open his pub for a week. "The smell was terrible," said my husband, unsympathetically.

But I still haven't quite given up on rural life. I met another friend trying to exercise her housebound children in the park last week, and she told me her husband was desperate to get out of London. "But that's great!" I said. "We could move to the same village!" OK, so I'll never learn to churn butter; but I bet I'd be brilliant at milking the cow. I never mentioned the cow? Yes, I'm having one of those, too. !