Urban sprawlers: how city folk ruined the countryside

The pandemic caused the metro masses to flee for the sea. Some are returning in horror, their countryside fantasy destroyed, but many are staying to import their brand of everything. Now the locals are revolting.

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.

There are strange rumblings in the heart of the British countryside. The landscapes made famous by Turner, Constable, Laurie Lee and ITV3 have, at last, become caught up in the all-engulfing UK culture war. Parts of this island synonymous with tea rooms, caravans, folk dancing, drink-driving and overpriced pastry goods are now mired in disputes every bit as fierce as the ones raging in our cities and suburbs.

The two sides in this ideo-conflict fall across distinct lines: native and newcomer, artisanal and industrial, lifestyle and livelihood. At the root of it is a very human thirst for a better life, born out of a pandemic and the ever-growing tentacles of fibre optic broadband. And while affluent types have always moved to the sticks in search of acre-wide gardens and thatched roofs, this is something different entirely. These new ruralites aren’t retirees or hot tub millionaires. They’re metropolitan idealists, moving from the city to the country in a kind of 2020-something inversion of the Industrial Revolution.

It’s The Grapes of Wrath in selvedge denim.

Things are happening at pace: house prices are up, business rates are spiralling – and, in some places, protests and campaigns of intimidation have been launched in response. Back in the cities, big business looks on anxiously. Some forecasters seem concerned that this could be the end of major metropolitan areas as we know them. According to the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the population of London could fall for the first time in 30 years. Take a stroll through the West End these days and you’ll likely feel it’s already happened.

A number of surveys in the last two years have pointed towards a growing dissatisfaction with city living, with the London Assembly Housing Committee finding – admittedly in the teeth of the pandemic in August 2020 – that nearly half the people asked would gladly move out of the capital given half the chance. Around the same time, Rightmove, that great curator of kitchen/​bathroom setups and staggering rental prices, estimated that enquiries from city dwellers looking at rural properties rose by 126 per cent compared to the previous year.

Yet there is more than just a freelance economy and the normalisation of remote work driving this. To me, it seems as if there has been a great collapse in the tenability of urban living and a shift in the collective desire – a yearning for escape in the hearts of those who can. The perpetual growth and inflation that cities apparently need, all Heatherwick totems and reinforced glass, just don’t correlate with the quality of many people’s lives anymore. So, they run for the hills and for the sea in search of myth and space, whether these things are really there or not.

The town has a vast sandy beach, it also has a ramen bar. It has elegant Georgian houses, it also has a radical bookshop. For a lot of people, that’s a kind of nirvana”

CLIVE MARTIN

Granted, there have been some reports of this tide starting to stem. In a recent piece in the Times, discussing the mass lockdown-inspired defection to Wales, estate agents diagnosed sudden-onset buyer’s remorse”. Another was titled, dramatically and alliteratively, Why I Regret My Pandemic Panic Property Purchase. But come to one of England’s designated nu-rural settlements – Hastings, Margate, St Ives, Frome, Falmouth, Hebden Bridge, Stroud – and you’ll find thriving outposts of this new tribe in the cafés, wellness studios and balsa wood-clad wine bars.

You’ll likely sense the clamour for a new way of living, one torn from cottagecore Instagram accounts and Sunday supplements. There is a recognisable dream these lifestyle pilgrims seem to reach for: to be on friendly terms with the man who delivers the sourdough, to paint ceramics in a converted barn and eat guilt-free seafood, to raise children that run free in fields of genetically modified maize crop. To build a decentralised, quasi-radical commune in pastoral Britain, a WFH diaspora.

Where things go awry is when these urban expats fail to connect with the long-established ways of their new hometowns. When they impose their old habits, paranoias and big city property ladder credit on these quietly wild parts of the country.

There is an immediate and inevitable sense of alienation between them and the natives, who, while having their attachments to the landscape and local culture, are really just there to live and work, not to realise some second espresso daydream. Because of this inherent disconnect of ideals, the two groups are on a collision course in many places – a reckoning between fantasy and reality in bucolic Britain.

A few years back, I moved to one of these rural lifestyle towns in South West England. My reasons for coming here were more about immediate employment than intentional living”. But the temptation of a quieter, cheaper, less endemically depressing existence certainly helped the decision along. Even in the short time I’ve lived here, the town has been pulled and pushed in every conceivable direction: crushed by lockdown, redesigned by acai berry entrepreneurs, brought close to breaking point by green list staycationers and hammered by post-Brexit regulations (which of course the locals voted for).

It’s a stunning part of the world, but it’s the familiar amenities of their old lives that keeps city dwellers relocating here. The town has a vast sandy beach, it also has a ramen bar. It has elegant Georgian houses, it also has a radical bookshop. For a lot of people, that’s a kind of nirvana.

