Robert Armstrong on his Brexit road trip
Robert Armstrong on his Brexit road trip © Nalini Sivathasan

I. The road to nowhere else

“If you are going from somewhere in Kent to somewhere else in Kent, and you end up in Egerton, you’ve made a mistake. If you are in Egerton, you’ve come for Egerton. And very few people who move here move away.”

I’m talking to Richard King, chairman of Egerton Parish Council, at the Rose & Crown. We sit looking out on a rolling field bathed in sun, with a farm perched on its far edge. Behind us, the bar is cheerful and busy — at midday.

South East england villages map

King is a lean man of 70 or so whose grey hair looks a bit wild despite being cut short. He is obviously proud of the place where, as a “relative newcomer”, he has lived for three decades. He certainly made an informed choice of residence: in the late 1960s he drove around the world in a London double-decker bus — for a bet.

New Yorker as I am, I am seized by a vision of my future as an eccentric English country gentleman. I buy an old parsonage, collect antique farm machinery, grow lavender, wear tweed. The vision is euphoric but brief. The winters would drive me mad and I am married to a city girl.

Still, after four days on the road, Egerton feels like the England I came looking for. After lunch, King gives me a tour in his car. It is, naturally, a 1948 Triumph roadster.

II. Desperately heretical

“Go have a look!” my editor had enthused. “An American explores, on the eve of Brexit! De Tocqueville in reverse! It’ll be great!” More visions: I’d be interviewing laid-off factory workers along the path trodden by Orwell in The Road To Wigan Pier, hearing tales from fishermen in Hull. The real story.

But no. “I was thinking south, rural heartland,” he said. “Hampshire. Sussex. Sunshine, villages. Breadbasket of England! Well, not quite, but you know what I mean.”

A steward at the South of England Show in West Sussex
A steward at the South of England Show in West Sussex © Harry Mitchell

He was paying for the rental car, so here I am, and there’s a cock-eyed logic to it. The route east from Winchester to Canterbury is an old pilgrim’s path, and draws a line pointing straight across the narrowest part of the English Channel, towards Europe. An objective look at the state of the country is out of reach anyhow; better to go with subjectivity, scenery and a shortish drive from London.

There was a personal advantage, too. I have roots in Egerton. In 1610 my ancestor John Lothrop became curate of its church. In time, his conscience would not allow him to worship in a church headed by a king, and he founded an independent church. In 1632 he and members of his flock were arrested. The court record declares: “You show yourselves to be unthankful to God, to the King and the Church of England . . . You are desperately heretical.” On his release from prison, Lothrop made for America.

My father was quick to remind me that Lothrop is “a well-known figure in American genealogy”. This is a genealogist’s put-down; ancestors are valuable in inverse proportion to their procreative power. The right Rev had 13 children who multiplied in their turn. Still, a personal connection and, better still, an only slightly strained metaphor. John Lothrop escaped what he saw as illegitimate authority and sailed for a better life — just what the Brexiters say they want. Do the people of the south of England see it that way?

III. The sporting life

Another advantage of Hampshire is that it can lay claim to be the site of the first serious cricket club in the country. My Mini rolls up to the Hambledon Cricket Club — just a few paces from where the first wickets were stuck in the ground in the 17th century — after a drive through soaking rain. The soft green pitch, ringed by trees and with rolling hills in the distance, hasn’t had a drop. It wouldn’t dare to rain on the Wednesday afternoon friendly against the neighbouring village.

Teenagers are practising bowling; in front of the clubhouse, a few fans and friends sip pints of beer; on the field, men in whites get started. Everyone is relaxed and jocular — despite the presence of a reporter and the threat of political discussion. “I’m a good cricket historian, but I know nothing about politics,” says club chairman Mark Le Clercq, with a sweep of the hands.

Livestock on show
Livestock on show © Harry Mitchell

As bat first hits ball, I venture a conversation about Europe with a broad-shouldered man in his forties. He owns a small business; it is doing well; the country is doing well; the recession is receding into the past. He will vote against Brexit: “I can’t risk the uncertainty.” At the same time, he says, his heart says “out” — a turn of phrase I will hear a lot. “I’m a very English Englishman. I haven’t the level of understanding that I should, but it worries me what we have to give up . . . I worry about us losing our identity.”

