The Good Life: Living the Rural Dream

If anyone lived “The Good Life” my mum did. The last twenty years of her life were spent without a car on a smallholding in a remote corner of Herefordshire. She used her pony and trap to drive down from the Black mountains into her nearest town for  shopping. Under her address, her writing paper read, “No Telephone Thank God”. A modern woman in many ways (she wrote travel books and myriad articles,  was a legendary cook and attended regular lessons on philosophy and nuclear physics), she had quite simply got fed up with machines and the trouble they brought; she maintained she achieved a lot more without them. Self sufficient until the end, gathering wood from the forest at the back of her cottage to feed her clomping great wood-burning stove, composting everything in sight and producing her own food, my mum also encouraged local, often unsettled youths to grow their own vegetables on her large plot.  Throughout her life she believed everyone should have the chance to be in touch with nature.

living the rural dreamMy childhood was spent in a constant state of embarrassment brought on by her bio-dynamic proselytising in a very loud voice to anyone she met from farmers to  Oxford dons. A founder member of the Soil Association, she implored everyone to read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring but apart from the odd hippie, no one paid much attention. Undaunted, she  continued to milk  our two jersey house cows, make bright yellow butter (which I hated)  and breed chickens, geese and ducks  which she killed with an easy  flick of the wrist and then plucked and gutted.

As a result of all the extra work I was roped into as a child I vowed never to become a slave to a smallholding when I left home. Once married, however, it didn’t take long for me to weaken – a comforting circle of hens, geese, sheep, vegetable garden, compost and rats (as well as a terrier and cats to catch them) now surrounds us. But I’m lucky. Although we barter our eggs in the village shop in exchange for the Racing Post there is no point in pretending the “good life” is an economy.  It’s a rewarding hobby.

But there is no doubt that producing and eating your own food satisfies the soul.  Like the philanthropic food campaigner Hugh Fernley Whittingstall I feel strongly that everyone should be given that chance if they want it. His website landshare.net connects people who want to grow their own food to space where they can grow it. Frustrated by many councils’ decade-long allotment waiting lists Landshare, with the help of its 73,000 members, identifies pieces of rural and urban land and persuades the owners to lease them for allotments. The scheme has taken off and Landshare now supports a community of more than 55,000  growers, creates an umbrella for similar small groups and puts pressure on the government to ease the “change of use” laws on spare land.

Our village is fortunate. The local garage owner gave his beautiful  field, in the shadow of our church and school, to the Parish Council.  After battling to get permission, this year saw the first  eighteen allotments taken up by villagers – some from flats in the new housing estate, some whose gardens are simply too small.  I pass by most days and have been amazed to watch the blank plots turning into ever more elaborate vegetable displays. There’s a real camaraderie between the growers: together they’ve bought  a pump which supplies their individual water butts from the nearby stream and a plot-owning carpenter has made an enormous picnic table for communal summer gatherings. It’s a happy and heartening project and my mum who, as a young married, tended her very first vegetable plot in this village eighty years ago, would surely be overjoyed.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Helena Downton

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