Rents and house prices in the area have, of course, risen dramatically. But they’re still well below many big city prices, so the fantasy subsists, as long as you’re not working for local wages”

CLIVE MARTIN

Every time I step out of the flat I see people in search of this rustic afterlife. I see entire families decked out in olive green and mustard yellow Rains jackets, lugging paper bags full of expensive brownies around town. I see children named after rivers running wild in fishermens’ boozers. I see startups, £7 pints and urbane couples in ribbed beanies gazing longingly into estate agents’ windows. I see the dreams and visions of a tortured creative class, projected onto a working town.

Rents and house prices in the area have, of course, risen dramatically. But they’re still well below many big city prices, so the fantasy subsists, as long as you’re not working for local wages – in which case you’ll have to go inland to a bungalow or a new-build, 20 miles from the nearest green architecture studio.

When I lived in South London, I saw people trying to recreate the life that’s on offer here amid the unquellable chaos of the capital via car park farmers’ markets and underwhelming nature walks through brown belt land. Now, they go straight to the source. The astonishing gold rush for property here reminds me of Hackney 10 or 15 years ago, when De Beauvoir townhouses would sell to foreign investors without viewings, when people would offer six months’ rent up front, adding hundreds onto the suggested rent just to be a part of some grand misleading experience.

Like Yamaguchi Tsuotomo, the man who saw both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I appear to have lived through two separate gentrification explosions, and made little of either.

But it isn’t just lifestyle on offer. Moving to one of these places can fast-track you into the righteous side of modern living. The exodus to these pseudo-rural environs runs hand-in-hand with the increasingly radical climate movement embodied by Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and their various splinter cells. The ranks of these groups are loaded with people who have moved from town to country, throwing themselves into the cause and bringing it back to the streets and bridges of the capital.

Stroud, a Gloucestershire town around 100 miles from London, played a vital role in the formation of XR. Two of the group’s original three founders live in the area, which boasts a number of green-oriented businesses including vegan cafés and plastic-free shops. If XR is indeed the new hippy movement, then Stroud is quite possibly its Berkeley – with vanilla chai and craftivism” replacing psychotropics and sex.

The aesthetics, language and strange pathologies of the nu-ruralites will be totally alienating to anyone remotely normal”

CLIVE MARTIN

Children also seem to be a massive accelerator of this eco-friendly expansionism. Every time I pick up the local paper there’s a story about a little Jaco or Django who volunteers” to clean the beach every Saturday, or pens a suspiciously well-written letter to Angela Merkel about the existential threat of Brexit. At times it can feel like the middle-class liberals in these towns are in the early stages of repopulating the Earth, nurturing a super-race of wholegrain-fed toddlers, ready to inherit the planet when the rest of us cave in to heat exhaustion and obscure autoimmune diseases.

The uprooted kids in my town may seem freer than most, but they are viciously protected from undue influence. They have long hair, rigorous dietary requirements and decidedly neutral accents. In their hand-me-down clothes and Oshkosh moccasins they often look more like country kids than the native youngsters, many of whom have never been to the city yet live in cuffed tracksuit bottoms and fade hairdos, stealing their parents’ vapes and pulling wheelies through the crowds of ambling day-trippers.

The locals” – that is to say the people who live here because they have always lived here – have little footing in the new civilisation being pioneered around them. Mainly because the aesthetics, language and strange pathologies of the nu-ruralites will be totally alienating to anyone remotely normal.

But secondly, there’s the fact that many people who grew up in the countryside make their living in the fishing, agriculture, dairy or livestock industries, or they may run tourist-facing businesses, setting out vast buffets of bacon and bread, or providing heated pools and airport shuttles. For them, the sustainable” life probably feels tokenistic at best and, at times, totally antithetical to their livelihoods. Much has been made of the climate movement’s class problem, and perhaps nowhere can you see this more acutely than on the outskirts of the new communes it has created.

As anyone who’s ever stepped beyond the rejuvenated high streets or tourist areas of a seaside town will tell you, rural poverty is alive and well, with access to fuel, food and services severely limited in communities up and down the country. There are plenty of wealthy locals, too. But they often come from generations of hardship and are unlikely to change their ways at the behest of people that know little of their lives.

BBC birdwatcher and animal rights campaigner Chris Packham has found himself on the frontline of this dispute, having been subjected to a grim campaign of rural terror for his pro-climate, anti-hunting views. A menagerie of dead animals, including foxes, badgers and crows, have been left outside his New Forest home. A vehicle was set on fire at his gate. His stepdaughter, fellow presenter and zoologist Megan McCubbin, received a torrent of online abuse.

