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24 September 2001

How Aga louts won the battle for rural England

Proud of their social consciences, delighted that the shops now stock stuffed olives, the urban rich

By Peter Dunn

Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile
Bishop Heber

It is well documented in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm that when the sukebind be out, Seth goes a-mollocking in Howling. Seventy years on and Seth’s descendants are still cavorting across the gorgeous landscapes of rural England, except that these days they are management consultants called Nigel, wearing brass-buttoned blazers and with a gigantic Japanese 4×4 parked up on the Olde Smithie’s gravel drive. Nigel and his myriad clones – Nicholas, who is frightfully big in publishing; Henry, whose reputation resounds in the world of cocoa commodities; and Jason, revered frontiersman of reality TV – are the new squires of Dungpong-cum-Blasterheath and countless village communities going westward-ho to Cornwall and north to the Dales. They are the proud spear-carriers of the most dramatic reversal of human migration in Britain since the industrial revolution, when poverty drove ploughmen and milkmaids into the cotton mills of Lancashire and the iron foundries and coal mines of South Wales.

The essential difference with the tidal wave of 21st-century urban migrants (50,000 a year from London alone) is that most of them are rich beyond the dreams of an older generation of country folk, who can no longer afford to buy their ancestors’ village homes.

Exmoor National Park (where an average house price of £187,603 represents an increase of 31 per cent over the past three years) is now considering draconian planning laws to reverse the trend and give local buyers a chance. With 85 per cent of sales going to incomers from outside the south-west, it may be too little too late. Exmoor’s crisis is, in any event, symptomatic of a wider problem that new Labour – with its mantra “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” – will have no stomach to address. This is, after all, the party whose former environment minister, Michael Meacher, could rail against the culture of second homes from the rock-bed of a £2m property portfolio that included a £500,000 retreat in the Cotswolds. That Downing Street told Meacher to stop criticising rich people like himself indicates that the government has no intention of taxing the urban predators whose wealth is creating social havoc in hundreds of rural communities.

Academics who picked up on the dramatic phenomenon of urban downshifting in the early 1980s coined an acronym for this new generation of Barbour-coated fantasy villagers. They called them “Droppies” – “Disillusioned, Relatively Ordinary Professionals, Preferring Independent Employment Situations”. Many Droppies would have regarded themselves as decent middle-class people appalled about the way Thatcherism was turning inner cities into human junkyards of beggars, gridlocked traffic and, eventually, the spectre of white-collar unemployment and negative housing equity. The census of 1991 disclosed that, in the previous year, 250,000 souls (equivalent to the combined populations of Brighton, Chester, Harrogate and Bedford) had flogged the town house, packed the Volvo with chattels and headed for the sticks.

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Being a Droppie in the Eighties carried with it a certain idealism. Droppies ran cyber-cottages or smallholdings breeding ostriches or wild boar. They got on to village committees and wrote it all up in Country Living or the Guardian.

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Blairism, with its underlying contempt for the poor and its fawning respect for the rich, has introduced a darker element to the great stampede for the good life in rural England. Its newest recruits, bankrolled with City bonuses, golden helloes and diamond goodbyes, now want it both ways – the urban life that keeps them rich and the weekend bolt-hole for binges of bucolic simplicity around the kitchen-warming Aga. As the heartbeat of rural England falters, turning villages into weekday communities of ghosts, nothing symbolises the new pushy part-time countryman quite so much as his oil-fired stove.

Goodbye Droppie; hello Aga lout.

According to Professor Tony Champion of Newcastle University’s department of geography, there is no end in sight to the exodus from Britain’s metropolitan anthills. In a report for the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) in 1998, he noted: “All the evidence . . . suggests that there is a force deep in the English psyche which is driving people to aspire to a rural lifestyle . . . According to the Countryside Commission (1997), within the cities, 43 per cent of suburban residents and 51 per cent of inner-city residents would like to live in a village or the countryside. Unlike Americans who prevailingly strive for a suburban lifestyle, for the British the lure of the countryside seems more irresistible than ever.”

Champion didn’t say much about the damaging social impact this huge urban influx has inflicted on village life, which is just as well, because the CPRE is widely regarded by Aga louts as their trade union. Its president is the actress Prunella Scales, star of a long-running series of TV commercials for Tesco, which (like its competitors) is loathed and boycotted by many farmers for its aggressive meat-pricing policies.

