The Rural Ideal and the English Countryside, 1945-2000 While changes in the English countryside from 1945 to 2000 were undoubtedly connected to wider socio-economic and political trends, a durable English idealisation of the rural also had a profound effect on the land, as public interest in the countryside grew progressively throughout the later twentieth century. [J. Burchardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change Since 1800 (2002), 3.]
Arguments over what was best for rural areas commonly rested on the assumption that the countryside is preferable to the city. Throughout the period, an image of an idealised countryside was reflected in many forms of popular culture. This image was in many ways misleading, portraying the countryside as a place of happiness and simplicity free from problems, disagreements and change, and this idealistic vision contrasted with the often harsh realities of the rural world (prompting Ronald Blythe to remark wryly, in his 1969 classic Akenfield, that "Village happiness is often exaggerated beyond all reason.") [R. Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), 16.] Indeed, the rural ideal could sometimes even be harmful to rural areas, since it often had no relevance to the contemporary rural problems that it was invoked to solve.
It is important to note, first of all, that not all of rural England has been idealised to the same degree: the green lowland valleys have traditionally been seen as England's main charm, and it is usually these areas, rather than the upland regions, that have been depicted as under threat from development. This article therefore focuses on the effects of the rural ideal on the land and society of lowland rural England.
Many writers have examined how social, political, and economic factors nurtured the rural ideal during the second half of the twentieth century: for example, Howard Newby believes that the loss of Empire after World War Two, combined with the perceived disintegration of urban societies, strengthened the rural ideal in the popular imagination as a focus for nostalgia and the search for tranquility, a place away from the strikes and tower blocks. [H. Newby, Green and Pleasant Land? Social Change in Rural England (1979), 14, 22.] Surprisingly little, however, has been written on how mass culture affected attitudes towards the countryside in this period, propagating a vision of country life that consistently exalted it above the urban. It did so despite the existence of a vibrant English urban culture with numerous cultural touchstones, including the music hall tradition (of which George Formby and Gracie Fields were later exponents), the Beatles and their imitators, and the late seventies punk movement, as well as an endless list of urban football heroes such as Stanley Matthews and Paul Gascoigne. However, while there have been urban novelists, such as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, they have crucially failed to establish an English urban ideal. [Ibid., 175.] By contrast, the rural English landscape has been seen as the repository of an idealised literary inheritance. Sussex was Kipling's, the Lake District was Wordsworth's, Hampshire was Jane Austen's, and the moors of West Yorkshire were the Brontës'. These authors' works, which have sold in their millions and are constantly being reissued, reflect the nation's preferred view of history and are usually set in the countryside, in stately homes or quaint villages. What is more, the most popular English national songs, sung at football matches, funerals, and, of course, the Last Night of the Proms, are full of images of rural England.. In Jerusalem, perhaps the best-known, William Blake's lyrics clearly locate the essence of the English nation in the countryside. The ideal England was not, and never will be, located "among those dark satanic mills," but in "England's green and pleasant land." The rural ideal is intimately tied to a feeling for history, to an antipathy towards the urban, and to the idea of English nationhood.
The English tendency to idealise the countryside has its roots in the European pastoral tradition, stretching back over two thousand years and expressed in poems, literature and art. The pastoral became extremely popular in the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which formed many of our current ideas about landscape. [Ibid., 16.] Since the Industrial Revolution, in particular, the working countryside has had the picturesque imposed on it. The immensely popular landscape paintings of artists such as John Constable and Humphry Repton powerfully influenced their viewers, who often shaped the landscape in imitation of their vision. Thus, in some cases, artists can be seen as the authors of real, as well as painted, landscapes.
