Country life? Wonderful - so long as you don't actually have to live there: Cal McCrystal visited a colourful rural fair in north London, and then tried monochrome reality in Wiltshire

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TWO ODDLY conflicting documents about life in the English countryside were in circulation last week. The first, a multi-coloured brochure to promote a 'Country Living Fair' in Islington, London, suggested a rural splendour of apple cheeks, honking geese, beeswax candles, and everything snug under thatch. The second, Communities at Risk in Wiltshire, was a much bleaker report in black-and-white.

In the eyes of metropolitan Islington, Wiltshire represents rural contentment: ancient monuments; rolling hills and dialects; antique towns and villages; traditionally sparse population; long-lost footpaths across farmland. As Zandria Pauncefort, author of the Wiltshire report, says: 'There is an English folk-memory about the rural way of life which involves comely cottages, village greens and people being kind to one another . . . a perception that is continually reinforced by painting, writing, advertising and popular entertainment.'

She then describes the real Wiltshire: a rising elderly population, few jobs, low pay, family breakdown, homelessness, isolation, a lack of shops, post offices and childcare. Seeds of social unrest, long evident in the cities, have begun to sprout. All six of the county's citizens advice bureaux are overwhelmed with debt- counselling work. Despite an appearance of prosperity in a county of grand houses and large farms, 'business failures have increased dramatically'. Landowners' pips are squeaking. Heart disease, dementia and dental caries are causes for concern.

No such woes were detectable at the Islington event, sponsored by Country Living magazine. Welcoming an estimated 40,000 to the Business Design Centre, the editor, Francine Lawrence, suggested that if Country Living was the magazine of 'the nation's parish' then the Islington fair was 'the village green'.

The 'village green' was on three floors, densely packed with 'nave animal art', Cotswold jackets, broom-makers, trug-makers, chair-bodgers, hurdlers and marblers, knitters and needle- pointers, elderberry 'champagne' and gooseberry wine, and 'original' smocks to spill them down. Those not thinking of rearing ducks (at Ms Lawrence's urging) ate them instead, 'unique' Hereford birds, 'reared among rare apple trees' without benefit of hormone additives or antibiotics. Much money changed hands. Rural recession seemed far away.

Therese Lang, promotions director of Country Living, is herself from Wiltshire. Many had turned up for the fair, she said, as a sign of their 'rejection of the corporate High Street. They are tired of seeing the same thing everywhere they go. People know that unless they come here they will not find these items again.'

It is true that high streets do look fairly similar and offer identical mass-produced stuff for sale. Even some country 'craft shops' go for the ubiquitous, unlike the 250 craftspeople, cooks, decorators, gardeners and environmentalists exhibiting in Islington. They gave demonstrations in potting, gilding, water-colour painting and printing, as well as in traditional rural crafts. Milk and honey flowed. But despite the promise in a press release, one failed to 'learn about all aspects of today's countryside'.

Today's countryside has aspects about which city folk might not wish to learn. Travelling in Wiltshire after a visit to the 'Country Living Fair' revealed milk and honey in less copious supply. Some villages lacked food shops, and farmers' agony seemed genuine.

Clyde Hoddinott, of Potterne, near Devizes, used to keep a dairy herd on his 100 acres, but now scratches a living from beef cattle only. 'I milked cows all my life. Then my father died. We came back from the crematorium, and I sat down, not feeling much like working. But come four o'clock I had to go out and milk cows. There's no escape. So I switched to beef.'

The lack of holidays strained his first marriage, which finally ruptured four years ago. Since then, he and his second wife 'have not had a single day off from the farm. You become more and more dependent on yourself'. His story of country living was discouraging: bank debt, no profit-taking, inability to invest, buildings falling into disrepair.

As vice-chairman of the Potterne parish council, he was cautious of criticising neighbours, but admitted there was some local resentment towards 'incomers', those who have abandoned the city for the country. 'I can think of one very nice gentleman on pounds 200,000 a year who has no idea how ordinary people live, or that they have pounds 10,000 a year if they're lucky. He's a super guy, but these things wouldn't cross his mind when he pays out pounds 5,000 to put another hunter in his paddock. And to be honest, there's less resentment of him than of the incomers with pounds 50,000 a year who like the average country person to know they are better off.

'These people want to take over the land. The one issue that bugs us is footpaths. We all know there are ancient footpaths across every property. There are 139 in this parish alone. But the incomers want to exercise their rights on all of them. They want to push their luck, forgetting that a farmer's feeling for his land is no more than the average person's feeling for his back garden.'

Like Mr Hoddinott, the locals tend to hide their resentment. Instead, with their own farms failing or running up debts, they try to make a living off the incomers. 'I can build fences and paddocks, and that's what I do for them when I can,' he said, grinning. 'And I don't do it for free.'

Some incomers suspect they are being exploited. Gary Jeffries, an agricultural contractor from Market Lavington, told me of an airline engineer who bought a four-acre property. 'He asked me what he should do with the land. I said, 'You could make some hay.' He tried to sell the hay but didn't think he was being offered enough. So he burned it.'

Strained community relations are a minor problem compared with Wiltshire's wider rural plight. In her report, Zandria Pauncefort says that while urban deprivation is highly visible, rural poverty and hardship are hidden. 'In close-knit rural communities, many people try to conceal problems or deprivation that might be embarrassing. Poverty and affluence often live side by side'; yet 'people who have moved into the country don't want to see low-cost houses opposite their own grand residences.'

If the country is less than Islington's rural dream-factory exhibits, why are townies so enamoured of country living? Anna Marsden, director of the Wiltshire Community Foundation (which commissioned the report), says: 'What they call country living isn't always quite that. The people who can afford to buy the things you saw at the fair may be among those who moved to Wiltshire. They tend to settle on the edge of a town. They don't actually want to get their feet dirty, or to hear tractors going throughout the night to get the harvest in. What they actually want is for the country to be like suburbia.'

(Photograph omitted)