Last week’s media was awash with debate about rural vs urban, with Mavis Cheek fronting a campaign to warn older people about the hazards of retiring to the country, accompanied throughout the week by more angst about the rising cost of fuel. At the weekend cyclist Rob Penn countered for the countryside with a piece for the Observer extolling the delights of rural life in the Black Mountains.
As a resident of what is nominally regarded as a village, but who is seriously considering, for environmental among other reasons, a move back to the city, the debate had special resonance. Looking out at this morning’s sun-bathed, south-facing garden, embroidered by lilac crocuses, lemon daffodils, and plump furry magnolia buds almost ready to reveal the delicate white blossom protected within, the obvious solution would be to stay put. But nothing, as they say, is ever quite what it seems and the rural idyll outside the back door isn’t quite so appealing, ironically enough, when you try to live sustainably.
Perhaps we ought to start by establishing what we mean by living in the countryside. Most of my fellow residents would regard their location as a village; thatched cottages, handsome church, hanging baskets and a few attractive looking pubs. But its location next to a fast dual carriageway, linking several large cities, has turned it into effectively a commuter settlement, with the population of a small town, but facilities of a small village.
The migration of commuters and second homers to rural areas has, I suspect, made this the case for many residents of what used to be regarded as the countryside and with damaging consequences for their quality of life, to the extent that many of the traditional pleasures of living a rural existence are rapidly disappearing, if they haven’t already gone.
Listening to the birds, for example, one of Mr Penn’s favourite activities, is becoming much more of a rarity here as the hedgerows are destroyed, or manicured like privet hedges for the benefit of the day trippers to the National Forest walking tracks that criss cross the village.
Cycling for me, like Mr Penn, is an obsession, but unlike Mr Penn’s bucolic idyll in the Black Mountains, riding a bike around here, taking your chances with the 4x4s and agricultural vehicles, is arguably more dangerous than negotiating Highbury Corner alongside Boris’s new buses. And, if you use your bike as a form of transport, rather than just recreation, then you need the skills of a military logistician to work out how to transport heavy goods, how to reach the shops, or how to arrange supermarket deliveries, always assuming you have and can use the internet.
And as for village community: try walking or cycling in the main road any morning from before 7am and observe the hundreds of cars leaving the village, packed with commuters driving to work with their children en route to the nearest nursery for the next 12 hours. There is little community during the day and not much more in the evening, hence the closure of some of the pubs, and the transformation of most of the others into eateries.
Of course it’s not all bad: it’s safe, most people are friendly and helpful and, as long as you don’t mind being regarded as an odd single female, or potentially subversive because you don’t believe what you read in the Daily Mail, and horror of horrors, take the Guardian instead, then life is generally quite tolerable (we even have a lovely cafe selling decent coffee and Fentiman’s ginger beer now).
Unless, that is, you do not drive a car. This week an appointment at the eye clinic will involve two buses and a journey time of about two hours to travel 20 miles, while next week an early morning taxi will cost about £20 to reach the nearest railway station. And, while I am lucky in the sense that I possess a car and am able to drive, financially, and in terms of sustainability, a car is by far the biggest drain on my resources. But try living in the countryside without one and your rural dream will dissolve as quickly as your wallet empties.
It was then, encouraging, that another couple of articles published last week highlighted the real problem facing many people, of all ages, predominately but not exclusively in the countryside; that of transport poverty. Last Monday, Sustrans, the sustainable travel charity, reported that half of Wales faces debt from transport costs. The report, also backed by Age UK, Citizens Advice and Save the Children in Wales, illustrated the real problem facing an increasing number of people is not the increasing price of fuel, but that they cannot afford to a car in the first place, nor pay the costs of public transport.
Later in the week, Left Foot Forward focused on the same issue to campaign for a change in government priorities; away from the focus on car owning towards investing in public transport and improving facilities for walking and cycling.
Although the subject matter of both reports was depressing, it is at least positive that the real issue of transport poverty is being addressed. Being unable to travel, whether because of high costs, or lack of suitable options, is a real problem with potentially serious consequences for all of society, urban as well as rural.
And to return to the original debate, I suspect that before too long I will be prepared to swap my vegetable plot, garage and hanging baskets, for some regular buses and a station at the end of the road – preferably with a local farmers’ market, some good cafes and a bike shop nearby.