Saturday, 11 October 2014

Tares and vetches still have charms…

Before I continue… I must stress that I – along with all the other villagers I have spoken to – would not want to deprive others of living in this wonderful place. We know that we have to grow. It is just that the proposed [Gladman] development is too large, too sudden, too concentrated; would remove a crucial part of our heritage; and would be damaging for future generations, because of the lack of regard it has for the negative impact it will have on the earth we live on.

Every day, a quick, three-question survey pops up on my iPhone, courtesy of YouGov, covering a wide variety of topics. The last of yesterday’s questions was:

Assuming that family, friends, [and] money issues were taken care [of] in a satisfactory manner, in which of the following two ways would you choose to live the next ten years of your life… In the frenzied excitement of Manhatten [sic] [or] In the calm solitude of a Tibetan Monastry [sic]?

As you can probably guess, (after wondering if this had been proofread) I selected the latter; and then found myself in a reasonably-sized minority – 35% of the 4,150 people that responded.

This was a “Forced choice” question, though: so there was no alternative response. However, I believe that it does indicate a propensity for city living, and an accompanying move away from the rural: a trend which is borne out in statistics (globally, as well as nationally); and that has been in motion for a couple of centuries – at least in the UK.

When Shakespeare was alive, there was quite a strong divide between town and country – a state of affairs that probably hadn’t moved on much from Roman times: when the majority of native Britons carried on farming (largely being self-sufficient), whilst the invaders established – or expanded – towns to centralize administration and house their garrisons, containing market places, temples and baths.

This probably didn’t change much until the Industrial Revolution; and it was still quite unusual, even when Joseph Ashby was a child, for a villager to travel far from their place of birth, unless they were visiting their nearest market town to sell their produce, or having fun – or looking for employment – at the annual fair.

Shakespeare bridged this divide, though: as Stratford-upon-Avon was then quite an agrarian town; and “His works contain many references to wild flowers, animals and birds, rural characters and country customs” – such as poaching!

For instance, in As You Like It, when asked by countryside Corin how he likes “this shepherd’s life”, townie Touchstone replies…

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life (look you) it fits my humour well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach.

…and then curses the shepherd – “Truly, thou art damn’d, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side” – “For not being at court” (as if this were the countryside’s major – and probably one and only – fault…).

However, Corin – who, tacitly, revels in his assured superiority – refuses to play Touchstone’s game – “You have too courtly a wit for me, I’ll rest…” – but not without first plainly defending his own bucolic lifestyle:

Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court. You told me you salute not at the court but you kiss your hands; that courtesy would be uncleanly if courtiers were shepherds…. Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.

One of the advantages of city-living, besides having “more plenty in it” – and, yes, I admit that there are some good points (even though I have described myself as a “country boy” on more than one occasion…) – is that people living there, on average, produce a smaller carbon footprintprobably because they are closer to the facilities and work they access; are in higher-density housing; and benefit from the urban heat island effect – although it has been posited that these metropolitan residents may not live as long as us backwater bumpkins….

One of the obvious disadvantages, though, is crime. Not that it isn’t present in the countryside – just that most of it happens outside the home; and tends to involve theft of property, and not violence to people (or mice…).

In a recent blog for NFU Mutual, Tim Price, a rural affairs specialist, wrote that:

As anyone who lives in the countryside will tell you, rural life has its own risks and rewards. And, as someone who grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, I will happily put up with a lack of public transport and higher energy costs for the privilege of bringing-up my family in a close-knit community with little traffic and wide open spaces on our doorstep.

That being said, however, I am not blind to the fact that crime can and does happen in the countryside and whilst it is generally lower than recorded crime in urban areas, rural homes and businesses are by no means immune to theft.

That “lack of public transport” is obviously one of the causes of our larger carbon footprint (coupled with the more frequent journeys and longer distances made by car); as well as the “higher energy costs” – both ecological and financial – associated with having to heat our homes with oil.

However, even though we have to travel further, according to a study by NFU Mutual, people living in rural areas seem to be more optimistic, and – like Corin the shepherd – more content with their quality of life than people in cities and towns. Tim Price, though, strikes a note of caution, for those not in awe of the oppidan way of living, and bucking the general trend:

Many people choose to escape the bustling city life for the tranquility of the countryside. However, for young people the lack of rural jobs paying a living wage and high transport and housing costs continue to make it hard for them to live in the countryside, and we urge the Government to support this group to prevent country homes being affordable only for second homeowners and city commuters.

It makes sense then – surely? – that the majority of housing (whether “affordable” or not) should be concentrated where the majority of people live, and wish to live: nearer major cities, where the majority of employment opportunities are – e.g. Coventry and Birmingham. And that even entertaining the thought of Stratford-upon-Avon absorbing some of these places’ “overspill” should be wiped from the planners’ minds.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s excessive “target of 10,800 new homes in the district in the 20-year period from 2011 to 2031… is now being questioned by the Council [sic] to Protect Rural England (CPRE) which claims changed population forecasts mean the figure should be 6,000 at most.”

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