Once upon a time a country cottage was a shameful thing. To confess to owning one was to invite sermons on social destructiveness and the evils of the property market. Admitting that your bolt-hole was in Wales was worse. The tedious sneer – “Are you sure it’s still there?” – was unavoidable even if you took the precaution of explaining that your husband was echt Welsh with an impeccable Valleys pedigree.
With the crisis in farming, all has changed utterly. Righteousness is now on the other foot. Who is guardian of the countryside, preserving hedgerows and bluebells and shoring up crumbling stone barns and sheds? Who queues patiently at bare, overpriced local shops rather than driving 30 miles for a big haul from the supermarket? And who has lived off subsidies and overstocked on cows and sheep, ignoring the world’s flight from red meat? For that matter, who desecrates gems of vernacular architecture with shiny window and door frames from Homebase?
Those who live in two places have always had to make hard decisions about making themselves not unwelcome. Should “people from off” (as they are called in our part of mid-Wales) enter exhibits in the summer village show? Or is it fairer to leave the competition in jam, obscenely long leeks and crocheted loo-paper covers to the locals? Should outsiders sing at the church’s harvest festival if they don’t believe in God?
One protective coloration adopted by sophisticates in the country is the pretence that London does not exist. Whoever they may be in urbe – television executive, renowed scholar or High Court judge – they speak, when in rus, as if the only topics of world interest were sheep dips, cattle grids and varieties of primrose. When talking with their friends and neighbours from the local community, any mention of their copious foreign travels is taboo.
Always artificial, this Arcadian boundary is, in the days of the package holiday, absurd. Just because a rural resident boasts of never having been to London does not mean that he has not been elsewhere. A young hairdresser told me over the shampoo how she had always wanted to travel. “I’ve only been out of Wales the once,” she said ruefully. “And where did you go?” I asked politely, visions of Bournemouth dancing in my head. “Las Vegas” was the answer.
The hard fact is that farming is in its worst crisis this century and the traditional way of life is doomed.
What is the sympathetic outsider to say to those who love the land and had expected their children to continue working it? Should you prolong the wartime delusion that growing food is an activity of supreme national importance? Or offer to buy for your freezer one of the lambs that has come home unsold from market?
The subject of beef requires special tact. Conscious of the reproachful eyes of unloved cows staring at you over the hedges, you explain to their owners that you are eating British beef until it comes out of your ears. Your guests, on the other hand, are a tad nervous. As for French beef . . . you never touch the stuff, you promise.
Word of the world’s changing diet has reached local ears, of course. Set menus on big occasions offer a choice of beef or fish. One waitress returned home after such a dinner to find her father waiting up: “How many took the trout?” he wanted to know.
In this changing world, the country-city divide is vanishing. All who share the countryside know we are bound together in one global digitising economy, where the future of the landscape is as bleak as the future of the burger. The joint task is to find new enterprises that will allow people to remain living on, if not off, the land. Infotech is one obvious way forward. One e-wizard, who formerly ran an agricultural construction business, now operates as “Mountain Micros”. He drove down the lane with a new mouse five minutes after I had reported mine had packed up.
But not everybody can join the digerati. Is it neighbourly to suggest alternatives, such as making cheese, selling second-hand books or driving taxis? One local taxi driver does three round-trips from the Black Mountains to London in a day. Darker possibilities are suggested by advertisements in the local paper for Shiatsu massage and reflexology. I shuddered to hear that planning permission is sought to turn a remote stone house high up on a nearby hill into an aromatherapy centre. Should I oppose it? Or join in local jokes about what services really will be available there, and accept it? After all, it could stave off something more lucrative yet so terrible I don’t like to mention it aloud. (Windfarms.)
One unchanging feature of second-home life is the terror of urban friends when delivering themselves to your country fastness. As owls hoot and bats fly overhead, they still worry about their survival so far from civilisation – even though the days of candlelight are long gone. Today the central heating, shower, dishwasher and fax machine never fail.
But your guests are none the less your prisoners for the weekend and have to take what you provide. More moral dilemmas. Long ago the question was whether or not to put unmarried adults in the same room. Now the embarrassment has shifted. Is it insulting to offer married couples separate rooms?
“Thank God,” said one grateful friend as I indicated the single chamber available next to the double. “Claudia’s asthma . . . I couldn’t possibly . . . it’s been years. . . “