During the interwar period, an idealised image of the countryside was democratised through the growing, and cheapening, output of the publishing business. Travel books about England were extremely popular, and writers such as H. V. Morton, J. B. Priestley, and C. Henry Warren produced book after book with the consistent message that the countryside "is England... Here, if anywhere, goodwill may thrive." [C. Henry Warren, England is a Village (1940), 250.] The years between the wars also saw the founding of a number of new organisations, including the Council for the Protection of Rural England (1926), the Ramblers' Association (1935), and the Youth Hostel Association, which, along with older groups such as the National Trust (1895), stimulated the public's interest in preserving the countryside. [Burchardt, 159.] During this period countryside preservation groups were controlled by a mix of modernisers and conservatives, so that they balanced nostalgia with innovation. According to David Matless, they "attempted to plan a landscape simultaneously modern and traditional." [D. Matless, Landscape and Englishness (1998), 25.] Towards the end of the thirties, however, many began to question the merits of rural development, and by the 1960s, regional CPRE groups were restricting as many rural planning applications as they could. [T. Hunt, "England and the Octopus," History Today (July 2006), 35-36; Burchardt, 103.] During the war, the government appealed to patriotism by encouraging citizens to identify with images of a timeless rural England, images which avoided confrontation with the realities of poverty, class conflict and bad living conditions associated with the contemporary urban experience. [Burchardt, 160.] The Town and Country Planning Act (1947) and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), which protected the countryside from urbanisation, were the product not only of CPRE campaigning, but also of this wartime idealisation of the land and a cross-party belief in the value of rural England's collective heritage. By 1945, says Jeremy Burchardt, "powerful idealising assumptions about the countryside were probably as important a feature of popular culture as they had already become of high culture." [Ibid., 159.]
This idealisation of the countryside went largely unchallenged in the later twentieth century. Education continually failed to provide urban children with a balanced view of rural England, because they usually had no contact with the real working countryside. For most urban children, country visits were restricted to holiday destinations, and their impressions of the working countryside came via television and radio. The great volume of programmes idealising the countryside throughout the period is undeniable. Last of the Summer Wine (1973-onwards), The Darling Buds of May (1990-93), and even children's programmes such as Camberwick Green (1966) and Postman Pat (1981-onwards) all contained similar rural images. Here was a countryside of stereotypes, an unchanging, comforting landscape, with rolling fields, hedgerows, clean air, engaging rustic characters, and endearing animals. The Darling Buds of May underlines the differences which, according to the rural ideal, separate town and country: the rural Larkins are all healthy-looking and full of life, but Charlie, the taxman from the city, is pale, thin, and lacking in joie de vivre. [The Darling Buds of May, Episode 1, Series 1, ITV, 14/4/1991.] Of course, the first major programme to be based on the rural ideal was the radio show The Archers (1950-onwards), which focuses on life in the imaginary village of Ambridge. At the height of its popularity, the programme commanded an audience of 60% of English adults.[You're Not From Round Here: The Village on TV, BBC 4, 30/12/2006.] Vanessa Whitburn, its main editor since 1992, remarked that "The slow agricultural rhythm of life is one that we aspire to.... It roots us a little bit into the soil even if you live in a high rise flat." [Ibid.]
Although the media has generally fostered the rural ideal, in recent times it has occasionally projected a much darker image of the countryside. In the 1990s, farming practices came increasingly under attack in the media with the BSE crisis and demonstrations against the transportation of live animals. Later in the nineties, the TV series How Do You Want Me (1998) depicted a village that, though outwardly idyllic, was actually full of sinister characters. In another TV programme, The Lakes (1997), when the protagonist Danny arrives in a typical English village, the locals use him as a scapegoat for the murder of a young girl. [The Lakes, Episode 1, Series 1, BBC 1, 14/9/1997.] The 1990s stereotype of the farmer who was mercenary, used pesticides, and would fire on trespassers stood in sharp contrast to older images of the farmer as the benevolent custodian of the land. Nevertheless, negative media coverage of the countryside was still negligible compared to the more general idealisation of rural life. Indeed, shows such as The Archers, Heartbeat, and Midsomer Murders are still flourishing.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, urbanites responded to the rural ideal by trying to make their lives as 'rural' as possible. Many new supermarkets in the suburbs were half-timbered to give them a rural appearance, and thousands of people, usually middle-class parents and grandparents, flocked to craft and country fairs every year in search of rural knick-knacks. [J. Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People (1997), 164.] From the 1970s onwards, visiting the countryside was second only to watching TV as England's favourite pastime. [H. Davis and N. Duckers, A Place in the Country: Social Change in Rural England (1990), 155.] In the summer of 1990, the Countryside Commission estimated that eighteen million people --two fifths of the population— made trips to the countryside "to get away from it all." [Ibid.] The development of the English transport system and, up until the 1970s, the difficulties of traveling abroad no doubt fuelled the mania for trips to the countryside, but it is noticeable that people consistently chose to visit the countryside rather than other English urban areas, no doubt partly because of the influence of popular culture. This craving for the rural transcended class: working class people, like the middle class, insisted on having gardens, and most English people subscribed to the idea that it is outrageous to expect human beings to live in flats (Jeremy Paxman has quipped, "Where else would you hear that 'living in flats causes riots?") [Paxman, 170.] As roads and car parks began to cover an increasingly greater area, English people became yet more firmly convinced that wherever the heart of England was, it was certainly not in cities. [Ibid., 152.]
