Back to the land Britain revisited

Marquees, jam, prize marrows, horses, more jam... rural life may be found only 20 miles from town but, says author Richard Benson, it's a whole world away

Three years ago, I took a friend from London to Yorkshire so that he could visit a village show for the first time and the experience turned out to be as instructive for me as it was for him.

My friend, Edward, is a sophisticated, metropolitan sort of person, well-read, groomed and travelled. His family is Ghanaian and he has spent a great deal of time in both Africa and India. The show, at Bishop Wilton on the western shoulder of the Yorkshire Wolds, is small and traditional, full of sunshine, striped marquees and scented with mown grass, horses and cake. Edward thought it would all be terribly English and tinkling-teacup reserved, with people regarding him as a curiosity from far away, but it didn't turn out like that. When I introduced him to the wife of one of the organisers, she apologised quite sincerely for how remote it must seem, and said he'd cope with the locals and their funny ways.

"I'm not being funny," he said later. "But how far are we from a city? Fifty miles?"

"Less than 20," I replied. "If you climb to the top of that hill you can see York Minster."

"That's not all that remote, surely?"

"No," I said, secretly a little crushed because Bishop Wilton is near where I'm from and, privately, I've always thought of it as remote too. "But if you live here, it somehow feels like that, because.... Oh I dunno. Let's look at the produce tent."

To be honest, after we'd had a walk around the gleaming vintage tractors, and I'd shown a previously disbelieving Edward that people really did exhibit their hay bales and vegetables, he was well on the way to seeing what I meant. But still, that conversation about remoteness made me realise something about the British countryside: that, discounting parts of Scotland and Wales, what you make of it depends on what you choose to see and feel and look for. By and large, we do not have the great, distinct wild spaces that receive no TV signals and lie a day's drive from the nearest town. Most country people can shop and work in cities and they bring urban influences home with them in the car.

It would be quite possible for an uninterested person to drive from London to Edinburgh and see all the countryside between as homogenous green breaks dividing the bricks and slates of human settlements. Moreover, vast acreages on city edges are now post-industrial exurbs used only for urban services such as leisure and retail parks, distribution warehouses and a few flashy executive housing developments. Even vaster spaces have sacrificed their authentic character to that aura of real-life-at-one-remove that comes with poorly planned mass tourism.

And yet, few people would argue that life in most of the British countryside feels like life in a city. The people are different. The effect of the environment on your senses is different. And when you think about the power of TV and the distribution warehouses and theme parks, it's surprising how distinct the countryside still feels. The old green lane networks, Women's Institute teas in village halls, patchwork fields, village cricket, estate village architecture, home produce for sale from back doors, the sheer spectacle of a harvest; all this and much more remains. And, by the way, if you think I'm coming over a bit Stanley Baldwin and John Major here, remember that when John Major mentioned the warm beer and cricket and all that, he was in fact quoting a George Orwell essay.

Of course you have to pick your places. On the wolds in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where I'm from, you watch the summer people carriers and 4x4s stream through on their way to the Dales or the Moors or the coastal resorts and you wonder what would happen if they took a wrong turn. Would they realise they were passing through the most unspoiled, sparsely populated and quietly spectacular chalk downland in the country? They travel to the crowded but ever-so-rural settings of Heartbeat and Emmerdale and All Creatures Great And Small, but if they just puttered along a B-road for 15 minutes they would see overlooked chalk-walled villages like Thixendale or Huggate or Millington.

You'd see what I mean if you visited the latter, with its rolling hills and proper pub, the Gait Inn. At the Gait, you can find old copies of Farmers Weekly beside the settles, talk to a friendly Falstaffian landlord, and have a pint of decent independent beer and a plate of gravy-drowned Yorkshire pudding for less than a fiver - and then a short walk and fantastic view for nowt. Somewhat preferable, perhaps, to the defrosted fake Thai curries and carparks full of Toyota Rav 4s on the beaten tourist tracks.

The point about places like this is that they still feel as if some local work is taking place, as if actual things are being made, and mulled over, and moved. Once you start to appreciate this sort of thing, as well as thatched cottages and babbling brooks, you give yourself a great advantage. Suddenly open to you are places that are not retail-chained and traffic-jammed and hotel-crammed. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the Lake District or the Cotswolds, but what about the flower fields of south Lincolnshire for a change? Or the vast vistas of Northumberland, or the estuaries of North Wales?

A few years ago a succession of blows to the rural economy made it seem likely that these places would eventually become prettified dormitory exurbs, but in many cases adversity seems to have brought out new ideas to challenge that.

There is, of course, a new interest in local food; a recent Good Food Guide suggested the supremacy of London restaurants is being challenged by restaurateurs forced out by rising costs. There are initiatives in property development that in some ways parallel those that reinvigorated industrial areas in the Eighties and Nineties. There's an awful lot of activity to do with art and crafts, which seems odd until you think about the intimate relationship between our artists and the landscape.

