Last of the summer whines: Unpicking the myth of the rural idyll

City-dwellers love the idea of escaping to the countryside in August. They reckon without traffic, crime and plagues of insects, says Christopher Hirst
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I'm not much of a lad for the birds and the trees and the great open spaces as a rule, but there's no doubt that London's not at its best in August," declared Bertie Wooster in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). "It rather tends to give me the pip and makes me think of popping down into the country till things have bucked up a trifle." Almost 90 years on, many metropolitans feel the urge to flee. A time of dust, wilt, parched lawns and insects, August is the most unrelenting of the summer months, especially when the temperature soars in a sudden, intolerable spike. Audiences faint at the Proms, rush-hour journeys are an ordeal, and bad temper rises from the streets like a miasma from 4pm onwards.

All but the most hardcore urbanites, such as the Soho type in George Melly's memoir Owning Up who regarded Marble Arch as "dangerously rural", feel a vague yearning for the hills and dales. They might not know a bullock from a beefburger, but they sense that high summer is best passed in the country. I feel the same way myself. For the past decade, my wife and I have upped sticks from south London to spend August in the Yorkshire Wolds. As demonstrated by the inspired outpouring by David Hockney, who decamped from Los Angeles to Bridlington, this rolling farmland is among the most beautiful and unspoilt in Britain. Its pleasures are manifold, from sensational free-range eggs to other-worldly Norman churches, from vast, ever-changing skies to the four barn owls like white aerial ghosts that we met on an evening drive.

However, city-dwellers condemned to spending August surrounded by oozy tarmac and sweltering concrete should be assured that the countryside is far from being heaven. It is a place where every prospect pleases but only man is vile – especially if he is behind the wheel of his Vauxhall Astra. Anyone used to negotiating city traffic, where police cars, CCTV and the sheer crush of traffic impose a modicum of sense upon drivers, may be startled at the Top Gear-style love of acceleration that prevails in Britain's green and pleasant bits. Unless you're doing at least 50mph on narrow country lanes, you'll almost certainly find a rural speed merchant up your backside, dodging round for the first opportunity to overtake.

I was astonished to discover that the same behaviour occurs on Guernsey, an island of 25 square miles. Although the byways are so narrow and circuitous that there is a top speed limit of 35mph, it doesn't stop locals in their Chelsea tractors from closely pursuing visitors, whose hire cars are identified by a big "H" (like the big "A" worn by the adulteress Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter). The longer thoroughfares of the Yorkshire Wolds allow greater speeds, which explains both the signs warning of unmarked police cars and the sad piles of wilting bouquets that occasionally appear on the verge. Such is the velocity of rural motorists that the revival of interest in gathering hedgerow fruit is a somewhat dicey pastime. After risking life and limb harvesting blackberries and crab apples last summer, it struck me that most locals regard the glorious Wolds as simply a patch of nothing to be got through as quickly as possible.

Everyone up here seems to be in a tearing hurry all the time, though probably the rush is merely to watch another five minutes of television or, in the case of the young, to bring a hint of excitement into drab lives. Last month, a 67-year-old local woman suffered "serious but not life-threatening injuries" when she was struck by a car. The incident took place at 7.30am on Filey beach.

I never thought I'd say it, but I've come to welcome the retardant effect of John Deere tractors and holiday caravans. These mobile kitchen/boudoirs with wonderfully grandiose names – Avondale Rialto, Lunar Quasar, Swift Charisma – are particularly prevalent at weekends. The volume of traffic on "changeover Saturday" turns the main road from the coast to York into a car park for long stretches. Not that this bothers the swarms of motorcyclists, dressed in leathers as lurid as their machines, who also appear at this time. Weaving through the jam, they gun their throttles and congregate in the normally genteel town square of Helmsley. After an hour spent admiring each other's gleaming machines, they depart for another enjoyable roar through paradise. Even in the middle of the night, the thick, velvet silence is occasionally torn by the Doppler effect of a motorbike maniacally approaching and then departing on a nearby main road.

Those too young to drive too fast are obviously bored to distraction by life in this rural idyll. Their longing for the inner city was indicated by an outbreak of graffiti in the hamlet of Gristhorpe two years ago, which announced the presence of the "Gristhorpe Massiv". Unfortunately, there is no shortage of more serious crimes in the countryside. Reports on the unspeakable savagery inflicted around Whitehaven and the shootings near Newcastle stressed the incongruity of violence taking place in such beautiful surroundings. It is a variation of the pathetic fallacy (the view of Romantic poets that weather mirrors emotions) to suggest that rural tranquillity induces moral rectitude.

Sherlock Holmes's opinion that "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside" might be overstating the case in North Yorkshire. According to the local police, the county has the second-lowest crime rate in the UK, but reports in local papers last week ranged from an alleged murder in the Scarborough Evening News to the torching of a retirement home in the Harrogate Advertiser: "Watson took out his lighter and held the flame to the thatch. He had said, 'I'm going to set this on fire.'" You may recall that a "blunt-speaking North Yorkshireman" was recently imprisoned for "selling" the Ritz Hotel.

