I’m in deepest Somerset at the moment, where my mum lived as a girl. It’s green and pastoral, many of the villages so picture-pretty I’m almost afraid to touch anything in case it crumples like cardboard. According to my mother, it wasn’t always thus: she remembers real rural poverty and squalor; villages she was told to keep away from because they were too rough. The school she went to sounds like the one in Cider With Rosie: just one room for all the classes, the children crowding round a single stove, rounders on the green outside at breaktime and no one caring if the ball went into the road.
The school building is still there, and the green; the narrow lanes lined with flowering may, the white-painted iron signposts with their odd, cosy, obscure village names. This is what many people would think of as real, old-fashioned, rural England.
But it’s not just the human society that’s changed here. The countryside too, or what we think of as countryside, my mother finds almost unrecognisable. The fields where she searched for orchids and thyme, where she stalked snipe and delighted in larks, are still fields; no one has paved them in concrete, built factories or runways or housing estates. But they’ve turned them instead into a leafy, lush, half-empty monotony. No orchids, no snipe; my mum was so pleased to hear what she thought might possibly have been a single solitary lark the other day, it was almost heart-breaking.
If she wasn’t here to tell me what it used to be like, I wonder if I’d notice and feel as short-changed as I do. It’s still lovely; all the little nooks and green crannies, the curves and hollows that make up the shape of old England. But it’s plain, compared to what it used to be and to what I’ve seen in other countries (poorer in pesticides, artificial fertilizers, over-efficient farm machinery); it’s lost so much variety, so much fanciness. The cows in those poor countries are gourmets, feeding on an incredibly rich choice of different flowers and grasses in untreated meadows. Here in England, no wonder the milk is homogenised, like our countryside has been homogenised.
Lest I complain too much, I should add that the rivers are far cleaner now than they were fifty years ago. Dark-finned trout lazing in the shallows and drifting up for flies is something my mother never saw as a girl. And yes, it was a lark singing; I heard it again today.