The Suffolk coast is a tremendous example of how remoteness can be a state of mind, and, to be fair, of how the character of the countryside can change in no more than a 20-minute bus ride. Get off the London-Ipswich train and you can feel as if you're in an eastern Metroland. By the time you've passed the Woodbridge boatyards on the branch line, you feel nothing of the sort, and once you're at one of the lesser-known villages such as Orford, you feel right on the edge of everything.

There are examples here of the countryside being given a distinctive and intriguing character by human endeavours, though not such traditionally celebrated ones as farming or fishing. It is easy to forget - although not around here - that the need for coastal defence and secret experiment means that military activity is often rural. Along the beautiful Suffolk shorelines, where land melts into brackish, reedy waters, the vast concrete Cold War installations, radio masts and Second World War bases take on a stark, strange beauty. They're not going to make it on to chocolate boxes any time soon, but they do attract thousands of curious visitors. They have also left a wealth of stories and rumour behind, that, when recounted to you at the bar of Orford's Crown and Castle or the Jolly Sailor, seem like modern folklore.

There are similar places along the far north coast of Scotland, another neglected part of Britain. Here old military buildings dot the dramatic coastline between Eriboll, Tongue, Bettyhill and Portskerra and the presence of towns and villages gives the area a meaning it would not have if it were only wilderness. I spent one of the best evenings of my life in a pokey bar in Bettyhill, listening to a gravedigger tell me stories about soldiers' and sailors' ghosts on the cliffs and rough beaches. I made the mistake of asking, after the seventh pint, whether he really believed them. "No," he replied. "But you do, eh?"

I love people and places like that, proper country places rather than the ersatz versions modelled on myth and populated by refugee yuppies who want everything kept clean and quiet. I love the strange, snuffling squawking noises, and the mysterious sweet and sour smells, and the unapologetic eccentricity reminding you that there are traditions of rural dissent and non-conformist views, as well as feudal genuflection. I love how people take serious notice of the landscape and the weather and keep their observations stored up and ripening inside their heads like a harvest. I love how you can find this in all the British landscapes, not just the dramatic ones, from the soggy flat fenland of the east to the ragged crags of Wales, from the bosomy downs of the south to the luscious green grassland of the Scottish islands. And I love the fact that there is a new appreciation of this among people that could save it all. This sort of thing may remain an economic speck compared with supermarket trade, but still, it is better than it was.

And finally, I love the country shows like the one at Bishop Wilton - or at Bellingham in Northumbria, that moved even Philip Larkin to express unqualified pleasure and faith in humanity. Read "Show Saturday" in High Windows if you don't believe me. I don't know why, but it seems quite hard to come away from these events feeling anything other than happiness.

Towards the end of that afternoon at the show with Edward, we were eating lunch and talking more about the idea of remoteness and difference, when suddenly the show-ring announcer came over the Tannoy. He had one of those marvellous rich, gymkhana voices that sounds like ripe plums, raffish polo necks and pipe tobacco but, frankly, he was panicking. "Could whoever is looking after the hounds please help immediately?" he pleaded. "We have a dog in the Women's Institute tent, and it's causing chaos with the cakes!"

And all less than 20 miles from a city - marvellous eh?

The Bishop Wilton Show is on 22 July (bishopwilton .com/show/index.html). Richard Benson will run a farm shop at the fourth Port Eliot Lit Fest taking place at Port Eliot, St Germans, Saltash, Cornwall from 21-23 July. Tickets £80 including camping, reduced prices for children. For details contact 01503 232783 and see porteliotlitfest.com

My best view

Prawle Point, the most southerly tip of Devon, offers spectacular views out to sea and along the shoreline, where the rocks sticking out into the sea look like the backs of giant, black basking crocodiles. The land is farmed right up to the edge of the shallow cliffs, and I always think that in the summer tractor drivers must have the best lookout in Britain. You really feel as if you are at the end of the country here, despite being only a mile from the village of East Prawle - which, I should add, is also home to the Pig's Nose Inn (01548 511 209; pigsnose .co.uk), one of the best pubs in the area.

My favourite walk

Walking does not have to involve all-natural environments and big hills. Orford Ness in Suffolk, the longest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, is just off the village from which it takes its name. A National Trust boat from the quay takes you there. Its eerie, wave-washed beauty is made weird by dozens of decaying military buildings from the Cold War. They are part of British coastal landscapes, particularly in the East and South, and are more potent symbols of war as passing folly than any memorial or museum.

My top country gallery

Art galleries are not usually thought of as rural attractions, but this is something special. In the Yorkshire village of Bishop Wilton, John Burrows has a workshop in which he makes badges and insignia for farm equipment manufacturers, council lorries and the like. He also screenprints stunning, bleak landscapes that look like Andy Warhol

does English pastoral. He exhibits them in a gallery adjoining the workshop. It's unforgettable. John Burrows (01759 368276), Moat Cottage, Bishop Wilton, East Riding of Yorkshire.

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