Defining the rural is a notoriously difficult thing to do. ‘Not the urban’ might be the closest we can come but such a cumbersome negativity leaves a question mark over edgelands, industrial landscapes, parks or commons and even the sea. Perhaps we should remember Raymond Williams’ preference for the term ‘working landscape’, getting us away from the aestheticized nostalgia of urban culture looking out. But that might be easier said than done, and perhaps there are aspects that people living in the rural landscape would like to hold on to as well. Maybe there are convolutions of imaginative and material existence that are an important part of the fabric of the life lived.
I had lunch late last year with some teachers of architecture in a café attached to Mapperton House, a 16th and 17th century manor house in south Dorset. We were planning seminars for architecture students on the subject of the rural. Around us men were walking in high visibility jackets with walky talkies on their belts. One was carrying three dead pheasants which he hung on a barn wall. Another was painting what looked like yellow lichen onto fence posts giving them the impression of having been there for a long time. And there was one in a hard hat and ear protectors strimming the field margins over a wall in a field where three carefully thatched hayricks were looking a little out of place.
One of the architects was describing being part of a group who, in the 1980s, had been tasked by NASA to brainstorm design ideas for space stations. The purpose of this group was to draw up a plan for making the space station environment more ‘homely’. NASA were realising that if astronauts were going to spend more and more time in space in such confined quarters then their mental wellbeing was going to have to be given more attention. After several hours of discussion what the designers had come up with, and what they presented to the space agency, was ‘inglenook fireplaces’. They proposed that large and elaborate fireplaces would bring to mind feelings of comfort, warmth and security. A sense of home from home: the very heart of any house, turning in its planetary orbit high above the Earth. ‘Obviously,’ he had said, ‘we weren’t suggesting fire itself, or stone, but something that brought it to mind.’
Mapperton, that afternoon, had become the setting for Thomas Vinterberg’s new film version of Far From the Madding Crowd and was being prepared for filming the following day. Another of the architects pointed out a well nearby and a stairway up the side of the manor house, both of which were made of fibreglass, though you wouldn’t have noticed without knocking on them.
A week later the film crew came to the town where we were living at that time, Sherborne in north Dorset, and for several days we found ourselves walking among costumed nineteenth-century ladies and gentleman trying not to smile. The weather was terrible and enormous lights were wheeled in and on some mornings you couldn’t tell what was the dawn breaking on the tower of the abbey and what was generator-run floodlights. It was fascinating and quite exciting.
In an interview he gave in 2003, Martin Amis famously suggested that ‘Our countryside is just bollocks. A friend of mine wrote a poem called Bollockshire about the English countryside. It’s all so cute and fake. We have no wilds left.’ It was one of several comments to which Robert Macfarlane responded with his 2007 The Wild Places. But behind Amis’s comment lies the smugness of someone who feels they have pulled the wool from our eyes, revealed to us the groundless simulacrum of the rural. As if we had previously suspected that the countryside was pristine wilderness, untouched by centuries of agriculture, enclosures, development and conservation. Of course, there is some truth to this idea of it being ‘fake’, insofar as it is built, worked and maintained, but this might in fact be cause for celebration rather than dismissal.
As Sue Clifford and Angela King once wrote: ‘The city, it has been said, is humankind’s greatest artistic act. We believe it self-evident that in England (perhaps in Britain) the countryside is our greater if more subtle creation’. All places are in some way representations of themselves, articulations of the life lived there.
In his preface to the 1912 edition of Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy wrote the following, which I dug out when I got home that evening:
‘I first ventured to adopt the word “Wessex” from the pages of early English history, and gave it a fictitious significance […] However, the press and the public were kind enough to welcome the fanciful plan, and willingly joined me in the anachronism of imagining a Wessex population living under Queen Victoria; – a modern Wessex of railways, the penny post, mowing and reaping machines, union workhouses, lucifer matches, labourers who could read and write, and National school children.’
In the ‘anachronism of imagining a Wessex’ we have a very telling insight into what makes the rural such a distinctive and intriguing space. Any landscape is always plural in its layers of history. Iron age hill forts rise up over modern motorways. Disused railway cuttings run through vast fields of heavily fertlized monoculture. Hippopotamus skeletons lie buried beneath Trafalgar Square. Unexploded ordinance from the latest war is turned up years later under a farmer’s plough. Landscape is often described as a palimpsest for this reason. But what Hardy points out is the way in which our imaginative relationship to the past complicates this layering and can disrupt the linear sequence. He continues:
‘Since then the appellation [Wessex] which I had thought to reserve to the horizons and landscapes of a partly real, partly dream-country, has become more and more popular as a practical provincial definition; and the dream-country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from.’
Today geographers are quick to remind us that any understanding of the rural ought to account for the cultural and imaginative traditions that shape public and professional attitudes toward it. Those attitudes, after all, come to shape the countryside itself: attitudes to work, food, beauty, history, recreation and wildlife.
We tend to think of the rural as either authentic or inauthentic, but one of its most interesting aspects is its imaginative richness, its many layers of meaning, some lost, some accrued, some recovered, some imagined. Occasionally these many layers shine through one another in moments of extraordinary anachronism. But surely there’s something quite exciting in this. In fact this might be one way that the historical and cultural landscape offers its own kind of wildness to an environment already a mixture of the feral and the tame. There’s an unpredictability to it, a kind of living imaginative agency, that can surprise with moments of sudden discord or resonance. Something close in kind to what Dylan Thomas called ‘the green fuse that drives the flower’.
When we moved to Sherborne a few years ago, my wife and I took a walk over the slopes to the east of the town and found ourselves looking down on an area of castle grounds that had been ploughed up and planted with wheat. In fact there are two castles in Sherborne, one a twelfth century English Heritage property and the other built next to it by Sir Walter Raleigh at the end of the sixteenth century. From where we stood we could see both and between them the section of ‘ruined’ wall that had been built as a ruin when ruins became so fashionable later on. In the space of the next five minutes we saw deer leaping out of the wheat fields into the woods, heard the sound of a steam train hooting as it passed and watched as two Westland Lynx military helicopters flew a low circle out from the nearby Yeovilton air base.
It was then that I began to think of the rural in a slightly different way, as a kind of living stage, ‘partly real, partly imagined.’ Which isn’t to say that there is the authentic on the one hand and the ‘fake’ on the other, but rather, that beyond the idea of authenticity, the interesting aspects of the rural may have always been about that moment of interconnection precisely between the real and the imagined.