Escape to the country ideals don’t give a real view of rural life and don’t help us tackle rural England’s problems

Am I the only one who find programmes like Escape to the Country unsettling? The clue is in the word “escape”. That idea of rural life being idyllic compared to the nightmare of living in cities. Before anyone gets worked up, I don’t think cities are a nightmare. A buzz of life 24 hours seven days a week. Almost everything available whenever you need it. Walkable neighbourhoods.

But cities and large towns are too busy for me. All those people you don’t know rushing past not saying hello. I don’t think rural areas are a nightmare. Far from it. But people seem who escape to the country sometimes have unrealistic expectations of rural life. That could increase pressure on services and we are already seeing in rural counties like mine which has soaring adult social care costs driven by an ageing population. We will not get to grip with the gritty reality of rural life if it is portrayed is an idyll where everyone with a stash of money in the bank should live.

I have had several emails over the last couple of months from people planning to move to Ludlow, a small town in rural Shropshire. I also spotted an article in the London Evening Standard in which a glossy magazine editor told her readers how her hope of rural bliss had been shattered by “the full reality of living in the countryside.”

A lot of people want to move to our verdant county and Ludlow, allegedly the most beautiful town in England, is a popular location. I don’t know why there has been an increase in people contacting me in recent months. It may simply be that they search for Ludlow and find my blog. But I have more than a suspicion that they may be part of the wave of people expected to move to rural areas now that businesses have discovered that people can work effectively from home. People value the lifestyle. Instead of a coffee at the desk and a snatched conversation at the water cooler, they can take the dog for another walk across the fields.

Potential migrants to my town ask fairly similar questions. Does it have this? Answer. We have more here than you might would think. Does it have that? No, we are a small town, but you can order it online or drive 30 miles to a larger town centre. Does the town flood? Yes, but only in low lying areas and we are trying to deal with it.

Back to the article by the glossy magazine editor. She moved to the Cotswolds, an area I know well after spending a couple of decades walking its footpaths when not resting my feet in its hostelries. The villages and farmsteads tucked into the rolling chalk hills have long been a favourite haunt for people who see it as being an easy commute from London. But it did not take long for the magazine editor to wake up the reality of life in rural areas:

“One of the biggest misconceptions about living in the countryside: that it is quiet.

“Just as in any town or city, people still do building work, they still sit in their gardens drinking, laughing and playing music late into the night, there is traffic, sometimes lots of it, and farm vehicles are far noisier than your average run-around.”

She complains there is a lack of taxis, The hospital is a long way away. The choice of schools is limited.

She doesn’t deal with the issues of rural poverty. The lack of housing and support for young people. The damage to the environment that is happening all around her, including by people who think the countryside is designed for city dwellers to escape to. People that clog rural roads on their weekend commute. The environmental costs of that commute. Or the occasional outburst of reggae.

“Reality” programmes like Escape to the Country give a false impression of rural life. They undermine the rural idyl that people are seeking by presenting a sanitised image of country life. It’s not like that. There are real world problems here just as they are in the cities. Those problems just let attention in the national media because they conflict with the unspoiled image of rural life portrayed by Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy and so many other works that romanticised rather than portrayed the reality of rural life.

I am not opposed to people moving to Ludlow. Far from it. Our growing retirement community has created a boom in active volunteers who have excelled over the last year. Others will come to work from home or a small office, taking advantage of Ludlow’s accelerating broadband speeds.

But I do hope that people moving here take time to recognise the gritty and sometimes noisy reality of rural life. The countryside and towns like Ludlow are places where people need to work learn and play. Agricultural places. Tourist places. Ordinary places in a rural setting.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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6 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 28th Mar '21 - 2:54pm

    A rarity. A genuinely interesting, thought-provoking article on a subject that hasn’t been talkboarded to death already.

    Thank you.

  • We moved “semi-rural” 25 years ago to a largish village near Chester. It was convenient for work with both of us.
    We had few illusions, unlike some of the people you see on “Escape to the Country”, we avoided small villages and hamlets where our then young kids would have had difficulty maintaining a good social life.
    Although late one evening ferrying my 15 year old daughter back from her boyfriend’s in an awkward to get to village was fun, when as an agent I was being tracked down by local media, immediately after a fairly spectacular council gain from the Tories and the phone signal kept going!
    Seriously, people should consider these moves carefully. Within my old employer the CEGB, new (to the area) staff at the then Trawsfynydd power station were often told: “last three winters and you’re here for life!” Many didn’t last three winters.

  • Yeovil Yokel 29th Mar '21 - 6:39pm

    It’s worth listening to Chris Woods’ folk song ‘The Cottager’s Reply’, about the response of a fictional lifelong Cotswolds resident to a visiting London couple making a generous offer to buy his home.

    Back in the 1990’s I used to work at a country park NW of Yeovil and next to the A303 trunk road which connects London to the West Country. Several times I was approached by couples from London who were familiar with the area from previous holidays, and looking to retire here. The questions I’d be asked would usually be along the lines of “You do have Tesco down here, don’t you?”. I would say to them, based on having seen other couples come unstuck, that the most important consideration was if they had local social contacts, because if they failed to develop a social life they would more likely have a poor quality of life, but be unable to afford to return to London or the Home Counties where they’d spent most of their lives.

  • Simon Banks 14th Jul '21 - 6:35pm

    Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie included a teacher being humiliated by her class, an attempted rape and a brutal murder.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jul '21 - 8:03pm

    The problem I have with programs like “Escape to the Country” are the people doing the “escaping”. They often have a very large budget which has often been sourced from selling up in London or the SE of England. This puts them in a very advantageous position compared to local people who could never hope to be able to afford anything even a fraction as desirable on relatively low rural wages.

    It might be expected that they might feel themselves to be very fortunate. But instead we often hear a series of very negative comments about some very desirable properties. They don’t want just one spare bedroom they want four or five ! Just why a childless couple needs a six bedroom house, with several acres of grounds, beats me. Yes, we should have a empty bedroom tax but the it shouldn’t be directed at council tenants!

    PS they usually want a completely ‘unspoiled’ view too. That means no new railways and no new housing in their vicinity.

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