Think of it and the images proliferate: birdsong and bees buzzing in the hedges, the smell of creamy-white meadowsweet, and, perhaps once an hour or so, a single car - or, more likely, an old van - chugging past.
It isn't like that any more, the Council for the Protection of Rural England reports today, giving a doleful picture of the country lane in the 1990s. The birdsong is drowned out by traffic noise, the wild-flower scents are drowned by exhaust fumes, and that occasional passing vehicle is now a flood of lorries and commuter cars using the lane as a "rat-run".
The huge growth in commuting from the countryside to towns and cities is destroying the character of up to 5,000 country lanes,the CPRE claims. Its report, Lost Lanes, presents a bleak "snapshot" of 50 rural routes around the country, which, it believes, are being "ruined" by traffic. It says people have been discouraged from cycling, walking and horse-riding and the roads themselves have been damaged by the increased volume of cars and lorries.
"Overall, throughout the country we think as many as 4,000-5,000 lanes are affected," said Lilli Matson, the CPRE's transport campaigner. "A separate survey in Nottinghamshire alone showed more than 100 lanes involved."
The report, the result of research by volunteers in their own areas, follows the CPRE's Traffic Trauma Map, published two weeks ago, which claimed that rural traffic could double or even treble over the next 30 years - raising the prospect of more lanes vanishing.
The authors of this latest study say the exodus of urban dwellers to the countryside - at a rate of 300 people a day over 20 years - is one of main reasons for the crumbling of our ancient country roads. The use of these routes as short-cuts by lorry drivers is also signalled by the report as a major problem.
"Tourism only accounts for about a quarter of the traffic; more fundamentally, everybody is driving more," said Ms Matson. "There has been a huge growth in the average length of journeys."
Lost Lanes details the ways traffic destroys rural tranquility. These include noise, road lighting, the destruction of roads and the loss of the lanes as social amenities, where people can enjoy "walking, cycling and horse-riding".
In the 50 examples around the country, some lanes suffer more than 5,000 vehicles a day, a level characterised by the report as causing "loss of rural character". Between 2,000 and 5,000 vehicles a day is described as "not pleasant to cycle or ride".
Ms Matson said the Department of Transport and some highways authorities did not think there was a significant problem - but they were missing the point, she said.
"The numbers may look quite low compared with towns, but it does not take much traffic on a country lane to alter completely its whole character."
She said where local authorities did act it was usually by imposing "suburban" solutions, such as street lighting, and removing bends and hedgerows which often destroyed the character of areas.
The CPRE is also worried that government plans for new homes in the countryside could exacerbate the problem if locations are chosen which can only be reached by cars.
The organisation wants to see more government money spent on solutions, lower speed limits on rural roads and building new homes in urban areas where there is public transport.
Counties in the current study are: Avon, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey and Wiltshire.
The report also includes comments from local residents bemoaning the loss of their rural lanes. One came from a householder in Tattenhall, near Chester, who complained about the volume of traffic on Burwardsley Road.
"When I was a child, school holidays were always spent roaming country lanes on our bikes. We never see children along our lanes unaccompanied, either walking or on cycles ... frankly I can't wait to sell up and go!"Reuse content