Brian Viner: Methuselah of the meadows

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The Independent Online

Moving to the countryside helps people live longer, according to figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics, although I can't help feeling that as someone who moved from London to Herefordshire in 2002, and therefore fits the research profile perfectly, I am making myself a hostage to bucolic fortune by writing this column.

If, before my 50th birthday, I should be stamped to death by a rampaging bullock, or mown down by a runaway combine harvester, then I intend, as an act of eternal revenge, to haunt the Office for National Statistics (conveniently just an hour away by train, in Newport, south Wales) with a ghostly scythe. And, come to think of it, if longevity is such a sure thing out here among the cowpats, then why is the Grim Reaper a yokel?

Nevertheless, it's true, apparently. Men in rural areas on average live until 78, two years longer than their urban counterparts, while women in the countryside can expect to see 82 candles on their birthday cakes (and, moreover, will still have the puff to blow them out, what with there being so much less pollution). That's almost 18 months more breathing than women in the city. Poor people, too, fare better in the country, where their life expectancy is almost three years closer to that of better-off folk than it is in the cities.

This is not, it has to be said, the most startling set of findings. If fresh research were put before us to show a strong likelihood that Pope Benedict XVI is, in fact, Catholic, it would not be very much less surprising than the news that rural life is, in general, better for the health than urban life. Is it, though, better for the soul?

Living in the country might offer more quantity, but does it yield more quality? That is a debate which will rage on and, very broadly speaking, you take your side of the fence according to which matters more: the proximity of fields and woods, or the proximity of a skinny soya decaff latte outlet. Speaking of which, on a recent visit to the city, my wife went for a coffee with one of her most metropolitan friends, a BBC television presenter, who on taking a sip frowned and said, "This can't be what I ordered, it tastes too nice." But that's another story.

As for this story, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to confound the stats. My own mother, who lives in London, is in rude health at the age of 85, and I dare say would not be nearly so spry if she didn't spend so much of her time going to concerts and galleries. She would probably wither both intellectually and physically if she lived in the country. On the other hand, she wouldn't want for contemporaries.

Data just collected by the Commission for Rural Communities show that there are three rural areas where the over-85s make up more than five per cent of the population; indeed if Methuselah lived in Porlock, Somerset, he'd be the paper boy. Remarkably, more than 40 per cent of people there are of pensionable age, which might or might not be down to the famous 1:4 gradient on Porlock Hill, but it does seem likely that, my mum's example notwithstanding, long life in the country is enhanced by the need to be more physically active.

This need, I should add, has been reinforced in recent years by our politicians and civil servants. If anyone deserves the credit for life expectancy in the sticks being greater than in cities, it is they, for by decimating rural post offices and ensuring that buses along many country lanes are sighted about as frequently as the Beast of Bodmin, they have got the over-70s walking like never before. Now they just need to nail those cities.

Brian Viner's "Tales of the Country", chronicling his post-London life in Herefordshire, is published by Simon & Schuster at £7.99