Arriving in the middle of the countryside fresh from the city with a young family, it is fair to say I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. I grew up in the city; the countryside was something you saw on TV if there was nothing on another channel. As an adult, I believed the city to be my right, my natural home. You might spend a week in a holiday cottage somewhere green, and usually wet, but that was as far as it went. The countryside, my dear, was another place.
My husband and I spent seventeen years working in London. With two young children and another on the way, I finally gave in to his pleading and agreed to move to the North-East coast of England. We followed the dream, but living the dream is not necessarily easy. For a long time, I found it isolating. Living four kilometers from the nearest village took getting used to. Particularly when my husband was back at his desk in London for weeks at a time. At dusk, the children asleep, I walked out of the whinstone and sandstone cottage in a row of what used to be farm laborers’ cottages—the other cottages are holiday homes and empty most of the year. I looked out onto pastures where sheep and cattle graze; in the distance, a narrow blue-grey strip of sea and a lighthouse on the rocky islands off the coast. I waited for the lighthouse to blink, for the bats to notice me, swoop down and then away. I thought, Okay, so this is it then?
It is a cliché but true nonetheless—a happy mother makes for a happy home, and I struggled to get to grips with the world around me. The city girl took a while to become a country woman. On the very few occasions we went out for supper, conversation was of wheat prices, laminitis, and European Union agricultural subsidies—conversations that made you want to borrow a gun from the farmer sitting across from you and shoot yourself. While country pursuits like hunting and shooting, I viewed with blank incomprehension, if not downright hostility. As for pointy-toed shoes with attitude, there was far too much mud for heels.
Only when I slowly started to develop friendships did I appreciate the country for what it was and what it had to offer my family. The village school had just over school children. My son’s previous school in the city had more than 400. These mothers were my way into the world around me, prepared to offer their time and friendship. In the city, no one drops by; they are too busy, they presume you are too busy, and anyway, they live too far. Here, fellow mothers dropped by coffee or called to say “How about the beach?”
In the UK, a letter signed by 300 academics, authors, and childcare experts last year warned that children’s health was deteriorating because they are losing the chance to play outside. They blamed computer games, parental anxieties, and academic pressures. My children take the beauty of the heathered moors, the rolling fields, and swaying barley crops for granted, and I could afford to feel smug as they climbed trees, built dens in the jungle garden, and adventured in the dunes on the beach. Instead of Nintendo DSs and X-boxes, body boards and footballs filled up my sons’ afterschool lives.
We do homework in the kitchen on the table in front of the Aga, a massive brooding range that throws out heat and makes the world a better place to be on a cold and damp November day. Nature, too, has become a teaching aid. I swapped hands-on interactive learning areas in city museums for walks in the woods. We gathered brambles, collected conkers, and made elderflower cordial. Not that I could teach them the difference between one tree and the next. I left that to my husband, who suddenly revealed himself to be a man who knows which a sycamore and which an ash. I have to say—I still do not know the difference. Instead of spotting fire engines and police cars, the boys spotted tractors and combine harvesters. My eldest informed me he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. He knows that this boy and that boy have farms. And this is still a world where the farm is passed down the generation.
In city life, if you were lucky and the family home didn’t disappear in retirement home payments, you might expect to leave your semi-detached house to your children. (Presuming they would sell it and use the proceeds to fund a conservatory.) But in the country, there is an expectation that the farm will go the children and, hopefully, one of them will work it. As a newcomer, I wonder: “Will they want to?” I had to break the bad news to my own boy. We weren’t farmers. We were lookers-on. I suggested he might be an astronaut instead and fly a rocket round the stars not a huge wheeled tractor through the mud.
And good grief, but farming looks like hard work. A constant round of animal husbandry and plowing and planting and harrowing and harvesting. But I do not see food anymore as a simple fact of life. I see it as the end result of dedication and enterprise; the children, too, are aware that what they eat is grown and husbanded. They have drunk raw milk and lived to tell the tale, eaten their mother’s burnt bramble jam. They know she sheared a sheep and gave it the worst haircut of its life. They followed the hunt and have been to too many country shows to count. Sometimes, they talk about London and soldiers and the life they left behind. Mostly they say: “No” when I say, “Do you remember when we lived in the city?”