Last Christmas a giant billboard went up over Finsbury Park tube station in north London, depicting the English countryside as “one big meadow”, says Vron Ware in The Guardian. It showed an idyllic grassy landscape devoid of people, buildings or roads, with the tagline “Explore the life that could be”. It was an ad for the property website Rightmove, inviting “Covid-weary commuters” to opt out of stressful city life. And it certainly caught the public mood. Estate agents have been reporting a mass exodus to the country since mid-2020, and by the end of that year “detached”, “rural” and “secluded” were the fourth, fifth and sixth most-searched terms on Zoopla, another property website.
Lately, however, there’s been some evidence of “rural buyers’ remorse”. Shocked urbanites newly relocated to the country complain about the need to drive everywhere. “They miss coffee bars and deplore the fact that everyone in the village sends their kids to private school.” They fell for the Rightmove vision of rural life: “fresh air, great views, unlimited access to nature”. But of course it isn’t like that at all. The public is barred from “more than 90% of the English countryside”. The dominant age group in rural areas is 50-59, whereas in cities it’s 25-34. There’s also the lack of ethnic diversity – and the prevalence of Tory MPs. But the English countryside isn’t meant to be a “blank slate for restless urbanites”. It is a complex place, “suffused in history, politics, power”. Understanding this would be the first step in making it more accessible and less mysterious.