As a foreigner, I don’t have a dog in the Brexit fight. As a financial journalist, I stay close to companies and markets, rather than big political and economic issues. That said, I am a conservative in the modest sense of doubting the wisdom of fiddling with things that are not broken. And Hambledon — indeed the south of England I see over the coming days — seems eminently unbroken. The political genesis of next week’s referendum is well known. That the issue has become emotionally live for so many, even prosperous Britons, puzzles me.

I buy a round in the clubhouse. Four or five thirsty men complain that the village has become so expensive that few club members can afford to live there. “Topsy” Turner, holder of most of the club’s records, first played at the club in 1948, hanging up his bat just a decade or so ago. The others, when they are not teasing him, speak of his abilities in hushed tones. He was born in Hambledon, but says he knows few in the village now. “Most expensive village in Hampshire,” someone offers. I ask what happens when the topic of Brexit comes up at the local pub. “Everyone leaves,” says a wag, with more than a little seriousness in his voice.

This is a place where people come to engage in an activity just for the simple-minded pleasure of it. It harbours a perfect, typically male, form of happiness. Bringing politics here was a mistake. As I step outside, a fielder is making a spider-like diving catch. “Showing off for the camera!” comes the shout.

IV. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker

Petworth might have been developed in a lab to fulfil an American’s expectations of what an English market town ought to look like: cobbled streets, cosy shops, a pretty church and a grand manor. Greenery pours over garden walls. The town seems at peace.

Laura Woodham, a brisk, blonde, welcoming Scot, runs a women’s clothing shop. Her customers come in “for a bit of fun”; she knows the names of their dogs, children, grandchildren. But the flinty businesswoman in her comes out when the talk turns to Brexit. She would like to stay in, “purely on a selfish basis” as a small-business owner. “I can see things are unsettled. I can see the pound has fallen against the euro.” It is affecting her “quite dramatically because most of my collections are from Europe”.

Down the street, at Chequers Antiques, behind a desk jumbled with clocks, silver and old glass, Paul Hawtrey is a creature happily dug into its burrow. He is somewhere north of 40, with a salt-and-pepper beard and strong, very different views.

Robert Armstrong in Petworth,West Sussex
Robert Armstrong in Petworth,West Sussex © Harry Mitchell

“I think we are very creative, I think we are very business-minded, we are generally speaking quite hard-working, we will get along perfectly well [outside Europe]. We are all about trade.” But isn’t that what is threatened by Brexit, I venture? “Rubbish! Absolute nonsense,” he says. People will come to his shop because of what he sells, not because of political arrangements. It is a cliché to say the Brexit debate pits economic calculation against emotional response. What the emotions are — and where they come from — is slipperier. In my unscientific regional sample, there was an obstinance about authority that reminded me of my home country. Hardly ever on my trip did I hear a bad word about Europe itself, or a good word about domestic political authority of whatever flavour. What I heard was a lot of people who don’t much fancy being told what to do, and who don’t fancy themselves as needing or wanting external support — emotions with which the Rev Lothrop was, presumably, familiar.

It is always more nuanced than that, though. I talk to Phil Adams, who runs the garage in Petworth, as we look up at the underside of my Mini, which he has hoisted up on the lift. It’s crowded under there. I’m six feet-plus and no longer my fighting weight; he is not much shorter and perhaps twice my width. But he’s a guy you don’t mind being crammed under a car with, a precise speaker with an open manner and an easy laugh. He worries about English money going abroad and foreigners coming in. At the same time, he says, “We need to learn to be good Europeans”, and to co-operate closely with other countries. He just doesn’t like the form the co-operation takes now. He is leaning to “out”; I do not, as I feared, have an oil leak.

V. Students and steers

I know precisely two things about Christ’s Hospital when the Mini rolls into the parking lot. It is a 450-year-old boarding school (that’s what it is, despite the name) where the students wear robes; and most of them are on scholarships.

