Saturday, July 16, 2005

I’m not retiring… I’m moving to the country!

… Or so The Idler magazine’s debate on ‘Back to the Land: … the pleasures and pitfalls of rural living’, might as well have been titled. This was far and away my favourite event, a big, bolshy debate about giving up the urban and becoming rural.

The debate that took place between Chris Yates (record-breaking angler who once caught the biggest carp in the UK), Richard Benson (author of The Farm who doesn't live on a farm), Tom Hodgkinson (editor of ‘the Idler’ who has a ‘teeny-tiny weeny holding’ in North Devon) and Sophie Poklewsky-Koziell (editor of Resurgence magazine, whose dream was to bake bread and have a worm compost) (pictured left to right, below left) was timely, especially with the rise in importance of organic farming, ‘getting away from it all’, ‘downsizing’ and ‘life-work balance’. Ekow Eshun (head of the ICA who can count the number of times he’s visited the countryside on one hand) hosted the event, debating whether rural living is possible for the urban dweller used to 24-hour supermarkets and no pigs in the road.

I must confess to a bias: I am a committed city-gal. Although Chris spoke eloquently of having a connection to country living through his love of fishing and Richard waxed lyrical about the joys of the closer-knit rural communities, I was unconvinced. Especially when Tom admitted that all he’d wanted was a place to write a novel and ended up “driving round at 10:00 pm to local pubs trying to find fags”. Sophie gave an even more harrowing account, explaining how she went from “trying to grow carrots in her window box in Old Street (eight years ago)” to the reality of farming life (“long unsociable hours, filth and muck… unless you have a fleet of children who you forbid to leave home”).

There was, however, plenty of fodder for thought. Tom debunked the myth of the countryside being a place of “peace and tranquillity… and lawlessness” by telling us stories of rock bands in barns which acted as amplifiers and travelling hundreds of miles to North Devon, only to land snooty suburban neighbours with twitching lace curtains. The panel discussed the pleasures of growing your own food, the challenge of not having control over events (such as rain and slugs eating your strawberries), of communities rallying around failing farms, of being in a five-year checkmate with a fish and of farmers who supplement their income with internet gambling. At the end, however, I was none the wiser about where ‘rural’ life might be, because when an audience member asked if moving to Bristol counts as ‘country living’, Chris answered yes.

It would be impossible to encapsulate every argument here, but the panel’s passion, dedication and love of the countryside was fully evident. For my part, I have to say that it appears family life has an enormous role to play in making the urban-to-rural transition worthwhile… kids gain from security and space not found in the average London estate. And Richard admitted that being single is difficult in a rural environment, as his brother found out when he searched for a new local mate on the internet… and came up with his ex-girlfriend.

To be honest, it sounds great and it probably is great, and rewarding and utterly fulfilling, but I suggest you ‘become rural’ with someone else and face it as a team. If, like me, you love London but crave the countryside, then do as Sophie suggested and adopt a ‘rural’ attitude: buy organic, source local food, shop at farmers markets. That way, when you do decide to relocate (retire!) to the countryside, those farms and that magical countryside will be still there for you. Even if you only move down the road to Epping Forest.


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