Bliss is spring and a small town in England

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The Independent Online
ISN'T IT funny, they don't have litter, my daughter said as we walked through the orderly, sunny streets of Victorian houses to the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge. To a weekend visitor from London, used to negotiating discarded hamburger cartons and flapping crisp packets, it was all quite a shock.

Unlike Kew Gardens, these more modest and humanly scaled gardens charge no entry fee: the glasshouses were lightly peopled by couples whose small children were firmly anchored with reins. Outside, the gentle green of an early spring led us towards the lake. 'Even the ducks seem happy,' my second daughter said.

We walked into town to a spacious restaurant converted from a hospital. This was Saturday, and the place hummed with well-heeled family groups: middle-aged parents with their student sons/daughters and girlfriends/boyfriends in tow; younger parents with small children. It was a warm yet stylish place.

The waitress served up reasonably priced food for all tastes. The children fell upon spare ribs and ice-creams, while we ate fresh lemon sole. I felt a strange sense of ease. Everything was working out comfortably. This was the face of Middle England, in spring, smiling and saying that all would be well.

The children, who usually refuse to go near a museum, were then lured into the (free) Fitzwilliam opposite, like lambs, such was their state of well-fed happiness. 'We are just walking through,' I said. But one was fascinated by the collection of fans, while another spotted cases of English china: there was an 18th-century pottery tableau of a man being mauled by a lion, thoughtfully placed at the eye level of a four-year-old.

And so the day progressed. We popped into a shop selling waistcoats for teddy bears, and ambled into the chapel of St John's, where a rehearsal was in progress for that night's concert.

At the end of the afternoon, and weary, we were invited to sit down in another shop selling knitwear, and they volunteered to call us a taxi - though we had bought nothing from them - to take us back to where we were staying.

While 19th-century novelists such as Mrs Gaskell were obsessed with the differences between North and South, rich and poor, and why their lives were so unfairly different, what fascinates me about modern Britain is the vast disparity in the quality of life between Britain's huge cities and everywhere else, market towns and settled villages.

People with similar incomes can none the less experience a real difference in living conditions. I worry about posting a letter after dark. A contemporary in a large village worries about raising enough money to restore the church bells. Modern Britons are supposed to be obsessed with moving to the country, to retreats, modelled on Country Life ads, that are hidden from neigbours and the road. Not me. Far more attractive, and practical, are the small-scale market towns - Shrewsbury and Oswestry or the grander Hereford and Chester - with pedestrianised centres where you can walk rather than drive and services seem generally well run.

We may be in recession, but the streets of these places seem to glitter with well-stocked and interesting shops. For all the ancient buildings and walls, these are not museums. Visiting Ely Cathedral, we found it packed: every Cub and Scout in the county had assembled, flags and pennants waving, for a huge parade.

I found the same sense of ease, during a previous weekend visit, in the far different, grittier northern town of Lancaster. In order to catch a train there from London I allow at least an hour to get to the station, and even then, who knows whether you will be there in time because of disruptions: how many bomb scares and unexpected bus strikes have there been in London in recent weeks?

Here, in Lancaster, staying with friends at the edge of town, it was 10 minutes to the station, and you could park bang outside, with no fear of clamps.

Hours of one's day are freed by the easygoing and shorter journeys to work. It is possible to stroll on the salt marshes of Morecambe Bay and visit a craft centre between breakfast and lunch. Teenage children walk freely into the centre to meet their friends on Saturday night.

This is a town of northern remoteness, where grammar schools survive intact: the comprehensive revolution never swept them away, so there is no painful need to reinvent them. Modest middle-class families, freed of crippling school fees, look forward to expensive holidays in the United States.

For me, burdened with the bills of inner-city life, modest holidays in pleasant small English towns perfectly fulfil their function. And just as I was thinking that small-town existence was all sweetness and light, there came a rude shock. We returned to our host's house in Cambridge to find next door had been burgled. As the policeman said: 'Times are hard here, too.'