It is now nine years since I moved with my family out of a smart little house in Shepherd's Bush and into a rented cottage on Exmoor, with no central heating and woodchip on the wall. Our plan was to jump off the middle-class treadmill of hard work, exhaustion and gigantic mortgages, and embrace a pre-industrial idyll of good living and partial self-sufficiency: we would grow vegetables, keep chickens and pigs, and let the children run free in the fields.
I was partly inspired by the great radical ruralist of the early 19th century, William Cobbett. Cobbett was a hard-headed agitator whose Political Register, a sort of one-man Private Eye of its day, sold 80,000 copies a week in the 1820s.
He was a self-taught farmer, a grammarian and, later, a politician. His best-known work is probably Cottage Economy, whose aim was to instruct the population in the arts of baking bread, brewing beer, keeping cows, pigs, bees and poultry, and in making bonnets and hats – skills that were already beginning to be lost as a result of 40 or 50 years of industrialisation.
There is a theory that lessons are best remembered when peppered with the teacher's own prejudices, and the opinionated Cobbett certainly does not hold back in expressing his various hatreds: Methodist parsons and tea-drinking are two examples, and Cobbett also rails against what he calls The Thing, which was his word for consumer capitalism. He also hated usurious bankers and compulsory state education: "I am wholly against children wasting their time in the idleness of what is called education; and particularly in schools over which the parents have no control, and where nothing is taught but the rudiments of servility, pauperism, and slavery." He was an agitator for freedom, and taught that some measure of self-sufficiency can be liberating.
That other great agitator, GK Chesterton, was a Cobbett fan and in 1920 praised him for his practical nature: "What distinguishes him is the practical upshot of his Arcadianism." Cobbett was a realist: he wrote recipe books.
This, then, is briefly the philosophical background of our move to the country. But the reality of everyday life has been somewhat different to the bucolic dream. I came down expecting to be gloriously idle like the shepherds in Arcadia, plying their oaten reeds, and it is true that there are moments in the summer when you can doze off in the fields, a bit of straw between your teeth. But the reality in general, I'm afraid, is that hard work is required, and I have discovered the brutal truth of Virgil's line in his didactic farming poem, "The Georgics": "labor omnia vincit" – "hard work conquered everything".
When it is cold, we can't just press a button: we have to light fires, and the wood has to be collected from the barn, come rain or snow. Wood must be bought a year in advance and carefully stored so it will season. Chickens have to be fed and watered every day, and if you leave their door open at night, you will find the fox has massacred them. Neglect the vegetable patch for two weeks and you will have a weedy mess on your hands. Dirt is constantly walked into the house. Bees die. Bread-baking goes wrong; so do jams and pickles. There are many arts to be learnt; to learn them takes time, and you must suffer many failures.
Why would you bother? My mother, who escaped her provincial working-class background and moved to London to follow a career in journalism as soon as she could, simply cannot understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to go back to peasanthood and mud, and calls our house the "gypsy encampment".
Well, you bother because, in addition to the satisfaction of producing some of your own food, and the massive cost-savings to be made, the small farm is genuinely romantic. The word romantic is too often used as a synonym for "comfortable" or "easy" or "free of pain", as when you are accused of "romanticising" country life, or "romanticising" the past. Romance, though, has nothing to do with comfort. It has to do with beauty and truth – and beauty and truth are often tragic and painful. There is something beautiful and fascinating about the death of Chatterton, the boy poet, at 18, and also about the death of Keats from consumption at 25, and even about Coleridge's opium addiction. You couldn't say that any of those three were comfortable, or had easy lives, or were even happy. But they were undeniably romantic figures, and they produced poems of great beauty. And our life down here, though not always easy, is certainly romantic and never boring. 1
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'Reuse content