Get these virtual farmers off our land

I understand city people want to breathe fresh air, but do they have to do it in authentic farmhouses?
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The Independent Online

What do you call a bunch of middle-class women drinking chardonnay talking about house prices? A book club. That's hearsay, by the way. Despite my very best endeavours I can't find a book club that will have me. All the local ones are full, with waiting lists.

What do you call a bunch of middle-class women drinking chardonnay talking about house prices? A book club. That's hearsay, by the way. Despite my very best endeavours I can't find a book club that will have me. All the local ones are full, with waiting lists.

What the hell. I hate chardonnay and if my friend Ellie tells me once more that she has extended her search for a country cottage to Herefordshire because the Cotswolds have become far too expensive, I shall hurl my brand new Oxford Companion to English Literature at her head. In any case I think she's missed the boat. All the sort of chocolate box roses round the door cottages miles from anywhere but within walking distance of a decent deli that Ellie is after were snapped up long ago.

Now, according to a report from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, townies are setting their rural sights on farms. Two-thirds of the working farms sold in Britain in the past six months have gone to buyers with no intention of keeping stock or growing produce, apart from a pony which will almost certainly be called Skittles and a designer herb garden in the shape of a cartwheel that will definitely include basil.

This is a dire state of affairs. Farmhouses should be occupied by real farmers in muddy gumboots who grow 15 different varieties of potato like Edsell Blue and Pink Fir Apple, not by stockbrokers. Farm kitchens should be the natural habitat of apple-cheeked farmers' wives with floury hands and flowery aprons, breaking off from their baking and bottling and preserving to throw handfuls of corn at fat black hens with red combs scratching about in the yard. Farm kitchens should not be the weekend workstations of svelte manicured corporate wives who descend on Friday nights armed with 20 Waitrose carrier bags and Nigella Lawson's cookbook.

OK, I'm being romantic. Farmers' wives stopped having apple cheeks at around the same time that soldiers put down their muskets. Jennifer Aldridge in The Archers probably spends more time under a sun lamp than Richard Branson's wife, but by golly she bakes a mean game pie and always lends a hand when the polytunnels are threatening to take off in a gale.

I can perfectly understand why people want to get out of cities and breathe in fresh country air at weekends, but why do they have to do it in authentic farmhouses surrounded by rich agricultural land? Why don't they do what Marie Antoinette did at the Petit Trianon in Versailles and build pretend farmhouses near golf courses where they can play at being milkmaids and swineherds leaving the farms to produce our food as they used to in the good old days? For the very good reason I suppose that farms, apart from the massive corporate variety owning trillions of acres and machinery the size of office blocks, have pretty much stopped producing food and become theme parks.

I was never much good at maths, so telling me that it's cheaper to fly parsnips from New Zealand than grow them in Suffolk. And even if it is more economical, weeks in transit at unnaturally low temperatures couldn't do much to enhance their flavour. Don't please give me the usual lecture about people wanting parsnips when they're out of season in Britain so they have to come from abroad. People don't want parsnips out of season; speaking for myself I wouldn't care if I never saw a parsnip again. Heaven knows why I'm talking about them. I hate parsnips and never fully grasped the sense of that maxim about fine words not buttering them.

It's the principle not the parsnip I'm talking about, the each to his own principle that farmers should farm and rich people in cities who want a breath of fresh air at weekends should go to Luton and get a cheap flight to Moldova, say, where you can pick up a Gothic castle for about the same price as Ellie is prepared to pay for a cottage near Ludlow.

There's another trend for buying small plots of agricultural land big enough to build a house but which will never get planning permission. Just to dream about. I heard a Shropshire estate agent, who sold dozens of these dream plots for £20,000 a shot, talking about it. A few people do actually park their cars, get out their maps and trudge for several miles over hill, dale and barbed wire to find their land. They have a picnic and go back to Manchester safe in the knowledge that if the urban terrorists take over they have a bolthole to grow a few carrots. We used to be a nation of shopkeepers. Now we're a nation of virtual farmers. Is that what they call progress?

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