Jayne Dowle: Great divide that runs through our countryside

AT cricket the other day, I overheard an exchange between my son and one of the dads. “You’re a farmer, aren’t you?” asked Jack. “What kind of animals have you got? What’s your favourite one? Do they all have names?” I had to smile. Not only because it’s nice to see Jack becoming as nosy as his mother, but also because I’m glad he’s genuinely interested in the countryside.

It is probably kindest to draw a discreet veil over his recent SATs results. However, my son would graduate cum laude if he followed David Gower’s suggestion that “townies” should take a compulsory exam in rural affairs because they know nothing about country life. Quite what qualifies a cricketer-turned-commentator to order this edict, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is something to do with the contemplative nature of the game.

Gower, a former England captain, makes no secret of his rural affiliations. In this particular magazine interview, he didn’t hold back on his views on shooting pheasants, for instance. He made some more thought-provoking points too; that many politicians, based in towns and cities, are “allergic to grass” and ill-qualified to make decisions about those who live in rural areas.

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He doesn’t quite say this, but of course he means “especially those based in Westminster” – those who roll out legislation which affects everything from hunting with dogs to the building of new houses without any proper understanding of the implications for the people it affects directly. And, what he also means is that the millions of people who live in the countryside, raise their children there and contribute to the rural economy, are all too often ignored if they shout up. Or worse derided – as happened to Alan Titchmarsh last year when the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, branded him “a complete muppet” in a row over ash tree die-back disease which escalated into a fight over how the Conservative party had lost its traditional rural roots.

This kind of thing is not very constructive at all, is it? On a small island, we don’t have much room for such scrapping. We would all do well to learn a little more about each other. If consensus politics really is the way forward, I’ve got an idea. The political parties should find ways to develop better understanding between town and country, and vice versa. We need to reconnect those links that once gave our country strength and now bring mostly division; food production, respect for the land, understanding and appreciation of the environment, the rivers, the streams and the special places.

It really is ironic that the internet puts every inch of the world at our fingertips, yet we’re ignorant of what happens just a few miles down the road and across the fields. In the last few decades, the divide between town and country has widened, from a fissure to a yawning abyss. Misunderstanding, suspicion, and downright anger has contributed to this sad state of affairs: witness the protests over fox-hunting under the Labour government, and the recent furore over those ill-advised ministerial comments about “concreting over the countryside” to build new houses.

It is tempting to lay all the blame for this entirely at the feet of whichever political party is in power. However, wider social and cultural forces play their part. There’s the rise in rural house prices for a start, which are forcing many young people literally off the land they grew up on.

It is especially galling that this boom was set in motion by disenchanted urbanites escaping to the countryside in search of a “better” life. That large parts of that countryside are now populated by those who moved from cities, should not be discounted by those who plan for its future.

And let’s not underplay that ignorance. Not just ignorance of how other people live, but ignorance as in lack of respect. In any village in the Yorkshire Dales, on any given Sunday, you will hear the loud and dismissive tones of the townie; laughing at the twee signs in the tea-shop, parking their Chelsea tractor on the grass verge and crushing the flowers. And these will be the people who never miss an excuse to tell you how much they love the countryside. They don’t love the countryside. They just love the idea of it, their idea of it, sanitised, without the nasty bits and the isolation and mud.

If you talk to youngsters growing up in places like this, you get a mixture of defensive pride, and the sense that their counterparts in towns have got it made and take everything for granted. Their frustrations are not about shallow stuff such as fashionable shops – anyone can order anything off the internet these days as long as there’s Wi-Fi. It’s much more serious. Jobs, decent wages, reliable public transport, indeed, public transport at all. These are the kind of things that mark out the differences, and cause resentment. No exam could cover this succinctly, but we all have lessons to learn. And perhaps the most important one is this: that where ever you live, the grass might not necessarily be greener on the other side of the abyss.