Far from the madding crowd? English countryside is changing as yuppies reach for a piece of the rural dream
The Cotswolds, England — EVERY morning, long rows of sleek BMWs, Volvos, and Saabs clog narrow country roads. Their owners - locals call them roosters because they fly out in the morning and in at night - are heading for the superhighways M4 and M3 that cut through the countryside into London. On a Saturday, it can take 10 minutes to find a place to park in Cirencester, the teeming center here in the Cotswolds for the smaller villages around it. Cirencester has a church that dates back to 1117, and the whole town has a quaint medieval air. But the shops inside the ancient stone buildings are a different story. The first store you see in an old brewery-turned-mall is The Pasta Connection, with jars of expensive mustard in the window. Benetton's, the Italian knitwear chain, is down the street; a Laura Ashley store is on its way, and across from the old church is a clothing store called Successions, with 150 ($250) hats in the window and a high-tech alarm system.
This is the country?
The romantic dream of living in the English countryside - tiny, charming villages, cows munching near centuries-old stone walls, rolling hills in the background - has great emotional appeal for many Britons. As many as can afford it are living out that dream. Former urban dwellers have swarmed into villages within a 100-mile radius of large cities to get ``far from the madding crowd.''
They've ended up bringing it with them, however.
Traditionally, villages were places where people both lived and worked, employed either in farming or by the local aristocracy as grooms, maids, gardners, and cooks. They shopped in the village for locally produced dairy products. Villages were linked by an extensive train service.
Much changed when intensive farming began 25 years ago, resulting in increased productivity and the need for fewer workers. Many people left for greener economic pastures in the towns. Schools closed; butcher shops and blacksmiths hung up their tools. Bus and train lines cut their services. The housing that used to be rented at low prices to local workers was sold by owners strapped by trying to maintain large estates.
Along came older folks wanting to purchase a cottage in the village for their retirement. Then others wanting weekend homes. Then high-tech employees wanting to work out of their homes; artists setting up cottage industries; and the long-distance commuter. Everyone wanting a piece of rural life.
The village of Coln St. Aldwyn, about 90 minutes outside London, has seen all this. On the outside, the village looks as it must have for centuries: immaculate, winding streets, ancient houses with gardens, a view of green fields with patches of late snow.
But it could be a movie set. On this Saturday there are no children playing in the street, and few cars. Tom Lemon, an affable pensioner out walking his dog, has lived here 46 years. ``That used to be the old bakery,'' he points out. ``Over there was the village hall. We used to have weekly meetings there, dances, whist drives, vegetable shows, harvest festivals.'' Thirty percent of the residents, he estimates, are now newcomers.
Lord St. Aldwyn, who owned most of the village, has sold off many of his holdings. The former manor house is being converted into six condominiums, each priced at 150,000 ($250,000). Where the orchard once produced apples, a brand-new house stands, and the felled trees are cut up and stacked neatly for firewood. The owner, Derek Shaw, is a pilot at one of the three Royal Air Force bases nearby.
``Rural life is changing,'' Mr. Shaw admits, leaning on his fence. ``It's becoming the domain of old folks and young professionals. But it can't be helped. Without new blood the villages would die.'' Shaw says he pays 100 (about $160) a month in land tax which helps pay for sewage improvements.
``Small villages have been dying for years,'' says David Clark, secretary of Rural Voice, a magazine dealing with rural issues. ``In some villages, the population has halved. This influx will revive them.'' And newcomers fix up old cottages and maintain the natural beauty they moved out to enjoy. But there can be a clash of values. ``The newcomers appreciate original beauty, the wealth of heritage in the countryside. The villagers are more concerned with individuality, they do things like plaster over stonework,'' he adds.
Housing prices in some areas have skyrocketed. A three-bedroom cottage that 15 years ago was worth 15,000 to 20,000 ($25,000 to $33,000) is now worth 60,000 to 80,0000 ($100,000 to $133,000), says one resident, pricing out of the market locals wanting to purchase a first home. Council (low-income) housing is being sold off, and there are waiting lists for remaining units, reported a recent London Weekend Television (LWTV) program.
Polly Lyster, a local photographer who used to live in the manor house with her family, says the sense of community has changed. ``Now, villagers can't rely on neighbors that are only there on weekends, if they indeed know them at all.''
There doesn't seem to be much mix. In the Coln St. Aldwyn pub, The New Inn, which is run by London lawyers, the village pensioners chatted among themselves in the bar, while the countrified yuppies filled up the main room.
Outside, Buck, a young man in a tweed cap, says, ``There's no sense of community here. It's non-existent.''
But indirectly, the needs of upscale newcomers are providing employment for locals like Buck, who used to farm in the area until that died out. Now he builds designer homes 35 miles away. He and a pal roared off in his new Ford XR3, a car he probably couldn't have afforded in his farming days, as an onlooker points out.
But these same needs that give Buck a job are driving out local businesses. In many small towns, reported the LWTV program, local post offices, butchers, and old crafts shops have closed up, because they're not being supported by the newcomers who prefer to drive to neighboring towns. The businesses are being replaced by antique shops and home video shops. Tom Lemon now boards a bus for Cirencester 10 miles away for things he used to buy down the street.
The encroachment on the villages by wealthy outsiders has become a concern to various groups concerned about the well-being of rural areas.
``The parish councils used to be pro-farmer,'' says Rural Voice's Mr. Clark. ``They didn't mind if it was dirty or noisy. The newcomer, however, has come for peace and quiet. Grain silos sound like massive hairdryers, and intensive farming has lots of big, ugly buildings.''
One big worry is that the local parish councils, which decide how land is to be used, are being taken over by the politically savvy newcomers.
``The locals don't know how to work the system - making contacts, who to write to. The newcomers do,'' adds Clark. ``It's [done by] letters now, not word of mouth.''
``[The newcomers'] favorite objection is that they don't like living next to animals, so they get the farms shut down,'' says Brian McLaughlin, assistant director of the parliamentary division, National Farmers Union. ``There are a number of cases where farmers have given up to please people who have bought a piece of the rural village. [The newcomers] complain about everything - anything that doesn't conform to picture-book image.''
And those who do move to the village often want to pull up the drawbridge after them, says Chris Hall, publisher of Countryman magazine. ``They get elected to the council, and don't allow building or development.''
Oliver Parkinson, co-owner with his wife of the Maggie White shop, a fancy knitwear store in the picturesque nearby village of Burford, says newcomers can't all be painted with the same brush. ``Weekenders are not a bad thing; people are more sensitive than they're given credit for.''
Some, like Mr. Parkinson and Maggie White, have brought small industry to the villages; their shop employs five local woman to knit. Skilled craftsmen are moving down from London and reviving old crafts, he says.
``We're all part of the new process,'' says Adrian Lyster, a local acupuncturist who moved from London with his wife, Polly, to raise a family. ``We're bringing a new type of skills. If one moves from the city to the country you're highly motivated. You know what you want. There's obviously a lot of idealism. We want to maintain those ideals. We hope a new kind of country community will emerge.''