True Love of Country in England

Times Staff Writer

When Chris Harvey walks out of his house, Wiggals Corner, and ambles around the streets of his adopted village, the retired postman and amateur cider-maker rarely gets too far.

It’s a “hullo” there, and “a bit of a chat” here, and once again he is convinced that he was right to move to Kingham, which he calls “the friendliest village in England.” When he left his London suburb 32 years ago, his father said he was daft to head for the sticks, an hour and a half from the capital; he should buy a nice suburban semi-detached instead.

What seemed crazy at the time has turned out to be a trend. Britain is now believed to be the only country in Europe that has a net migration out of, rather than into, its cities.


Good rail connections, the high price of city homes, a quest for a better life, and Britons’ inbred love of the countryside are some of the explanations offered for the exodus. But it is a double-edged sword.

Although the newcomers may bring a needed dollop of vitality to the countryside and in some cases create businesses and jobs, they also push up real estate prices for longtime residents. Some villages have ceased to be real communities; rather, they have become picture-book places inhabited by people who commute elsewhere for work and don’t take an active role in local life.

Meanwhile, farming, the original activity of the village, hardly figures at all in the employment picture today. Only 1.8% of Britons now farm, the lowest percentage in the nation’s history. Small holdings increasingly are being bought up by the incoming urbanites and often are kept up merely to look pretty, or leased out to existing farm concerns.

In Kingham, the bulldozer magnate Anthony Bamford has acquired much of the surrounding gentle hills and fields. For the last two years, his wife has added to the area’s cachet with an eye-catching cafe and farm shop that sells prize-winning organic and gourmet foods, including artisan breads and cheeses, produce and sausages, mostly from the couple’s own farms.

It’s so fancy that some locals have dubbed it the “Harrods of the Cotswolds.” In their literature, the proprietors say they are particularly proud of the “dog parking” area fitted with watering bowls.

Although the prices may be high for many locals, the shop draws a steady stream of connoisseurs and tourists, and their pounds sterling, to Kingham.

This village of 700 people in Oxfordshire County, on the edge of England’s famed Cotswolds region, has a history that dates at least to the Domesday Book of 1086. It was recently honored by Country Life magazine, the bible of the country set, as its favorite village in England, much to the amazement of some inhabitants.

“I’m a bit surprised, because it isn’t a chocolate-box type of village,” parish council Chairman Keith Hartley told reporters after the accolade. “It’s more of a working village than a tourist village. But it’s got a great all-round atmosphere.”

Unlike some villages that have lost all their indigenous life, Kingham still has a primary school, a small industrial area, a combined post office and shop, three pubs, a charming hotel built on the site of the town’s medieval flour mill and a main-line railway station. Fairs and football on the village field are still part of the local scene.

According to the Countryside Agency, a governmental body set up to attend to the concerns of rural residents, 14.1 million people -- 28.5% of England’s population -- live in rural districts. The rural population has grown by 13.7% in the last two decades, with a quarter of the new arrivals settling in the southwestern countryside, an area that has remained bucolic despite its relative proximity to London.

The agency estimates that 115,000 people move to the country from urban areas each year. Since 2000, 352,000 more people have moved into England’s rural areas than have left them; half of the migrants were between the ages of 25 and 44 -- in other words, the prime working years.

As novelist John Lanchester put it in a recent essay for the Guardian newspaper, an elegy for the less-spoiled countryside he remembers, “In other words, every year a city slightly bigger than Exeter disappears, and reappears wearing green wellies and complaining about the bypass. This has been going on for a decade and a half.”

It means that urbanites moving to the countryside find that their neighbors are an awful lot like them.

“If my own experience is anything to go by, your neighbors in the sticks are more likely to be thirty- and fortysomething graphic designers, IT consultants and, of course, journalists, than smock-wearing yokels,” said Hester Lacey, writing in the Guardian about her experience moving to the country.

Land-use rules imposed by planners since the late 1940s have suppressed suburban sprawl in Britain. One result is that truly rural landscapes beckon just beyond city limits. Much of the countryside remains postcard perfect: a pastiche of green fields and small woodlands, dotted by neat villages and church steeples, and unmarred by malls, billboards, fast-food eateries or other eyesores.

According to the Countryside Agency, people say the country offers a better quality of life in a cleaner environment with less crime. Also, as mobility improves, more people are willing to live farther from work.

Richard Wakeford, the agency’s chief executive, is an example. He lives in Gloucestershire, 100 miles from London, and travels there three days a week. But with cellphones and broadband Internet access, he can stay on top of his job from almost any location, he says.

“This is the new paradigm,” he said. “You don’t need to be anywhere anymore. And that is the liberating factor.”

In some areas, the arrival of city people bent on preservation is boosting the economy. There has been a revival in such trades as blacksmithing, thatching, dry stonewalling and woodworking: The “heritage building sector” has become a $4-billion-a-year industry, employing up to 500,000 people.