There is a simple, brutal, very rural truth here: the countryside simply doesn’t live up to many people’s fantasies of it”

CLIVE MARTIN

An organisation called the British Association for Shooting and Conservation has been forced to deny responsibility for these attacks, yet Packham (who is something of a hero in XR-related circles) remains a mortal enemy, constantly written about on its website. In a piece entitled Why the Countryside Can’t Operate Under Packham’s Flag of Peace, a BASC spokesman says Packham’s views on grouse shooting are radical” and divisive”.

Whether they are or not, I couldn’t begin to tell you. But the central implication is easy to understand: the countryside has a natural hierarchy of violence, where Local Man sits at the top. And if you can’t stomach that, you shouldn’t be here.

Fox hunting, that original urban/​rural flashpoint, reared its head on Boxing Day last year when a crew of hunt saboteurs were viciously beaten by Wiltshire men in Barbour jackets, seemingly protecting their red-jacketed feudal overlords on horseback. Of course, some of the saboteurs may well have been residents of the area. Yet with these issues there is always a prevailing theme of: you don’t understand our way of life.

There is a simple, brutal, very rural truth here: the countryside simply doesn’t live up to many people’s fantasies of it. Growing fresh herbs in your Hackney window box might ignite a desire to go and live the pastoral life properly. But most produce in this country is grown and maintained on vast, chemical-soaked plains, kept in track by behemothic £850,000 tractors and picked by a shrinking cohort of itinerant workers.

Free range meat and dairy keeps people from their ultimate reckoning with animal products, but move a little closer to whatever farm” is namechecked on your box of eggs and you’ll find it’s quite possibly a corrugated iron nightmare where chickens are kept feather-to-feather and looked after by a teenager with airpods in. All Creatures Great and Small, it ain’t.

In Cornwall, perhaps England’s most singular landscape, this gulf between aspiration and actuality seems particularly heightened. The county may be synonymous with boat trips, sea shanties and frothing pints of ale, yet in 2016 it was ranked as one of the poorest regions in the whole of Europe, alongside parts of Lithuania and Hungary.

With Cornwall having just one per cent of England’s population, but a staggering 17 per cent of its second homes, the housing situation is at breaking point. In 2019, in the trendy university town of Falmouth, a group calling itself Falmouth Hates Students” sent a number of letters to the local paper threatening a shock and awe” campaign against the monied teenagers playing loud music and lighting fires on the beach. In 2017, a widely-mocked pseudo-terror group called the Cornish Republican Army firebombed a Rick Stein restaurant (Stein is regarded by many as an overlord of Cornish gentrification). They even claimed to have one recruit primed for martyrdom.

I can see how the not-from-round-heres are fucking infuriating to the locally born and raised”

CLIVE MARTIN

Granted, this isn’t exactly Basra or The Bogside we’re talking about. But the strength of feeling does seem to be tipping towards the extreme. During the first lockdown, when many city dwellers made a midnight run to their country pads to see things out, aggressive turn round and fuck off” signs were draped over motorway bridges, while incidents of what the police have called small-scale vigilantism” started to show.

A friend of mine from Glasgow who took a short- term let in a Scottish coastal town in 2020 was effectively accused of manslaughter when a neighbour (whom he’d never crossed paths with) died of Covid. Aye, I wonder who brought that in?” asked the old lady next door.

As a London expat myself, I can’t help but be disturbed by some of this nativist rhetoric, often encouraged by a media class looking for scapegoats. Yet it also feels like an entirely inevitable consequence of decades of ignorance and a lack of protection from central government.

It’s a difficult issue which keeps leading me down blind alleys. As the constituency in which I live continues to vote for the party that greenlights dumping raw sewage into nearby waters, the town centre, loaded with students, vegans and expats, seems to have made more genuine investment in the ecological and economic future of the area. But I can also see how the not-from-round-heres are fucking infuriating to the locally born and raised.

One thing is for sure: this is only the beginning. As living in a major city becomes less and less necessary, as towns and villages across the country become more amenable to the metropolitan bourgeois, and as the backlash to the wasteful your driver is arriving” life grows, my guess is that we’ll see more people moving away from cities – and, in turn, further tensions between them and those that were already there. Or, perhaps they will all just run back to Brockley and Chorlton at the first sign of a flat vowel in their children’s mouths.

Because this is Britain, I doubt we’ll see too many more firebombings, but the schisms between old and new will likely widen, exacerbated by disparities in accent, income and ideals. And that’s a difficult dynamic for such a small island to carry.

In my experience, people in the rolling fields and rocky coasts enjoy the same things most people do: Facebook, family, football, drink, drugs, romance, big TVs and TikTok. Yet these strange utopianists keep turning up and projecting all their frustrations with the 21st century onto these totally normal towns, desperately scratching for something that most likely isn’t there – all in lieu of looking at themselves and their own anxieties.

A very British story if there ever was one.

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