Status anxiety

The myths of the English countryside

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

One of the great things about spending the summer holidays in England is that it gives you an opportunity to experience life in the country. All year, Caroline and I dream about moving out of London and spend hours scouring property websites to see what we could buy if we sold our house in Acton. But after a few days in Yorkshire or Suffolk, all our bucolic illusions are shattered. Suddenly, London doesn’t seem so bad after all.

We’re currently in Norfolk staying with a friend near Burnham Market — known locally as ‘Burnham Mark-up’ because everything is so overpriced. We went to a farmers’ market that charged twice as much as Tesco’s for fruit and vegetables on the grounds that they were ‘organic’ and ‘locally grown’: code for ‘bruised’ and ‘misshapen’. A peach that looked like a cross between a doughnut and a silicone breast implant cost £1.75.

One of the characteristics of places like Burnham Mark-Up is that the locals are constantly complaining about the ‘weekenders’ with their spotless Range Rovers and ‘city dogs’ and, at the same time, never waste an opportunity to milk them for every last penny. Visitors from London are always made to feel slightly unwelcome in spite of the fact that we’ve been propping up the local economy for decades. The man we’re staying with, a London refugee who lives here all year round, says the upside of this attitude is that when you are eventually accepted it feels that much more special. But is it worth putting up with all that grief just so the barman in the local pub will return your greeting after five years of monosyllabic grunting?

Then there’s the difficulty of getting from A to B. Asking a local for directions is out because they will always reply, ‘I’m not from round here.’ That translates as, ‘I don’t live within a 100-yard radius of this exact spot — and even if I did, I wouldn’t lift a finger to help yuppie scum like you.’ Satnav doesn’t help because no matter how cunning the route you’re always going to get stuck behind some lone cyclist huffing and puffing his way up a gentle incline, in spite of the fact that he’s on a titanium racing bike and dressed from head to toe in Lycra that’s been personally autographed by Chris Froome. I cycle everywhere in London and am constantly at war with taxi drivers. But after a few days in the country I know exactly how they feel.

What’s that you say? Why not walk to the local pub instead? Chance would be a fine thing. It’s one of the enduring myths of the English countryside that it’s riddled with National Trust footpaths and ancient bridle ways, each one involving a rare species of bird and a spectacular view. In fact, walking anywhere is virtually impossible. Fields are nearly always protected by electric fences and what few pavements there are quickly peter out. That wouldn’t matter if the preferred method of transport for the locals wasn’t a 15-year-old Subaru Impreza that has been carefully modified so it can’t go at less than 90mph. It doesn’t help that the drivers are drunk 50 per cent of the time. If you have four children aged ten and under, going for a ‘walk’ in the country is a form of Russian roulette.

Apart from the cars, though, everything in the country is much slower than it is in London. Rural evangelists like Hugh Fearnley–Whittingstall go on and on about the different pace of life and how much happier and relaxed you feel when your life is attuned to nature’s rhythms. What they neglect to mention is the five-second delay between asking someone a simple question such as ‘You don’t have the time do you?’ and getting a response. It’s as if their brains resemble one of those rusty old tractors that has been abandoned in a field and now serves as a bird’s-nest-cum-flowerpot.

None of this would matter so much if you were able to get an occasional fix of city life by going on Twitter or checking your emails. But quite apart from poor network coverage and the scarcity of Wi-Fi — far rarer than the lesser-spotted cormorant — it appears to be against the law to connect to the internet in the country. I don’t mean you’ll be arrested, which is unlikely because rural England is almost entirely unpoliced. I mean that if you get out your iPhone in public, you immediately attract gamma-rays of hostility from everyone in the immediate vicinity.

No, after a few days in some rural idyll, the litter-strewn streets of Acton begin to look very appealing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • venyanamore

    Glos (or indeed Oxon) Cotswolds > Norfolk though, in pretty much every way, apart from the absence of sea or broads….

  • TowerOfBabble

    Yawn. Well, that was unedifying and yet another of the annual lets-have-a-go-at-the-yokels articles that pepper the press during the silly season. Can’t find much that is an accurate reflection of the countryside I know, except perhaps some of the mild disdain that locals have for “foreigners”…which would seem to be justified given the tone of this piece.