“Crafts no longer exist to service agriculture and the traditional rural community but, instead, the lifestyle needs of ... the new genus of country dweller,” the agency said in a recent report.

In addition, each self-employed migrant to rural areas creates an average of 2.4 jobs, said Aileen Stockdale, a professor of land economy at Aberdeen University who helped conduct a recent study on the subject for the Royal Geographical Society.

Too often, she said in a telephone interview, the influx of city types is perceived in negative terms. But her research showed that many people who made the move were shifting to self-employment and launching new businesses. They present the potential for rural economic regeneration, she said.

In fact, it is something of a myth that all the migrants are commuting into the cities. “The vast majority” finds work within 12 to 15 miles of where they settle, she said.

Another professor, Anne Power of the London School of Economics, sounded an alarm this month that the rising migration from urban areas was disturbing the social balance, and urged the government to take steps to discourage it and regenerate cities.

Urban “depopulation leads to depleted services, empty property, a growing sense of abandonment, decay and population polarization, with the poorer left behind,” the professor of social policy told the BBC.

In Kingham, some people do commute to London -- the 7:25 a.m. train gets to Paddington Station before 9. But others work in and around Oxford, the growing college town, which is half an hour away.

Simon Merton, a real estate agent in Moreton-in-Marsh, about 20 minutes from here, said the factors driving sales in Kingham were good schools and “the desire to get out of London.”

“What starts as leaving London and renting a cottage for weekends becomes buying a house in the Cotswolds and selling out in London,” he said.

In the current market, it takes 1 million pounds, nearly $2 million, to acquire a five-bedroom house in the area that includes a garden, tennis court and paddock for the children’s ponies.

There is no dearth of demand, he said. “We have about 800 people on our list at the moment. They are a mixed bunch, some from town, some wanting to move within the area, but they all have over 500,000 pounds to spend.”

One person who made the move in recent years is Derek Thomas, 64, a retired aerospace engineer who sold his suburban London house at a profit and bought a light-filled converted stable in Kingham. He joined the walkers club, and his wife signed up for the Women’s Institute service organization nearby.

“My wife never stops telling me how much she enjoys it,” he said of their new home. “Here you can look up and see the Milky Way. It’s so beautiful at night.”

Sometimes people find that country life falls short of expectations.

“A lot of people in England have an idealized picture of rural idyll and living in a thatched cottage surrounded by rose bushes without actually seeing the wider picture of being perhaps isolated from services,” said Nigel Ellway, a spokesman for the Countryside Agency. “A number of journalists ask me if I have figures about the number who move back later after being disillusioned. The answer is, I don’t know.”

Wakeford, the agency’s chief executive, said one ongoing concern was how to keep the countryside affordable for those who grew up or worked in rural areas.

In the Yorkshire Dales, a particularly beautiful part of England that has become a favorite destination for migrants, the area National Park Authority is considering a plan to mandate that all newly built housing be sold only to people who are local or take local jobs. With even small cottages now selling for more than $300,000, the aim is to prevent the area from becoming unaffordable to all but wealthy Londoners.

If the plan succeeds, other districts are likely to follow suit.

Kingham’s novel response to the problem was to build 13 “dual-equity” houses in the village’s traditional honey-colored limestone. People linked to the town, such as children of residents, could live in them and become part-owners at a reduced cost; the rest of the ownership would stay with the governing local council.

John Parslow, owner of the Mill House Hotel, was a courier company executive before he decided to retire and buy the ultra-comfy hotel 10 years ago.

The business has had its ups and downs, he said, sitting in front of a roaring fire in the bar area. But he enthused over the pleasant aspects of country life -- knowing the neighbors, the scenery and walks, the celebrations on the village green and the peacefulness.

Harvey, too, has an almost infectious enthusiasm for Kingham. Whether pointing out the tomb of a Norman knight in the 14th century church, the wooden beams of the parish hall or the embroidered banner carried in 19th century marches, the retired postman is an unabashed salesman for the rural way of life.

Two longtime residents, Derek Tyack, 67, and Frank Palmer, 78, welcome the village’s more recent economic renaissance. But they also sound a little wistful about the past.

Both are former employees at the local agricultural machinery works that went bust in the 1980s. Palmer has turned to oil painting for income, while Tyack sells firewood and carves wooden sculptures on the side.

“When you are going back, life was quite a bit different,” Palmer said. “People then never went out of the village, never even for a holiday. You played about on the village green, and later on, that magic morning arrived when you had children of your own and they played on the green too.

“Now, there are newer houses, incoming people, people on the move all the time.... Now you could say there are village people, and town people living in the village. It’s a different style, not quite us and them, but a little bit of that.”

Janet Stobart of The Times’ London Bureau contributed to this report.