English politicians have consistently shown an awareness of the rural ideal's hold on voters' imaginations. In 1996, leaders of all three main parties signed a letter to TheTimes stating that, "during the next few months we shall differ on so many problems of public importance that we gladly take the opportunity of showing that on one subject we speak with a united voice --namely, in advocating the protection of our countryside in its rich personality and character." ["Party Unity on the Countryside," The Times, 9/2/1996.] The Conservative Party in particular, since at least the 1920s, has been idealised by itself and the public as the party of the countryside. Many Conservative writers, such as the staff of the magazine Country Life, have evoked an image of a feudal agricultural world in which the elite look after those beneath them. ["Rural Times," Country Life, 18/6/1932, 2.] By contrast, the left's version of the rural ideal emphasised the cohesion of the village community and of its workers, a picture most notably drawn in William Morris's News From Nowhere (1890). However, the Conservatives enjoyed more electoral success in deploying the rural ideal, by portraying Labour as unconcerned with the countryside. ["Up-Coming Elections," Farmers Weekly, 2/2/1950, 34.] Thus, although the Agriculture Act of 1947—which helped guarantee financial security for a generation of farmers— was the work of a Labour government, most farmers continued to vote Conservative throughout the period. [Burchardt, 162.]
Unsurprisingly, the rural ideal has had a profound impact on the debate concerning land management. The traditional view was that farmers had long maintained rural England, and that the public's enjoyment of the countryside and the continued existence of wildlife largely depended on them. This ideal of the farmer was most popular during the interwar period, partly because a long-drawn-out agricultural depression meant that, unlike urban areas, the rural landscape had changed very little in over sixty years. The Second World War radically changed English agriculture because of the need to increase production, bringing with it agricultural subsidies, the introduction of modern farming machinery, and an increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides. As a result of these changes, over four million miles of hedgerow were lost between 1955 and 1993, and the number of native farmland birds dwindled from the Second World War onwards. [T. Hunt, "England and the Octopus," 36]. Opinion on land management increasingly split into two different schools: the farming interest, who argued that they still fulfilled their role as protectors of the countryside, and the nascent environmental movement, which accused farmers of betraying their responsibilities, and demanded a return to a traditional and sustainable countryside. Beginning in the 1960s, environmental groups began to garner public support for campaigns to cut the use of artificial chemicals, protect hedgerows, and prevent the development of certain rural areas.
It is probable that the strength of the farmer ideal was partly responsible for the delayed public reaction to the change in farming practices, although environmentalism did not really gather strength until the publication of important books such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), which criticised modern farming practices and made people aware of the widespread destruction they were causing. Respect for farmers was so deeply entrenched that it continued to cloud many people's vision. In the 1970s, Howard Newby commented that, instead of being clear-eyed about the realities of modern farming, "Most of us…..prefer to allow the countryside to become the repository of nostalgic remembrance for the heyday of an allegedly more atavistic past." [Newby, 19.] While people continually looked back to what they wanted to see, they missed the fact that farming had changed into a modern industry like any other.
Although the environmental movement was (and is) truly international, including many key groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, that enjoy tremendous influence in England, it can be argued that the English rural ideal did play an important role in the emergence of environmentalism in England. Ironically, the rural ideal also underlay the postwar agriculture acts whose effects environmentalism was protesting: Burchardt argues that these acts were based on the idea that the countryside could be radically modernised through the adoption of new farming techniques, and yet somehow remain the idyllic arcadia of popular imagination. [Burchardt, 163.] The public could only maintain this illusion if town and country were kept separate, so that urban people did not see the damage caused by modern farming techniques. However, the steady growth in urban migration to rural areas after the Second World War, and the establishment of national parks in 1949, exposed many more people to the realities of the contemporary countryside. The rural experiences of the newcomers, many of whom were middle class, were partially responsible for a range of influential environmental movements such as self-sufficiency. [Newby, 19.] These people were mainly professionals rather than entrepreneurs, knowledgeable about natural history but ignorant about agriculture. The environmental movement in England owes much to their distinctive, idealised view of the land. The rural ideal also exerted an influence over what popular environmentalism chose to protect. The environmental movement is concerned with the protection of a huge range of ecosystems, including heaths and forests, but the landscape most popular with the English public was the enclosed field system. Through his study of Mass Observation surveys, Alun Howkins has found that the public typically resented the disappearance of the 'patchwork' of small fields and hedgerows to make way for larger, machine-cultivated fields. [A. Howkins, The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900 (2003), 197.] This suggests that it was not so much environmental damage that worried some people, but the disappearance of landscape features that they found picturesque.
