Notebook: Driven to suicide in Britain's 'rural idyll': The countryside is in decline. As pubs, shops and post offices close, people are not getting mad, they're getting miserable

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I WOULD have driven straight through Tips End had not two derelict petrol pumps caught my eye. For connoisseurs of such things, they were of the old Aviry Hardoll design, with faded labels offering petrol at 5s 8d a gallon. Nettles grew high, and the gravel drive-in was choked with weeds.

Tips End is an unhappy name for a rural hamlet. Lying deep in the Norfolk fenlands between the village of Welney and the track of an old Roman causeway, it seemed a peaceful place, surrounded by wide ditches and flat fields of beet and onions. Only very occasionally overhead, a jet fighter from the United States Air Force base at nearby Mildenhall streaked for The Wash.

On one side of the pumps was the empty house of their owner Sidney Smart, now in a nursing home for the elderly. On the other, a bungalow named Doreen, its gate flaking paint, was occupied by Dorothy Payne, a widow. 'I was born here in 1910,' she said. 'It's always been my home. All my friends have passed away and Tips End has changed terribly. New people from the cities have moved in, and some only use their houses for weekends.'

Directly across the road, Herbert Read was repairing ancient Minis. 'Life is what you make of it,' he said.

What does one make of life in rural Britain today? Within the past four weeks, two important reports have described a countryside in crisis: thousands of jobs lost, village halls closing, village shops disappearing, abandoned valleys, rural homelessness, migration, despair, suicide.

The first apocalyptic warning came from the Duke of Westminster, richest person in the nation after the Queen, who noted that suicide is the second most common form of death for male farmers aged 15 to 44 years. 'Those suffering in rural areas are doing something worse than rioting,' he said. 'They are killing themselves - but they are doing it quietly and it does not make the headlines.'

Last week, the Fifth Baron Shuttleworth, chairman of the Rural Development Commission, added his voice: 'Every blade of grass in this country is loved by somebody, but if that love ignores what is actually happening, then our countryside will become sterile. Walls and buildings will fall down, birch scrub will take over and every stream and ditch will block up.'

Above the persistent clamour of the inner cities, is anybody listening?

Lord Shuttleworth is a chartered surveyor by profession and a Northern hill farmer by family tradition. In his Cowley Street office, near the Houses of Parliament, he fetched an atlas and bemoaned the lot of the modern farming village. On his desk was his commission's annual report, its blue cover carrying a message from John Major: 'We do not want to see a population exchange, with the less well-off in rural areas being driven into the cities by the absence of affordable housing and jobs in the countryside.'

The report highlights 100,000 anticipated agricultural job losses in the 1990s, a rural homeless rate (14,000) surpassing that of the cities and an 'indifference to the needs of country people'. Leaving Lord Shuttleworth in his shirt-sleeves, I drove northwards. The evidence quickly presented itself.

When a community loses its post office and pub, it loses its village status. Tips End, once a village, is now a mere hamlet. The Rutland Arms is now Rutland House, occupied by an 'incomer'. The sweet shop has gone. The Zion Baptist chapel, of which Mrs Payne's husband had been superintendent, is up for sale. So is the undertaker's. Milk and bread are delivered daily, but the grocery van no longer appears.

'We used to have a lot of tourists, but not any more,' Mrs Payne said, raising her voice as a warplane broke through low cloud. The post-Cold War 'peace dividend' is cold comfort for East Anglia: jobs will go as bases close.

It all seemed depressing. I asked Mr Read about suicides. 'Yes, we had two recently. One man went into his greenhouse and drank weedkiller. Another shot himself. His family said he was playing with guns when he had a few drinks; that it was accidental. But the inquest said it was suicide. I don't drink, myself.' He blew cigarette smoke into a jacked-up Mini. 'The agricultural land around here is owned mostly by big companies. There's a small farm up the road, over 400 acres I think, which is independent, but it's now up for sale. A lot of people are trying to move. There's a chap round the corner who's a builder but can't make a go of it. You have to go out and meet the world. No use sitting around moaning.'

