Longer ago than it seems, an enchanting Italian lady came to live with me on the edge of the rural Cotswolds. She loved the garden and on sunny mornings called it “paradiso”. In July and August she picked flowers for the house. She taught me to make pasta with vodka and I even forgave her when she smoked in bed. In late September there was a night of sharp frost and I knew I had to strike while the iron was still relatively hot. “It is all so lovely,” I said at breakfast, “so why don’t you stay all year?” She looked at me in horror and replied: “Only animals live in the country.”
It was never going to work. Italians are masters of the art of wearing a waxed rural Barbour jacket as a fashion statement in town, slightly unzipped at the neck and with, at most, one artful splodge of mud positioned to enhance the tone. I am not saying they are unique. Try taking a Parisienne for a walk through England’s Elysian Fields and forgetting that she may encounter free-range cows on the way. The French partition rurality in a neat binary opposition. They parcel it up as “la nature” and oppose it to “la culture”. Four days of the former is the upper limit. I know because again, I asked one, fresh from the heart of Paris’s 7th arrondissement, after four days in what Henry James once called the pastoral genius of England. Could she, perhaps, transfer herself happily elsewhere? “Bien sûr,” she replied, and my hopes soared. “I could always consider the 6th.”
After two nights in the Mayfair palace of my dear baroness of a daughter in London W1, I never consider W2. I am beset at night by green dreams. They are throwbacks to the anchorage of my life. I love the country, with which I have had a life-long relationship. Millions of my home-born fellow citizens agree, but nobody has put one side of it better than the 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne in a meditation that was only published in 1908. “When I came into the country and being seated among silent trees, had all my Time in my own hands, I resolved to spend it all, whatever it cost me, in the search of happiness and to satiate that burning thirst which Nature had enkindled in me from my youth.” It cost him a lot, as a vicar in green Herefordshire, but he “chose rather to live upon 10 pounds a year and to go in leather clothes and feed upon bread and water that I might have all my time clearly to myself”. In my lifetime it has cost me and my fellow rurals even more, let alone the ability to go urban in London on equal terms. All we had to do back in 1970 was to buy a house in Belgravia on a mortgage, let it out and search for happiness in Traherne’s Herefordshire while the house became worth 50 times more than we could have earned in total by working or buying shares.
Movement between city and country has been a painful flashpoint over the past century. About 100 years ago, four-fifths of the Greeks in Greece were living in the countryside. Now Athens has grown unimaginably and the proportions are almost reversed. In China, millions of urban Chinese were forced out into the country in the 1960s and left to die there in the cultural revolution. Now that they are needed for factory work, the survivors have flocked back to the cities in their millions. In Britain the dynamic has been much less drastic and still has an element of choice. Since this May, it has gained new impetus.
After merited protests, the government has relented and allowed high-speed broadband to be promoted in rural Britain. Not everybody wants it and some of us have no clue what to do with it, but the rollout offers new options to those fed up with what passes for “vibrancy” in London. They can decamp, take their jobs with them, link up by digital connection and deal, manage and manipulate while looking out to a peaceful green horizon. For the price of a two-bedroom flat in Clapham, they can have a house for the family, land for pets and a walled garden for truly fresh vegetables. At the turn of the first millennium, the Greek geographer Strabo remarked of the Britons that they were “ignorant of gardening”. They soon will be again, but not if thousands of them link up to work from a rural retreat. Between meetings on Skype they can learn to grow flowers they could never buy in Kensington.
Will people do it? It depends on age and courage. It seems an idyll for parents with young children and a traditional English school in mind, but it also means driving those same children to parties and back in their teenage years. It sounds heaven for dogs, but they cannot be released to disappear down the first big hole in a rural wood. I have held a straw poll among women, devotees of massage in cool London’s idea of a Cowshed, and they are adamant that they will not go off with their husbands and risk being isolated. Country clusters will have to develop. I much enjoy, in translation, the poems by “hermit scholars” about rural living in early China and Korea, but I have discovered that most of them lived in those caves and mountains with other scholars only as far away as the nearest hill. There will have to be colonies for new rural migrants who are afraid of being cut off.
They will need support groups because, like all great loves, the country in England is not always easy or good-humoured. It needs persistence and personal grit when the rains sweep across it in dark November and, for the sixth weekend in a row, there is not a sign of sun. It is a challenge, not an idyll, but like life itself, it is better for it. Those weeks of Wuthering Heights enhance the months in which it is very heaven to be Far from the Madding Crowd. I see it, live it and love its beauty through the spectacles of England’s matchless poetry. I admit that Chaucer gave no space whatsoever to the countryside through which his pilgrims travelled to Canterbury, but instead I can turn to Shakespeare, to Herrick and John Clare and to Wordsworth, the first books of whose The Prelude are the masterpiece on changes in our relationship with the country as our years pass and experiences multiply elsewhere. All the while I am tugged home by the clear sight of stars, by scudding moons, by thorn hedges to a green horizon, by buttercups, fritillaries and bluebells, by nightingales in June, by the snort of horses standing head to tail in summer, by autumn’s woodlands of red and orange and, above all, by life’s battleground, my garden. I believe these dreams are still rooted in most of my home-born fellow citizens. Will a new urban exodus force up prices and bring cappuccino bars to the likes of Welshpool? I think it may be coming but I am less sure it will be staying. To and fro, London to country, country to London, this movement is the ebb and flow of propertied life. Like Falstaff, I will die babbling of green fields, patterned for me with memories of foxhunting, but I may also die, gratefully, in a hospital with a view across street roofs to a sodium-lit mall. Even we rural animals need a first-class vet.
Robin Lane Fox is the FT’s gardening correspondent
Photographs: Howard Sooley; Ernie Janes/Alamy; The British Sporting Art Trust/bridgemanimages.com; Simon Byrne/Getty Images; Alamy