These scraps of information fail to prepare me. The robes are not Harry Potter-style black sacks. They are Tudor-era belted blue coats with knee breaches or skirts. The footwear is long yellow socks worn with Doc Marten shoes (the Tudor heritage of which I had been unaware). There is a daily parade with flying silver maces, a big band, and shouted marching orders. All of this sounds criminally retrograde when described in print. After a few minutes’ adjustment, it feels perfectly natural.

After listening to a class of 17-year-olds discuss the referendum — in Spanish — I ask them: should we stay? Two-thirds say yes. The radiant debate among the students is enough to make me renounce my natural misanthropy.

Later, as I settle into a seat to watch the livestock awards at the South of England Show in Ardingly, West Sussex, my cynicism is under attack from all sides. Massive white Charolais bulls, short-legged black Dexter cows and everything in between strut past. The contest officials, hilariously, are in dark suits and bowler hats. The audience includes sun-hatted ladies, serious-looking older men in tweed and posh types in pink shorts and driving shoes.

Students at Christ’s Hospital school
Students at Christ’s Hospital school © Harry Mitchell

The mixed crowd at the show prompts a happy reflection. In pool halls and pubs and polo matches, I had not heard a single person try to frame the Brexit debate as a class issue. No one tried to characterise the opposition as an economic bloc. Nor did I ever hear Brexit framed in terms of the wisdom or folly of one or the other political party. And while I found universal unhappiness with the rancour of the debate as carried out by politicians and the media, I was told again and again how the debate at a personal level had been open and really quite civil. The murder of a Member of Parliament on Thursday outside a library in Yorkshire where she had been meeting locals stunned the country and led to the suspension of the campaign. But even so, it is still hard for me to imagine my home country having a similar debate without the acrimony infusing personal ties and relationships.

The awards patter in the Sussex show is continuous and confident: “Look at that udder attachment . . . you can’t have a cattle show without acknowledging the Irish influence . . . don’t be afraid of eating clotted cream from our marvellous, high-fat British milk . . . ” I track down the MC: a compact man in a tie emblazoned with cows, Mark Cleverdon has been a livestock auctioneer since the 1980s.

“The agricultural community is as uncertain about how to vote as everyone else in the country. Sometimes I wonder why we are being asked the question,” he says with a wry smile, taking a sip of beer. “The community is traditionally independent. They come from family businesses, grow up in the country and have learnt to fight their own corner, but are being put under the cosh by big business — the supermarkets and the abattoirs.” His heart says to vote “out”, but his head says to listen to people who ought to be better qualified to decide.

VI. Home again, home again

St James’s Church in Egerton was already old when my ancestor read out the lesson there. Its 13th-century structure is mostly intact. A church warden, John Lumley, tells me the Sunday congregation is down to 20 or so. There are no other visitors to disturb us, but it is a place where one speaks quietly. Much of his work consists of taking care of the building, a task “that has been ongoing for the last 500 years”. He speaks the Queen’s English, is evidently pleased about his church and his village: “It’s a very good village, this. There is a sense of place here . . . There are all sorts of different sorts, though. There are lots of little groups within it . . . ”

The village, he says, has mixed views on the referendum, with lots of waverers and anxiety. As for himself, he voted early, for “out”. He reaches for an image I have become familiar with: his heart was “out”, his head less sure. He voted “in” in 1975, but things have changed, the country can stand on its own two feet. “And if the answer is ‘out’ on June 24, part of me will be very pleased, and part of me will be full of foreboding.”

There again — in considered, even, particularly British phrasing — is the emphasis on independence that made me think of the Rev Lothrop, and of America. One should be suspicious of an emotion that is so protean, latching on to almost any political or economic issue with equal ease; it smells a little of reptilian irrationality. At the same time, maybe the resilient and formless spirit of resistance has survived because it is fundamentally healthy.

A few hours later, as Richard King whirls me through Egerton’s fields in his open-top car, I put to him my idea that resistance to authority was native to the English character. Maybe, he allows. “But even if you’re right,” he bellows over the noise from the antique engine, “leaving Europe doesn’t solve the problem. There will always be some other stupid bastard telling you what to do!”

Robert Armstrong is editor of the FT’s Lex column

Photographs: Harry Mitchell

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