The weather in most of the UK for the last two weeks has been quite wonderful, sunny and warm, bringing on with a rush all the spring flowers we have been waiting for with longing since the spectacular (and spectacularly early) onset of winter at the end of November. Orange tip butterflies all over the place, early, middle and late tulips all flowering together, surely swallows any day now . . . Three things will inevitably follow from this: (a) a drought (except of course for a rainstorm over London during the royal wedding on Friday); and/or (b) the wettest summer in recorded history; and (c) a lot of noise in the media about the wonders of the countryside.
One newspaper article over the weekend was looking for ‘the outdoors book of the year’ to join other ‘nature classics’, and this made me think about all the books on the British countryside which we have reissued – both recognised ‘classics’ and other less familiar titles.
The greatest of all is the earliest (so far): Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. (And, in passing, the books nominated as ‘modern classics’ did not include Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, a book ostensibly about the making of a garden in Shropshire but which encompasses the geological, natural and economic history of the terrain to produce an unforgettable portrait of a landscape in White’s tradition: my holiday treat will be reading The Morville Year, which has just come out.)
The ‘agrarian revolution’ of the late eighteenth century, followed by the crisis in British agriculture at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, resulted in the first serious surveys of what people actually did in the countryside: Arthur Young’s journeys though England, Wales, Ireland and France reporting on crops, livestock and farmers’ techniques; Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1822) and Rural Rides (1830); Caird’s English Agriculture in 1850–51; and Somerville’s Whistler at the Plough of 1852. The latter especially did not flinch from describing the desperate plight of agricultural workers, in particular the sufferings in Ireland during the potato famine, and this clear-eyed view of the reality of the countryside seems to have influenced some writers of fiction. The dichotomy between sooty, polluted, corrupt industrial town and clean, healthy, smiling, prosperous country becomes less clear-cut, notably in Mrs Gaskell’s North and South (1854–5), when Margaret Hale, exiled from her New Forest paradise of sunlit, dappled groves, warns a mill-hand planning to tramp south to find work: ‘You would not bear the dulness of the life . . . Those who have lived there all their lives . . . labour on from day to day . . . never speaking or lifting up their poor, bent downcast heads. The hard spade-work robs their brains of life . . . they go home brutishly tired, poor creatures! caring for nothing but food and rest.’
We have two titles which deal with the practical consequences of such grinding rural poverty: Parish Law (1830) and The Handy Book of Parish Law (1872) both lay out in detail the legal responsibilities of each parish towards its destitute inhabitants. Chapter XXIII, section II of Parish Law deals with illegitimate children, and is a fascinating read in the context of Oliver Twist (1838). But help was also at hand to improve the lot of the farmer (and by implication his workers); Henry Stephens’ The Book of the Farm (1842) told the farmer (novice or experienced) how to do everything from testing the soil to sowing the seeds to buying the machinery, and became a long-standing ‘brand’ even after the author’s death.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of two connected movements: access for the urban poor to the countryside, or at least to gardens and parks, and concern about the loss of traditional agricultural land both to suburban sprawl and through the ‘industrialisation’ of farming practices. John Ruskin and Octavia Hill were both instrumental in creating a new response to the countryside which attempted to strike a balance between its importance as amenity to the whole population, urban as well as rural, and the need for agriculture activity at all levels to make economic sense – a problem which is as acute today as it ever was.
The rapid pace of change brought on by increasing mechanisation (which led to larger sizes of farm, but less need for manpower) from the 1880s, and especially after the First World War, brought another crisis to farming, recorded factually by F.E. Green’s The Tyranny of the Countryside (1913) and Lord Ernle’s The Land and Its People (1925). H. Rider Haggard, when not outdoing R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island with his highly melodramatic African adventure yarns, was a Norfolk landowner whose A Farmer’s Year (1898) gives a beautifully written account by a hands-on farmer of the joys and difficulties of the life. And at the same time, writers were becoming aware that a way of existence which, for good or ill, had not changed very much for the last 1000 years was vanishing before their eyes, and the elegies – clear-eyed and unsentimental – of Richard Jefferies, W.H. Hudson, and George Sturt both marked the passing and immortalised the memory of the shepherd, the gamekeeper, the poacher, the farmer and his wife.