    • george

      Ask Fraser Nelson if you can write a piece on the locals’ view of the tourists. I for one would read it.

  • Tom Matthews

    God, I’d hate to be as miserable as this guy obviously is! What a load of arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic tripe (look at me with my big words, AND I’m from the countryside!) The tone of this article just proves the reason why people in ‘rural idylls’ (i.e. anywhere outside the M25 in the eyes of some Londoners) dislike SOME (and note: by no means all) people from London. Clearly, it’s not us that have the problem…

    • Shoe On Head

      london needs to become independent as a city-state.

      • Guest

        Not possible without a local “voluntary” repatriation scheme, as advocated by a former Member for Wolverhampton South West.

        “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancées whom they have never seen.”

  • Nick Harman

    Just a funny piece nose tweaking the country people. Of course Young isn’t miserable, quite the opposite he is just having a bit of a laugh with some mild stereotyping and exaggeration

    • george

      Unfortunately, some people deserve the stereotype….
      And a lot of people do drive drunk (or not quite sober) in the country, because it’s ‘only’ a short way from the pub to home, and as Toby says, who’s going to stop them?

    • Fergus Pickering

      God I split my sides laughing.

  • nancledra

    Toby Young gets a pretty hostile reception everywhere he goes. Because he’s a deeply annoying little man. Gerrorf moy land, baldy!

  • blindsticks

    What they neglect to mention is the five-second delay between asking someone a simple question such as ‘You don’t have the time do you?’ and getting a response. It’s as if their brains resemble one of those rusty old tractors that has been abandoned in a field and now serves as a bird’s-nest-cum-flowerpot.

    A bit like down here when you think you’re talking to a native and it turns out to be a non English speaking eastern European- or worse, another recent arrival from Bongo Bongo . So basically we English have never really liked or trusted each others own tribes much and yet some genius had the great idea of flooding our little country with all the races and cultures of the whole wide world then expected us
    to all get along.

    So why are you looking to get out of Acton Toby?

  • george

    Toby: You forgot to mention dirty wet galumphing dogs — friendly or unfriendly — not on a leash or responding to any Controlling Authority.

    I just love being jumped by a stranger’s dog, frontally or from behind. I especially appreciated the time, at Bedgebury Pinetum which specifically prohibits dogs off-leash, when I tried to ‘hide’ from two muddy dogs running wild but they found me anyway, leaving me splattered like a tramp. When I complained to their wellied owners — who were strolling as if on their own demesne — they looked at me blankly, as if I were weird and they were completely respectable. Dog people can be a real nuisance — and I say this as a doting dog-parent, myself.

  • george

    The time question.
    1. I hardly ever need to know the exact time, especially on holiday and once arrived at my destination.
    2. There is so much time everywhere — on laptops and phones and car dashboards and clock faces — that the challenge is to forget the time, not trying to learn it.
    3. I wouldn’t ask a stranger that question in quite that way. I’d say, ‘Excuse me, do you have the time?’ But it does seem a very pre-1990s question, all the same. I can’t remember the last time someone asked me for the time. And it probably did them no good as I don’t wear a watch.

  • botaltollochs

    “…the litter-strewn streets of Acton begin to look very appealing.” I’d rather put up with a five second wait for a response from a ‘yokel’ than live in that third world dump known as Acton.

    • Frank P

      And remember, East Acton includes HMP Wormwood Scrubs , where a large proportion of its residents take up temporary residence from time to time – and with a bit of luck quite a number of the current administration will finish up if ‘justice’ prevails, given their current trajectory. It’s only a short walk from DC’s Notting Hill drum, so it won’t be too far for Sam to exercise her ankle tattoo for the visits; tattoos are trophies therein; she might even try the A.C.A.B motif on the four fingers of each dainty mitt: a badge of honour in the West London Holiday Camp.

      • Yohnitzl

        I live in East Acton, which is a huge improvement on my former residence Barnes, a London suburb pointlessly trying to be some Sweet Little Village in the Cotswolds or somewhere. Very seriously, I’d rather die than live in rural England, full of UKIP and other ugliness and stupidity. I strongly respect the current coalition government, which comprises honest people trying to do a difficult job. Think yourself lucky that your libellous attack on at least David Cameron is too negligible for legal action.