Many English environmentalists compared the modern countryside unfavourably with an idealised vision of that of the interwar period, which, as Howkins argues, was "essentially misguided" because it ignored the fact that the countryside is constantly changing. [Ibid., 195.] The 1930s, as the tail-end of the agricultural depression which had started in the 1870s, were characterised by low-intensity farming and a corresponding abundance of animal and plant life, in contrast to the high-pressure period of the Napoleonic Wars and the years from the Second World War to the 1990s. It could be argued that some environmentalists failed to realise that cultivation and wildlife diversity are actually subject to 'periodic swings.' [Ibid., 175.] Many people have also mistakenly seen picturesque small fields and hedgerows as much older than they really are: many of them date back only to the enclosures of larger fields in the 1870s. [W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955), 299.]
The environmentalists' ideal of reverting to a time when there were lower levels of artificial inputs, with less intensive farming and smaller field sizes, would have meant a return to the productivity levels of the 1840s. Environmentalism thus presented the public with an unpalatable choice: more expensive, organic food, which most people could not afford to buy, or endangered habitats. Often people became confused into wanting both cheap food and a protected rural environment, a mindset that often frustrated farmers. The president of the National Union of Farmers, Henry Plumb, said in 1971 that "urban man wants his cheap food and his convenience catered for, but he wants the farmer somehow to manage without the benefits of that technology which he takes for granted." [A. Fergusson, "Conflicting Interests of Agriculture and Leisure," The Times, 13/1/1971.]
Indeed, in many ways, environmentalists' ideas about how the land should be cared for made disagreements with those who worked in the countryside inevitable. For example, farmers and farm workers were often aggravated by the restrictions imposed on them by hedgerows, and appreciated the hygienic design of modern farm buildings: they maintained a functional aesthetic sense very different to the environmentalists' point of view, and, indeed, to the rural ideal's affinity for the picturesque. Furthermore, by their very existence, people who lived and worked on the land were constantly changing the environment, and they found it hard to view foxes and other 'vermin' as valuable creatures. [F. Furedi, "Urban Prejudices, Rural Myths: Why We Should All Stop Romanticising the Countryside," http://spiked-online.co.uk/Articles/0000000054F4.htm] Whereas environmentalism usually focused on the entire landscape rather than just on its working communities, farmers had to defend a human-centred moral order. Although not all farmers necessarily believed in the rural ideal, they were pragmatic in evoking their traditional status as protectors of the land as a shield against environmentalists' criticisms. Increasingly, farmers had to battle the unrealistic idea that land management should strike a balance between economics, leisure and nature.
Interestingly, aspects of both sides of the debate -the idealisation of the farmer's role, and the environmentalists' image of the ideal countryside—had a strong influence on urbanites' decision to move to the countryside. This large-scale migration occurred during a period of great social change in rural England. For example, in East Anglia, which had a centuries-old tradition of farmers' unions and village self-organisation, the mechanisation of agriculture after the Second World War made farm workers obsolete, so that traditional rural communities began to disintegrate. At the same time, urban middle-class people began to move into the region, by 1971 making up thirty-three per cent of the population of Norfolk villages. [Howkins, 176.] All over lowland England, similar situations disturbed the local populations, who often felt that the newcomers were changing the rural way of life: newcomers used local facilities less, increased the cost of housing, and disrupted local traditions. More often than not, conflict between the two groups was produced, ironically, by urban attitudes that were based on the idealised vision of the village community.
This was an extremely powerful idea in the second half of the twentieth century, influencing even post-war government policy. A central theme of reconstruction projects was the promotion of a sense of community that, the government felt, traditionally existed in the English village. [Matless, 235.] The government even developed its own official definition of what constituted a village. In 1944, the Town and Country Planning Association explained that the ideal village should have "a collection of houses, larger than a hamlet in a county district ... a church, with one or more service institutions such as a post office or a shop, forming a residential nucleus of a parish." [W. P. Baker, The English Village (1953), 11.] Beyond this, however, the idea of the village also signified a 'community' in which everyone knew each other, and in which there was a friendly atmosphere and a strong sense of belonging. Many rural people shared this vision of village life. The vast majority of respondents in a survey taken in Hampshire in 1966 felt that rural life was better than living in cities, because "villages have better social advantages in terms of community life." [Hampshire County Council, Village Life in Hampshire (1966), 5.]
