My girlfriend, who was born and brought up in London and goes to university in Durham, a decent sized city which she regards as ‘the middle of nowhere’, recently came to stay with me at my parents’ house, which is in a village in the countryside. To say she was out of place would be like suggesting Kim Jong Un would’ve been unwelcome at Greenham Common. It set me thinking that in today’s urban age, there are some things that people who haven’t been there really should know about the countryside. Unsurprisingly, media representations of our green and pleasant land don’t quite stack up; pick up a copy of Country Life or watch a few episodes of Emmerdale before you set out and you could rapidly find yourself at the bottom of a muck heap. Here are the main things to beware of should you ever venture anywhere off the TfL network
If you don’t have a car, you can’t travel anywhere, ever.
Public transport in the countryside is a bit like Channel 5; publicly subsidised but rarely used, full of weirdos and bound to disappoint. You cannot just ‘pop to the shops’, because the shops are 10 miles away and there’s one bus every two hours - an excursion into town requires the sort of precision planning usually seen in Andy McNab books. Journeys involving interchanges are in the lap of the gods, and a return ticket will cost you a day’s wages (people don’t get paid very well out here). Heaven forbid you try to pay with a note, either; bus drivers treat anything other than exact change with the sort of derision city-dwellers reserve for wellies. Your Oyster card is about as much use, in Malcolm Tucker’s famous words, as a marzipan dildo, and will inspire a similar reaction should you flash it around to the locals.
People die a lot.
Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; a claim that a brief visit to my village would support. The countryside is like one big retirement community, full of bridge clubs and mostly immigrant carers being eyed suspiciously by pensioners who are afraid for their Royal Wedding commemorative crockery. Every fortnight or so an ambulance rolls around the village green and the lack of flashing lights and sirens signals another of the blue-rinse brigade pegging out, to the delight of the survivors; it gives them something to gossip about other than the crossword and what they suspect Agniezka the Polish cleaner of having stolen this week. If Richard Curtis had filmed here, he’d have called it ‘4 Funerals and a Parish Council Meeting’.
Everyone knows each other, and they will insist on talking to each other, and you.
This is partially a result of the transport problem, and also the fact that there is very little of note to do aside from discuss the merits of different types of fertiliser and talk about who just died. The attraction of a new face is to local residents as I imagine a bacon sandwich was to David Blaine after he’d finished poncing about in that glass box above the Thames, and is greeted with a similar level of attention as the malnourished magician. If the accused comes from somewhere outside of the local school catchment area, hype will become hysteria as information on the state of the outside world is sought - are we in danger from the metric system, do digital televisions still get Gardeners World and whatever happened to that nice Mr Heseltine? You’re from LONDON? Well how wonderful. Years since I’ve been up to London; have they finished the Jubilee line yet?
Fox-Hunting is a thing.
In the city, people hunt for spaces - open spaces, parking spaces, and spaces-they-can-tell-their-friends-they-found-on-their-space-hunt, ie new coffee shops/burger restaurants. In the country, people hunt animals. Any given Sunday, the village green is filled with men in red tailcoats on horses muttering about ‘antis’ and proclaiming loudly that the Conservative party is the only hope of the true British countryside. They usually claim to be trail-hunting, ie chasing a smelly sack around, but I’d bet one of their country estates to my student flat that if they should happen across a poor, defenseless fox they don’t exactly call off the hounds. If you like bugling, the establishment and horse shit, you’re in the right place.
Yes, the animals are cute, but they’re ultimately food.
A field full of lambs gambolling in the spring sunshine might be the epitome of rural England. Those lovely, fluffy little creatures are just another part of the supply chain that ends up on your plate, though - they’re just a bit more visible out here. I had to rescue a lamb that had got caught in some barbed wire (I know, I’m a hero) and my girlfriend got all worried about whether it was ok; I didn’t have the heart to tell her barbed wire would probably be the least of it’s worries before long. People in the countryside are inherently suspicious of foreign food; most would rather eat roadkill than sushi, and even pizza can’t be trusted. Meat and two veg is preferable, and unfortunately, this means we get through quite a lot of cute animals.
It’s not all doom and gloom. You can see the stars at night, fresh air is actually, properly fresh rather than just not dieselly, and you’re about as likely to be mugged for your phone as you are to get reception on it. My girlfriend agreed, in the end - ‘I’m pleasantly surprised by the countryside’, she said. ‘I might come back one day’.