  • The_greyhound


  • Ricki Strong

    At least in the British countryside when asking a question you are more than likely to get a response in English, albeit with a dialect.

  • John welsh

    Has Toby bought shares in Quadrilla by any chance?

    • Frank P

      Bwaahahaha! A hole in one.

  • Roy

    Ever put yourself in the place of the country person being asked a question? First of all he or she has to decipher the sound stream coming from the person talking. Then he has to get over the shock of hearing this strange voice coming from over thirty miles away, and didn’t realise they spoke the same language. He then feels uncomfortable hearing a BBC like pronunciation coming from the stranger. These ones who have the time to wonder carelessly along sheep tracks and afford the luxury of renting what was once his labourer grandfather’s old done-up cottage. Any one who has tried doing country tasks on the trot will soon find they have to slow down. They would soon find out too, moving or speaking at a faster rate never increased the remuneration stream coming his way, and couldn’t care two hoots what thoughts were buzzing round in the mind of this obviously weird stranger.

  • country_exile

    Toby Young is stirring it a bit but two weeks is too short a time to come to these kind of conclusions. Although I concede the point about broadband.

    Living in Suffolk I call the fast train to London the ‘time machine’ because it moves you from one world to another. I am conscious of living in quite literally a different country; this is the land where people fly union jacks in their back garden, where the church village schools still teach children how to read and write and where everyone really does know everyone else.

    But there is a dark side; intolerance, casual prejudice, stupidity even. You will meet people who don’t have passports and who can not imagine the metropolitan life you perhaps once led. It is full of exiles, people who have turned their back on the City or withdrawn from the material world. I know an ex city IT manager who does odd jobs and a former fighter pilot who cuts grass verges. People are self-sufficient and self employment is high. Perhaps the hardest thing is to have a foot in both worlds as I do, you have to be careful not to over romanticise the countryside when in town or view your fellow villagers as chawbacons when exasperation strikes.

    Where villages still have the church, the shop, the school and the pub they thrive. A mixed local economy is vital to this as are young people with families. Retirees can kill a a community as can too many incomers with second homes. Not that I am in a position to pass judgement as I am an ‘incomer’ too but I do live here – and if you do come, join in with the village life, send your kids to the local schools – don’t just admire the scenery. Given time the locals will accept you and you will find yourself getting invited onto committees and involved in other local activities. There is just as much intrigue and infighting among the hedgerows as I found in corporate boardrooms. The locals don’t care if you were head of widgets at ACME plc…but if you can help the community in some way, they are quietly grateful.

    No it is not a paradise and it would not suit everyone. but if you want to live in the England the BBC would have us believe no longer exists then it might be the place for you.

    When I drive home from the station through the inexpressable beauty of an English summer’s evening, I count myself blessed beyond words to live here – truly privileged and immensely grateful.

    • george

      Wonderful comment and highly recommended!

      ‘Self-employment is high’. Yes. So is unemployment much of the time, since so much countryside work is seasonal. And Cornwall is, what, the poorest county in Europe barring somewhere in Albania?

      Right about the acceptance if one settles in. My grandpa came from a lifetime in London/Essex to settle in Dorset and soon became the (touring) church organist and the chairman of his village.

      ‘Chawbacons’: that’s good. In America we might call them Klem Kadiddlehoppers:

      • Fergus Pickering

        Chawbacons is good! For God’s sake. The expression is a hundred years old. At least.

        • george

          Well, excuu-hu–huse me! I’m not from around your parts, hombre.

    • Guest

      A place where Englishmen can live, act and speak like Englishmen, rather than as repressed metropolitanistas, sharing a city as a minority with a whole host of assorted Johnny foreigners.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Who outside a Flashman novel uses the expression “Johnny foreigner”?
        A xenophobic racist bigot, right.

      • Yohnitzl

        I am Johnny Foreigner. Fifty-five years in Britain as a half-Jewish, wholly Czech Londoner have convinced me that England outside London will never tolerate me for being the way I am. I wanted to be friends, I tried to talk the way they liked, I tried to say the things they wanted to hear, I even accepted that I belonged to an inferior nationality with a lot to learn – all I got was violence, until my teens, and avoidance, essentially until now. I now want as little to do with traditional Anglo-Saxon, White Working Class or Daily-Mail-reading England as possible. I have taken up Czech nationality and now know it’s a much better country. London, however, will do fine – it’s now a multi-ethnic city where I’m no more foreign than most other people, and that suits me much better. My father should have gone to America during World War II, instead of fighting from Britain – all he got from Britain, for decorated war service, was a deportation order as soon as he got a job, and it took him many years to try again and become naturalized. He shouldn’t have bothered.