A belief in the virtues of rural society was not the sole reason why urban people moved to villages. The increase in motorcar ownership and the improvement and extension of the road networks made it possible for people to work in the towns and live in the country, and there is little doubt that many people, up until the 1970s, moved to the countryside at least partly because housing there was cheaper than in the towns. However, the sheer numbers migrating to the countryside meant that by the 1970s, rural house prices had risen to the same level as those in urban areas, and were higher in some places. [Newby, 186.] Yet even after this people continued to move to the countryside, and the transformation of villages into commuter centres was duplicated thousands of times all over England. [Ibid., 181.] It seems safe to say, therefore, that beneath these trends lay something that had been idealised in popular culture since at least the interwar period: the holy grail of community. David White noted in 1974 that "There is a corner in the English mind, that is forever Ambridge ... that rightly or wrongly represents the ideal living state." [Quoted in M. J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (1982), 78.]
The idealised 'community' that newcomers sought, in the rare places where it did exist, often became closed to them as locals grew increasingly hostile to the urban invaders. Many newcomers remained oblivious to this, partly because the stereotype of the ideal village blinded them into thinking that, since their chosen village had its own shop and pub, it must have 'community spirit' as well. Locals' grievances against the newcomers often stayed within their own circles, so that many newcomers never became aware of the rumblings. It was therefore quite easy for newcomers to maintain their pastoral illusions, which frequently undermined their relationships with the locals. In 1974 Newby described how, in the newcomers' thinking, "the farm worker is allocated his place in the grand, and somewhat idealised design, to which the village is expected to conform." [Newby, 169.] Newcomers would often persist in seeing farm workers as quaint and rustic, just another part of the idyllic village landscape, along with the pub and the shop.
Newcomers' attitudes to rural development were also influenced by their ideals of village life, as well as by more mercenary concerns. [Howkins, 208.] For example, whenever a planning application was made for a pub to build an extension so that it could improve business, "Parish councils across the country reported the same split: the long-time villagers will support the plans because they want the pub to survive and they want somewhere affordable for their children to live and the suburbanites will fight ... to preserve the place as it was when they first moved and maintain the value of their property." [Paxman, 171.] Likewise, they resisted the destruction of hedgerows for aesthetic reasons, and anything else that might change the picturesque, idyllic aspect of the village. [Ibid., 160; Burchardt, 177.]
It became a deeply-held belief among rural people that decisions affecting public services and new buildings, and even the deterioration of village culture, were the work of urban newcomers. There was some truth to this: many of the newcomers brought with them a middle class life-style that, in many cases, made them unwilling to focus all their activities on the village. The motorcar allowed them to maintain outside friendships and to use facilities such as shops in nearby towns or cities. Through their frequent absence, private and public services increasingly became unprofitable and were cut back in rural England, which also reduced opportunities for local employment and often eliminated village meeting places. [P. Jennings, The Living Village: A Report on Rural Life in England and Wales, Based on Actual Village Scrapbooks (1969), 25.] Equally, the newcomers often changed those social centres that remained. Once local pubs had been 'improved' and 'modernised,' many locals felt "unwelcome and alienated among the gin and tonics and prawn cocktails." [Burchardt, 193.] During the 1960s and 1970s, newcomers arrived in such large numbers that village institutions would split in two. The pub's lounge bar would be taken over by the newcomers, while the locals would occupy the public bar. This made 'community spirit' decline: it was no longer the case that everybody knew, or cared to know, everybody else. It is clear, therefore, that locals' negative reactions to newcomers were not formed by the rural ideal, but were a response to real damage caused by the new arrivals.
The pressure that the newcomers put on housing meant that house prices rose dramatically from the 1970s onwards, so that by the 1990s, rural property was twelve per cent more expensive than urban property, for both locals and newcomers. [Newby, 165.] Many locals believed that the only answer to the housing problem was, as a couple who ran a country garage put it, "to see less commuters moving into the countryside." ["Back to the Future," Rural Viewpoint, December 1989, 3.] However, it must be remembered that newcomers' determination to prevent the building of new houses was backed up by postwar government policy, which, heavily influenced by the rural ideal, aimed at containing the growth of towns in order to protect agricultural land and natural beauty, and thus restricted the building of houses in many places where they were actually needed. [Newby, 186.] Newcomers' impact on the housing situation was also not completely negative: their arrival often improved the quality of rural housing, which, in many cases, was actually worse than that of urban accommodation. One villager in Lincolnshire remarked that "the elderly patient is never really well ... Most of them are very poor and live in old, insanitised damp houses." [Jennings, 144.] Even in the 1950s, rural houses and farm buildings all over the country were still without running water. ["Labour Party Manifesto: The Second Five Year Plan: State Control of Sugar, Cement and Water," The Times, 18/1/1950.] By restoring and renovating cottages, newcomers gradually improved rural living standards while preserving the aesthetic charm of their surroundings. One woman from Corfe Castle Village commented in the 1960s that "The buyer frequently spends thousands of pounds in modernising. This is done usually without altering the outside appearance, so that through the years, with a few glaring exceptions, Corfe Castle Village has not altered in appearance and remains the charming grey village." [Jennings, 156.]
