Internet dropping out for six weeks and no mobile phone signal - How a rural farm copes with life in the 21st Century

Deep in Coverdale in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, lie the four properties that make up the tiny hamlet of Agglethorpe.

The ancient settlement was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Aculestorp, and through the intervening centuries it has remained a quiet and unassuming place to live, with farming at its heart.

But Agglethorpe is indicative of the issues facing rural life across the nation, a small countryside community that has often been left faltering with the advent of the digital age in the 21st century.

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For Sarah Close and her partner of 14 years, Tim Brown the challenges of living in a deeply rural settlement are only too apparent.

Sarah Close and Tim Brown, along with their sons, Edward, 18, and Joseph, nine at their farm at Agglethorpe in Coverdale.
Sarah Close and Tim Brown, along with their sons, Edward, 18, and Joseph, nine at their farm at Agglethorpe in Coverdale.

The couple oversee 1,600 acres of uplands with two tenanted farms in Agglethorpe, and run their own agricultural enterprise in the nearby village of the Horsehouse, with 140 cows and 2,000 sheep.

But their ability to run an effective and efficient business has been severely hampered by a critical lack of online coverage, with internet connections dropping out for as long as six weeks at a time.

Fibre broadband remains a distant hope, and their internet connection is provided by an underground copper line, which is prone to being affected by rainfall seeping into the soil, to an exchange in the nearby village of Carlton.

Miss Close, 46, who lives with Mr Brown and her stepson, Edward, and their own nine-year-old son, Joseph, said: “It is getting to be such a desperate situation. We really do feel as though we are being left behind in the modern world.

Ellie Hutton, who set up a new florist business Blooms By Ellie, in the village of Danby, in the spring of last year.

“To have our internet dropping out means we cannot keep pace with all the online forms we are supposed to be completing to document livestock, meaning we have to do everything by hand and keep the paperwork.

“There are safety issues too as there is no mobile signal, meaning if Tim or his 79-year-old father, David, are out farming, they cannot call for help if, heaven forbid, they did have an accident.

“The need for the internet has never been more important than during the past year or so, and it has been so tough trying to home-school Joseph with virtual lessons.

“We pay for the service with our mobile and internet providers, but we simply don’t get the coverage which you would in a town or city.

“I grew up in the countryside myself, and I wouldn’t want to bring up a family anywhere else. But there are such big challenges to living here which people simply shouldn’t have to endure in a modern country like Britain.”

One of the biggest challenges facing countryside communities which has been identified in the report by the North Yorkshire Rural Commission is the dearth of young people living in rural areas.

Across the 3,000 square miles of North Yorkshire, the current population is estimated to be 618,000 residents, with a third living in market towns and villages.

However, the demographics of England’s largest county are heavily slanted towards an ageing population, with 152,675 people aged 65 years or over.

The commission’s research has revealed that if North Yorkshire had the same percentage of people aged 20 to 44 as the national figure, there would be 45,551 additional younger working age adults living in the county than there are today.

The profound impact of having far lower numbers of younger residents in the county has meant £1.4bn has been lost from North Yorkshire’s economy.

Among those from the younger generation who are, however, attempting to play their part in supporting the county’s economic future is Ellie Hutton.

The 25-year-old launched a new florist’s business during the first coronavirus lockdown in the spring of last year, starting the venture from the garage at the home of her father, Richard, and her step-mother, Sue Duck, in Sleights, near Whitby.

The Leeds Arts University graduate has now established a base for the business at the home she shares with her partner, Luke Ellwood, 33, who works at a butcher’s shop in Ruswarp, where Miss Hutton grew up.

She said: “It has certainly not been easy to set up a business, especially during the pandemic, as living in such a rural location does present some very real challenges.

“I have relied on the internet to make online orders for flowers and accessories, but sometimes what has been sent hasn’t been what I actually wanted.

“To travel to the nearest big flower market means more than a two-and-a-half hour journey to either Leeds or Newcastle, which obviously isn’t feasible to do on a regular basis.

“I wanted to give something back to the community where I grew up, and I wanted to start a business that I love doing.

“But I have to admit I am one of only a few young people who have taken the decision to stay and live here.”

Miss Hutton told The Yorkshire Post that all of her close childhood friends have now moved away to live in major cities such as Leeds, York and London, a trend that has been repeated in rural communities across North Yorkshire.

She added: “If it wasn’t for meeting Luke and deciding to move in together, then I really don’t think I would have decided to stay here in the area.

“It is such a lovely place to live, but it really isn’t going to be for many young people, and work opportunities are very limited - you’re fine if you would like to work in a bar, restaurant or coffee shop, but there really isn’t a lot else.

“My friends have taken the decision to move away to pursue their careers elsewhere, which I completely understand, even if it is tough not seeing them.”

However, the chance to gain the necessary qualifications to embark on a career of their choice is being hampered for the tens of thousands of teenagers who are living in the county’s remote countryside locations.

The Rural Commission heard evidence that while children attending smaller schools in villages and market towns achieve good grades, they are less likely to go on to further and higher education when they leave school.

In North Yorkshire, there are 43 secondary schools in total, with 18 categorised as rural and 11 of these having sixth form provision, and the curriculum tends to be narrowly academic.

The commission noted that the “choice of continuing education is made harder and less attractive for rural teenagers”.

Among those who have experienced the problems of travelling often vast distances to continue their education at college is Jasmine Brown.

The 17-year-old, who lives in the market town of Hawes with her parents, Sarah and Roy Brown, and her brother, George, 15, was the youngest person to address commissioners and talked passionately about the need for a better transport network as well as more for young people to do if they are to stay in the countryside.

She is faced with a two-hour commute to study at Kendal College, where she is undertaking a BTEC course in health and social care before planning to embark on a career at university.

Miss Brown said: “It is such a big drain to head out to college at 7am and then getting home until often after 6pm to then sit down and do my course-work in the evening.

“I do feel as though living in the countryside is a huge disadvantage when I am trying to get the qualifications for a career that I would like to pursue.

“As lovely as a place like Hawes is to live, you do feel pretty alienated, a lot of my friends don’t live close by and I have to plan well in advance to try and meet up with them.

“I will have to move away to go to university, and I honestly can’t see myself coming back to Hawes afterwards, as there simply isn’t the opportunities for a career in health and social care here.

“It is sad to think that’s the case, but that is the reality of living in the countryside.”