        • Keith Shocked

          I feel for you, my man. I’m ex-S. African, although genetically I’m as English as they come and was born in the UK – and I find there is a **huge** language and cultural barrier. The London cosmopolitan English types I can handle, perhaps even relate to – I’ve had a fairly nomadic life so I can understand that sense of no-strings, just “passing through” that you get in any big city. I used to live and work in London, until I moved up to work in Scotland, for a change of pace and scenery. The Scots are a pretty decent lot to foreigners, mind you that was Edinburgh, a big city again.
          But the parochial small-town Englishman is another story. Boy, what a piece of work! I’ve lived in a small(ish) English town long enough now to know that it’s actually making me ill. Time to pick up sticks…

  • johnslattery

    Like the dachas of the USSR and socialist Czechoslovakia, the English village is becoming the place of internal exile. Trouble is, Russians and Czechs could afford it.

    • Toby Esterházy

      It all depends on the intended County.

      Most of the Russian Countryside is ridden with poverty—no electricity, no running and drinking water, no town gas and often also with no telephone lines or even a cellular signal, and ridden with drunken folk coming out of the woodwork after dusk. There are definitely no dachas in the Czech Republic or in Slovakia.

  • Zapedowski

    I agree with Tom Matthews. But would also add: how can you make generalizations about the entire “English countryside” based on experiences in one (obviously tourist-ridden) town by the sea in Norfolk? That would be like going to Cancun and saying: “God, I hate the Mexican countryside, people there hate tourists.”

    • george

      Toby has written recently of holidays in Cornwall. He’s a moneyed chap and I gather he gets around.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      I was a minor celebrity from Day 1. All you need do is get into character as an English gentleman and you`re the most popular person in the room. Came for six months in 1970 …
      Jack, Japan Alps

      • Toby Esterházy

        Yet you are now so bored that you have to bother us instead. I wonder why!

  • David H

    I stopped taking anything that Toby Young writes seriously, after reading his piece on how hard life had become after his cleaner’s departure.

    The epitome of The London Twat.

    • Lyn Earle-Jermey

      To be fair to this arrogant, ignorant rude man I am a self employed housekeeper in Norfolk, who also works for 2 shop owners in Burnham Market, and I fully understand the dependency on housekeeping and gardening staff. My clients work a six day week of long hours and spend their sundays doing accounts and other paperwork.

  • Simon Hester

    Tourists eh, who’d have em’ – North Norfolk Resident

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      We have to endure plenty of tourists, mostly on weekends and mostly in the summer. But Nagano Prefectural government is the only prefecture that gets so much income it doesn`t qualify for a national government handout. You should see the facilities. Brand new library, curling centre, sports, medical and health facilities, vouchers for the onsens, art galleries … Tourists, love um. Oparh should come here, she could handle all the brand items she liked without some officious shop assistant intimating, “You couldn`t afford it”.
      Jack, Japan Alps

      • Toby Esterházy

        How many times? Perhaps we are indeed prejudiced, but most of us are definitely not interested in your endless Japanese stories. Save it for Simon Calder in the Indy!

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          “but most of us are definitely not interested in your endless Japanese stories”
          Speak for yourself you narrow-minded git. Oh, you were.

          • Toby Esterházy

            The article is about the ENGLISH Countryside, right? Idiot!

  • itdoesntaddup


  • Hexhamgeezer

    Shouldn’t this be ‘Myths of the East Anglian countryside’?

    PS – that’s a very hilly bit of ‘Norfolk’

    • Toby Esterházy

      The [Yorkshire] Dales?

  • Fergus Pickering

    Smarten up, Young. You’re getting past your sell-by date. This could have been written at any time in the last fifty years and it would still be sh*t..

    • george

      There was no public Internet 50 years ago. Or 30 years ago. It was uncommon even 20 years ago. And there was much less division (as in America) between Rural & Urban life (political views, demographics, prospects and prosperity).