Newcomers brought some other gains to rural communities too. Though they did usurp the farmer's traditional position as leader of the parish council, they used their political know-how to exert pressure on the village's behalf at the county level, obtaining new facilities, such as bypasses, from which the majority of the village benefited. [Newby, 175.] It is also not entirely fair to blame the newcomers for the deterioration of services, since this was as much due to government efforts at economising as to the decline in use. Legislation such as the Transport Act (1985), which sought to encourage free competition between bus companies by allowing them to decide which services to run, meant that rural areas with fewer passengers suffered most, so that the government was eventually forced to subsidise services in the countryside. [The Transport Act 1985, www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-059.pdf] It also made economic sense for consecutive administrations to move health facilities and schools to nearby towns. In any event, the closure of village shops had slowed by the 1980s, and the disappearance of village schools, which reached a peak in 1984, was below 1979 levels by 1988, while one survey found that there was actually an increase in the number of doctors in rural areas between 1980 and 1990. [People in the Countryside: Studies of Social Change in Rural Britain (1991), ed. T. Champion and C. Watkins, 18.] Throughout the later twentieth century (as at many other times in the past) the countryside was continually changing, and whether or not individuals thought the village 'community' had declined depended very much on which period they hearkened back to. In contrast to the 1820s, when heated conflict between farmers sometimes produced death threats, village society in the later twentieth century was almost entirely free of violent social tensions, though Jeremy Burchardt believes that, in contrast to the placid interwar period, villages after 1945 did show increasing friction. [Burchardt, 196.]
Like the newcomers, locals also cherished an ideal of village life-although this was often tempered by greater pragmatism than that displayed by the newcomers—and this was frequently affronted by the newcomers' behaviour. Locals showed adroitness at exploiting the rural ideal in the media: by claiming that the newcomers were undermining the idyllic village 'community,' they could give their arguments weight with both politicians and a wider urban public. In the late 1990s, the success of the Countryside Alliance in lobbying for a range of rural interests owed a great deal to such tactics.
In the battle between locals and newcomers over rural change, the effect of wider economic changes has often been ignored. It is indeed true that farm workers have increasingly become a minority in their own villages and most have had to move away, but this is a product of growing unemployment as well as of increased house prices. Newcomers' and locals' respective ideals of the village 'community' limited their ability to understand that local changes were often part of national economic developments. It can be argued that the effects of these economic changes on the countryside would have been much more severe had millions of urbanites not decided to move to the countryside. While country living would probably have been more affordable for locals, the quality of life would have steadily deteriorated because of unemployment, lack of investment, and a steadily declining population due to the disappearance of the farm workers.
The fact that, throughout the recent transformation of the countryside, people have so often invoked the rural-urban dichotomy serves to underline the strength of the rural ideal throughout the later twentieth century. This is ironic, since, throughout the period, town and country became increasingly interlinked, and differences between them were progressively blurred. The cuts to local services and the drop in the number of people employed by farming meant that an increasing proportion of rural people spent most of their educational, social, and working lives in urban areas, while the growth of the mass media exposed countryfolk to urban assumptions and attitudes. Most importantly, increasing in- and out-migration to and from rural areas has, in many cases, made it impossible to judge whether an individual is 'rural' or 'urban.' Although countryside and town still vary in terms of their environments--fresh air and proximity to open spaces are things that the city can never provide—the rural-urban divide has increasingly been sustained mainly by the powerful, centuries-old rural ideal. By the 1990s, while the country was still portrayed as better than the city in popular culture, government planning policy, and the conservation movement, it was increasingly resembling it.--Simon Gooden
Simon Gooden is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Development and Climate Change at De Montfort University. Raised in rural Bedfordshire, the son of a falconer, he comes by his interest in rural matters honestly. --The Editor.