Stan Hey: The same blight afflicts both cities and rural towns

The phone has hardly rung all week. Country life can be like this: quiet, slow and dying
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The Independent Online

I know when it happened. After growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool for 19 years, and then living in London for 17, I was a city boy, through and through. Flash urban clothes, sports car, lots of buzz-work in television and newspapers, fancy restaurants - that was my beat. But then about 11 years ago, a routine tube journey from Stamford Brook to Leicester Square took nearly 90 minutes. Stalled in dark tunnels, a Swedish backpacker's rucksack jammed under my nostrils, with no clue as to when we'd get out, I went into meltdown. I missed my meeting, blew a potentially crucial job, and came back on the bus, no more quickly, muttering "fucking London" under my breath.

I know when it happened. After growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool for 19 years, and then living in London for 17, I was a city boy, through and through. Flash urban clothes, sports car, lots of buzz-work in television and newspapers, fancy restaurants - that was my beat. But then about 11 years ago, a routine tube journey from Stamford Brook to Leicester Square took nearly 90 minutes. Stalled in dark tunnels, a Swedish backpacker's rucksack jammed under my nostrils, with no clue as to when we'd get out, I went into meltdown. I missed my meeting, blew a potentially crucial job, and came back on the bus, no more quickly, muttering "fucking London" under my breath.

With one son born, another on the way, and only one bedroom in the flat, it was time to get out before the social services popped round or Ken Loach arrived with a film crew. Stumbling across two burglars, defiantly dressed in black-and-white hooped sweaters and smashing their way into our next-door neighbour's, also convinced my London born-and-bred wife that this was no place for us any more. By chance - no, make that destiny - a friend phoned to say he was selling up his West Country weekend home. With the sale of our flat and a suicidal mortgage, we just about managed the purchase.

Yesterday morning, around seven o'clock, I went down to the far end of our garden to release my eight chickens from their shed and fed them several handfuls of breadcrumbs and corn, and collected two still-warm eggs. I raked dead, red and gold leaves off the grass into two big piles. I walked one son down the muddy lane that flows from our house and waited with him until his school bus turned up. Number Two son gets driven to his school. It takes about three minutes. On sunny days, he cycles there, though always with a watchful parent swanning behind. The narrow road is used as a "rat-run" by early morning commuters to Trowbridge and Bath.

Before nine o'clock, I was sitting shaved and washed at my desk, ready for... well, for what? The phone has hardly rung all week, and most of my e-mails come from a circle of football-mad Brits working in California's Silicon Valley. I'm connected to the outer world by electronic cables, but there's not much coming down the line. Country life can be like this: quiet, slow, dying. In our town, decked with old stone cottages and vibrant views, the last major factory closed years ago, and the site is now fought over by preservationists and developers.

There's a listed, pre-stressed concrete building with big windows overlooking the river. If this had been London, Sir Terence Conran would have had it away as a restaurant by now - something with pont in the name. Instead it lies empty and ugly. It could be converted to bijou riverside apartments or cheaper flats for the young. There's talk of a Bath University department taking over. But things move slowly down here. Many of the shops and smaller business close for lunch, and the town falls still and silent. Nightlife is a pub, or a rented video or friends round for dinner - not that different from the city.

Still, you get used to it. And the visits to London, that become more infrequent by the month, only make you wonder how you ever survived there for 17 years. The tube stations look smarter, and you can buy designer coffees or flowers on the platforms, but the trains are still late and clogged with dehumanised traffic. Sure, there's still a buzz - Tate this, River that - but to my countrified eyes, it's no more than the necessary reassurance of a self-regarding metropolitan élite that they are, after all, "in the right place, at the right time".

Yet at the heart of both large cities and small country towns, a parallel decay exists, not just of materials but of the spirit. Those without money or equity are trapped, with no choice of where to move. Reviving brown-field sites in the city will only work if the emotional infrastructure that a life needs is also built in - the relief of affordability, the comfort of security, the fulfilment of a decent job, the convenience and efficiency of transport, a sense of community. The same policy must also be applied to those country towns where a sense of purpose is fast ebbing away. There is no point in shifting population, either back into the inner-cities or out into the shires, if these foundations are not put in place first.

So, would I go back to a city? I miss the little luxuries, like a neighbourhood Italian restaurant, and a stationer's that stays open beyond five o'clock. A record shop and a place with men's clothes in something other than tweed or Viyella would be handy too. But I like it here in a small country town. Forget The Ivy - I'm only 25 minutes away from the racecourse where my horse is running this afternoon...

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