  • God knows how many times this article has been written in one form of the other. You stick to Acton, Toby, I’ll stick to leafy and green rural Somerset, where people smile at each other and say hello in the streets. Oh, and I can walk to the pub, it’s two minutes down the road at a stroll. Oh and you can take dogs in there, and in the restaurant as well. Smug 🙂

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    If you`re considering relocating from London to say Yorkshire, you might as well go the whole nine yards and fly the UK coop entirely.
    Language issues, hostility towards newcomers, different food, alien culture … Referring here to Yorkshire.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • Toby Esterházy

      Language issues? Are you taking the proverbial (pishte)? Not everyone speaks English as a second language, like you! Do you have a confession to make, my Japanese friend?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Another day, another insane contribution from the resident loony.
        He`s really damaging your reputation as a serious publication, Spectator.

        • Toby Esterházy

          Will you stop trolling for once?

  • I never give way anymore on country lanes to big shiny clean 4x4s. i’m fed up with getting scratches from overhanging hedges and brambles on my tootling old motor.
    Why are so many bods buying these big white clean girly looking off roaders. You know just by their prissiness that they have come down off the motorway to dust and grime and muckspreaders etc.. why bother?

    • Amii-Rose Steward

      Couldn’t agree more!

  • Lyn Earle-Jermey

    I live in Norfolk in a town close to Burnham Market and also work for Shop owners in Burnham Market. This article is utter rubbish and barely has any truth in it whatsoever. Luckily it will sway more arrogant rude obnoxious idiots like this Toby from moving here!

    • Lyn Earle-Jermey

      misshaped vegetables? seriously? because there are no more serious issues about rural life to comment on!

      • Amii-Rose Steward

        I work in Burnham Market and live near Fakenham. Quite frankly Young comes across as a total arse that knows nothing. People around here are actually friendly and bar workers wouldn’t just grunt at you because you’re not local. My only issue is that when Londoners do come up in their 4 x4’s they think they own the bloody place and don’t care if they scratch your car – it’s happened to me 3 times. Also, if Young was on Vodafone he wouldn’t have any trouble with signal.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Great picture. “Start of Special Stage 1”

    • Toby Esterházy

      Yawn! Kindly **** back off to the Daily Mail!

  • Carole Young

    Carole Young

    Only just been handed this by a friend. I live in North Norfolk, having moved from (North) London, and it is absolutely nothing like the picture Toby Young paints. First, although Burnham Market can attract a certain type of (usually) West Londoner (rude in shops, refusing to mix with the locals) this is, thankfully, a reasonably rare beast. I have never encountered an electric fence here. If a path leads to a farm’s private land there is usually a police notice saying so. Remember this is ‘real’ countryside. not just a theme park for posturing visitors. Farmers need to protect their crops and livestock – it is their living. I walk my dogs early every morning along beaches, marshes, coastal paths, a stunning common that stretches for miles. Not a fence of any description to impede my progress. Every day I go somewhere different and very often do not encounter another soul. As for Wi-Fi. Many people I know here, including other journalists and authors, rely heavily on network coverage. I’ve never had any problem with it. Occasionally mobile phone coverage can be iffy but one only needs to move a few yards. Yes, it IS irritating if one is out on a glorious silent walk, in spectacular scenery, when some idiot starts rabbiting away on his/her mobile (can all these calls be so urgent?). You’re welcome to the litter-strewn streets of Acton, Toby. Just, please, try to be a bit more accurate in future.

  • Nerys Chaplin

    Haha, as an Impreza-driving country dweller, this article really made me chuckle!

    For a slightly less grumpy look at life in the countryside, particularly for those thinking of moving to the country, take a look at this site:

  • Haha, as an Impreza-driving country dweller, this article really made me chuckle!

    If you are interested in a slightly less grumpy view of the countryside, try

  • toolbar

    london people = KUNTS

  • saunders

    Well you see it’s not like if you’re a londoner and you come round here you get shot at instantly like this guy’s trying to say. It might take a couple weeks of being really loud, going on about how much better your city of choice is and then complaining that you in’t getting your thousand-databite per-second computer signal.

  • Andrea Salvatici

    Toby stick to Tesco, that’s what you deserve…