Aga louts have always had a problem with yeomen whose cows moo at night or shit in the lanes. In the Dorset village where I used to live, a farmer showed me a letter he had received from a banker’s wife, resident of the Old Vicarage, asking him to remove a rusty tractor that was spoiling her view. Some time later, the banker’s garden was trashed under cover of darkness, his neighbours’ tyres were slashed and a leaking slurry truck was parked up near their properties for a week.

The truth is that many Aga louts dislike farmers because they envy their busy lives, the sense of unending usefulness dictated by the seasons. With his suburban tennis court and stockyard swimming pool conversion, the Aga lout wants the landscape to enhance, rather than detract from, the accessories and fantasies of his own pointless life. He likes to play farm, fencing open paddocks to keep his pets in and rambling peasants out.

Unlike Seth, who went a-mollocking, the Aga lout cavorts a-bollocking. Planning applications in the local paper become required reading. They enable him to identify threats to his property and to establish a strategy for thwarting them.

The Aga lout also prides himself on a finely tuned social conscience, the need to conserve the “traditional” values of the peasant culture his presence has undermined. He cares about low-cost housing (so long as its proximity does not detract from the value of his property), the village shop and post office, the rural bus service, neither of which he uses, preferring to drive his gas-guzzling 4×4 to the urban supermarket 15 miles away. Coffee mornings for the blind, the sclerotic, the Conservative Party and other disadvantaged or endangered species (Aga louts are almost always new Labour) enable him to catch up on the latest in house prices and the incompetence of Old Villagers who are employed as charladies to scrub their floors or as gardeners to mow their croquet lawns. Farmers and other Old Villagers are, it goes without saying, not invited to these social gatherings.

Aga louts will protest that they have introduced acceptable standards to the rude simplicities of English rural life. How else would Dungpong-cum-Blasterheath have learnt to love the canape and cocktail culture of Islington Person, to worship the ill-tempered chefs creating exotic metropolitan dishes in one-time cider houses? You only had to read Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of Conde Nast magazines, writing at length in the Sunday Telegraph a couple of weeks ago about his debt to the urban pioneers who have, at last, made life tolerable in the sticks.

Seven years ago, Coleridge published an article in Another Magazine enouncing the cupcakes, sliced bread and withered carrots he had seen on sale in a village store and swore he would never live in the country. Now, even though “country people have worse teeth than Londoners”, Coleridge has moved his family into a megabucks 17th-century brick farmhouse in Oxfordshire. Over Coleridge’s piece, a sub with a fine sense of irony has written the headline “Call of the wild”. The family is photographed, looking rather pleased with itself, across an acre or so of lawn, dominated by the author at the wheel of a mower roughly the size of a village bus. A caption reveals how, driven by some bucolic, biological clock, they have finally “traded street culture for agriculture”.

Only in his cups will you hear an Aga lout confess that it was the urban influx of blacks that drove him to rural communities where “foreigners” are defined as white people who live in other villages. Coleridge has no such inhibition, moaning away about being “importuned” by Lebanese Phalangists and Kurdish separatists at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, or having his children “leered at from every park bench by robed Gulf visitors”.

In his corn-waving corner of England, only the food is foreign. The Coleridge pack has attended the village store and squealed with delight over the shelves of capers, stuffed olives and soy sauce. Locals in the pub browse contentedly over Thai green curry taken with chopsticks. There are shops for exotic cheeses, and organic butchers and, when all else fails, there is Tesco in Banbury. For the likes of Coleridge, “arriving in Oxfordshire like asylum-seekers, ignorant of local customs and dialect”, the parish newsletter prints reassuring small ads for Indian head masseurs, aromatherapists and Pilates classes. And there are peasants to amuse one, a saddler who sells horror videos, the mole catcher with a life story to tell, even a man who falls in the swimming pool for a bit of a laugh while cleaning the filter.

Those of us who live in a different kind of countryside, with its nightmares of slaughtered livestock, its farmers grieving over empty fellside pastures, are mildly diverted by the trendy fantasies that money can buy in Oxfordshire. In three months’ time, we might, with luck, ditch the wheel spraying, the boot baths and the notice at the gate saying: “Foot and Mouth Disease. No Entry.” Coleridge’s happy little story is a reminder of the empty Blairist triumphalism pasted over the staggering incompetence attending this plague. Far away in Dungpong-cum-Blasterheath, the Aga lout’s wallet has, I fear, won the battle for rural England. Today, it is the Nigels, Nicholases and Henrys, blazered and proud at the village fete, who mollock in the sukebind.