Word of mouth does not support the idea of this vast rural tract as an unparalleled haven of honesty. Our neighbour David refuses to buy lobster pots for his fishing boat ("They'd only get nicked"), while our friend Ben had his allotment ruined by thieves who repeatedly drove through it to steal metal and diesel from an adjoining scrapyard. (Yes, we have scrapyards in the countryside.) Shaking his head in disbelief, Ben said, "They even pinched the nozzle from my hose. My interview with the police lasted three minutes."

Oddly, the only people in this part of the country who actually get into the fields for any length of time are farmers, a handful of walkers and David Hockney. There are very few signed public paths and even with these, as in the case of one we followed from the village of Kilham, you may be directed through a potato field. Although it seems OK for farmers to plough over rights of way, it is not OK for the rest of us to plough our way through their private land. The countryside is another business, as Hockney discovered last year when a century-old copse of trees he had been painting was suddenly sawn down. "If they had pulled down a great church, people would have seen and asked questions," the artist complained, "but nobody asked about these trees."

According to the River Cottage Handbook on the Hedgerow by John Wright, "you cannot be prosecuted [for trespassing] no matter what the signs say". However, he continues, "the landowner could sue for the hypothetical advantage you receive from being on his or her land." This point is somewhat academic in North Yorkshire. It seems to me that relatively few people up here feel the urge to walk anywhere at all. People in towns tend to walk more in parks than countryfolk do in fields. The sole exception to this is dog-walking. People in the country are nuts about mutts, which come in every shape, size and shade of aggression. The other day, I saw a massive mastiff that practically filled a carrier with its morning evacuation, but not every dog owner goes for walkies equipped with a plastic bag.

The posh newcomer who complains about noisy cockerels or messy cows in a village is a humorous cliché of modern rural life, but I feel the same about a certain type of animal. Pharaonic plagues of insects make me long for the traffic fumes of the city. The sight of someone violently scratching their hair and waving their arms about is a bit of a rarity on London's Haymarket or the Headrow in Leeds, but it is a common, even universal occurrence in our village on a few humid days each summer. "Invasion of the bugs" made the front page of the local paper this summer. The item said that the itchy black thunderbugs would eventually be dispersed by rain. We were assured that the swarms of green aphids would be seen off by hoverflies, though there was no information on what would get rid of the hoverflies.

In the Platonic ideal of country life, as envisaged by romantically inclined townies, we do our shopping by bicycle in village grocers. In fact, the vast majority drive to Morrisons. (Anyone who comes to stay in the country will discover that their petrol bill soars.) In large villages and market towns, small shops survive and some are excellent. Being near the coast, we are blessed with fish shops in French profusion and quality. (I exclude the outlet in Scarborough where I was sold some very elderly hake fillets last week.) Butchers are equally excellent and often the only surviving shop in many villages.

But it would be foolish to deny that pretty much everyone round here wants a supermarket. North Yorkshire towns so far deprived are now taking the plunge. Tesco is coming to Filey, Sainsbury to Whitby, and Malton is selling off a car park to make space for a supermarket. What the townie misses – at least this townie – are the ethnic shops that add considerably to the variety and pleasure of city life. Despite the blessings of surf and turf, North Yorkshire remains a monoculture. After a month away, I am missing the culinary pizzazz provided by Turkish, Chinese and Iranian shops.

Not that it's wise to voice the advantages of the city. People are friendlier in the country but, like anywhere, they have their prejudices. In the West Country, visitors are derided as grockles. Up here, they are generally referred to as Wessies (the Yorkshire coast is the traditional holiday destination for people from the West Riding). But there is something far, far worse than being a Wessie. I discovered this when I happened to mention in a country bar that I'd spent most of the year in London. Silence fell before someone bellowed: "OH, POOR YOU!" Since country people lead lives that are immeasurably easier and more comfortable than those of London commuters, this might have been sympathy, but it seemed closer to profound dislike.

As a regular, long-term visitor, I'm frequently asked, "Are you going to retire up here?" The easy answer is I don't like the idea of retirement, but actually I want to keep a foot in both camps. For all London's drawbacks, most of our friends are there. The countryside may be delightful (most of the time) in summer, but it's hell in January and February, when many residents never stir from the telly. Anyone who is toying with moving from "where the cement grows" should read Acres and Pains by the great American humorist S J Perelman, about leaving New York for a farm in Pennsylvania. It includes a dire warning: "Next to drinking brandy before breakfast, the most fatal mistake a man can make is to isolate himself in the country. In no time at all he becomes broody and morose, a crosspatch and a mope." Well, I wouldn't want that to happen to me.