Mrs Payne, who once won a glamorous granny contest, does not moan. She used to shop in March, eight miles away in Cambridgeshire. But after being privatised in the 1980s, the Saturday bus was cancelled. Despite difficulty in walking, she refuses to abandon her home. ('For Sale' signs almost outnumber trees in the fenlands.)

A few Tips Enders relish hamlet life. Leslie Brooks, 62, is an 'incomer', a retired civil servant, who had worked for the Manpower Services Commission in Leeds, London and Basildon. Once he fathomed the Norfolk dialect he had 'no regrets'. 'Life is much slower, and I am my own boss.' Driving his Mercedes to the pub in Welney, he seldom encounters calamity. 'I know local people are looking to get out of the area, because there's little work here. Someone mentioned a case of a man trying to commit suicide, a man who may have got tired of this mortal coil. But that's all I know.'

TIPS END may be typical of what is happening across rural Britain. Lord Shuttleworth knows of a farmer in the Lake District who feels almost an outsider in the valley his family occupied for centuries. 'His local council is run by people who came in from the cities to take over the farming cottages. He has become alienated.'

Culture clashes occur: 'I was furious to hear recently of incomer-commuters on their way to a railway station honking their horns with impatience because cows were crossing the road,' Lord Shuttleworth said. He located Station Town, Durham, in the atlas. 'There are 30 boarded-up shops here. We're going up in two weeks' time to see what can be done - perhaps some little workshops.' In Loftus, a small iron mining community in Cleveland, 'the economy has gone and buildings are falling in. Design companies and hi-tech firms could move there. With fax machines, they could create new jobs without creating the noise and smells associated with industry'.

Can the rural ravage be rolled back? More than 80 per cent of Britain is rural, but only 20 per cent of the population lives and works in the countryside. Inner-city tremors alarm government more than do rumbles from hill, dale and fenland. The Rural Development Commission's budget is pounds 4m a year (Bootle alone got pounds 37.5m from the Government this year to fight inner-city blight), with no prospect of an increase.

In the mid-1980s, the Department of the Environment commissioned Brian McLaughlin, now head of the National Farmers Union's land use department, to look at rural poverty. His study, Deprivation in the Countryside, showing an average 25 per cent of rural households living on or below the official poverty line, was never published.

Mr McLaughlin - an Ulsterman - believes the concept of rural deprivation lacks credibility in English culture. 'Deprivation as it is presented by the media . . . is an urban experience and describes varying circumstances of interlocking, social, economic and cultural malaise within the clearly defined spatial parameters of inner city.' The word 'rural', on the other hand, is associated with images of affluence, reproduced on calendars, chocolate-box lids, jigsaw puzzles and postcards.

When Mr McLaughlin was conducting his study, the policies of the Thatcher government were contributing to the rural malaise. The sale of council houses reduced the amount of rented housing available, while the arrival of affluent townies pushed up property prices. Rural neighbourliness dwindled. Rural youth took off for the towns. 'In the owner-occupied sector,' Mr McLaughlin wrote, 'rural housing was somehow moved from being 'shelter' to an 'investment', and with the on- going repopulation of many areas by people with city money, the result has been a considerable increase in the 'affordability gap'. For many rural workers, their wage levels never allowed them to be serious competitors.'

The crusading aristocrats (cynics may detect a desire to preserve their playground heritage) are not in total agreement. Despite his fury at insensitive 'incomers', Lord Shuttleworth takes issue with 'Gerald Westminster' for being too hard on them in The Problems in Rural Areas, the Duke's report published by Business in the Community (president, the Prince of Wales). 'The incomer,' Lord Shuttleworth said, 'can bring wealth, energy, brains, and a lot of new ideas.'

And irony. 'In the Yorkshire village of Grassington,' Mr McLaughlin said, 'an incoming, well-off population squeezed out the local people, who headed south for the town of Skipton. Once the incomers became elderly and started moving into local nursing homes, they found there was no local labour to look after them. And guess what] The people who'd been squeezed out are now being brought in again by bus to help those who ousted them. Ridiculous, isn't it?'

(Photographs omitted)