Opinion | Jane Austen’s English Countryside Is Not Mine


Often people assume I am someone I am not. My childhood was spent making dens in the hidden corners of the landscaped gardens of a grand country estate in the Lake District. I wandered woods full of baby pheasants being fattened up for the shoot. I roamed the hills listening to my Walkman like a modern Brontë sister. I had lakes to paddle in and a dinghy that we bumped down the ­path to a private beach.

But they weren’t my gardens. It wasn’t my beach.

Until the age of 18, I lived on three private country estates in England. First in Yorkshire, then in Bedford, then on Graythwaite Estate, in Cumbria in the Lake District. In each of these my dad had the job of forester, working his way up until he was head forester, overseeing 500 hectares of woodland at Graythwaite, where the job came with a three-bedroom lodge on the estate.

The house was old and four miles from any kind of shop. But to me, it was idyllic. It had an open coal fire, a huge walk-in pantry and bay windows. A story — probably apocryphal — had it that there had been an upstairs but the landowner didn’t like the way it ruined his view, so he just sliced it off, like a layer of Victoria sponge cake.

Our house was a tied cottage. For centuries, it was not uncommon for the offer of a job in the English countryside to include accommodation. The rent would be minimal or nothing — a fact reflected in the wages. And when the job ended, so, often, did your right to housing.

There was tied housing for the servants of the families and houses on grand country estates — for the gardener, gamekeeper, plumber, forester and tenant farmers.

For workers, it was a precarious, contingent way of life. Both the quality of the accommodation and your rights to it were entirely dependent on the benevolence of the landowner. But none of that lay heavily on me as a child. In the summer, I would climb out of my bedroom window when I should have been asleep and ride my bike up and down the estate road. My brother and I made rhododendron perfume to sell to visitors and dangled from an old tire swing. We didn’t realize yet that the ground was shifting beneath our feet.

For a lot of people, the English countryside is Elizabeth Bennet starting to change her mind about Mr. Darcy as the road opens up to a view of Pemberley, or the new Mrs. de Winter and the drive that “twisted and turned as a serpent” up to Manderley, “lovelier even than I had ever dreamed.”

But for the landless who work and belong to the British countryside but do not own a piece of it, it’s a place of profound inequality. Damp, cold and underresourced but beautiful.

When I was growing up on Graythwaite, it was still possible to live, work and raise a family in some of the most beautiful parts of England on a working-class wage. That’s less true now. Rural Britain, long a scenic playground for the rich, is in danger of becoming only that, for tourists, second-homers and wealthy retirees.

Hawkshead, about five miles from Graythwaite, is one of the prettiest villages in the Lake District. It used to have two banks, a police station, four pubs, cafes and businesses. When I was a teenager, I worked in the King’s Arms, one of the pubs. There was a chalkboard on which someone had written, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, then thought: Sod it, I’ll have a pint instead.” Wordsworth, whose cottage is a popular stop a few miles north, would not have approved.

These days, there are still lots of cafes, but now the police station is apartments, one bank is a gallery, and the other one is a ticket office for a Beatrix Potter attraction. Many of the village homes are vacation rentals or second homes, empty for most of the year, pushing the prices higher for the few homes that do go up for sale. There were always bus trippers, but the streams of tourists at this time of year, its busiest, make it feel a bit like a rural Disneyland.

In the early 2000s, when a lot of the big landowners were starting to realize how profitable renting property to these visitors could be, Graythwaite Estate decided not to employ a forester anymore. Dad became self-employed, and we started paying market rent. The farm and other houses on the estate started to become vacation cottages; some became beautiful wedding venues. Eventually, Mum and Dad moved to a terraced house in a nearby town. It had a yard, not a garden, but it was theirs.

This story is repeated in many of the prettiest places in Britain. In some of the villages around where I grew up, as many as 80 percent of the houses are second homes, according to housing advocates.

Over and over again, people who grew up or made a life there have been forced to make way for others. (In Dinorwig, a former slate-mining town in Wales that is popular with visitors, a schoolteacher told The Guardian that her family was evicted by a landlady who admitted that she could make four times as much by renting their home to tourists.) These visitors spend money in the local shops, but they don’t put children in the school. They don’t become part of the church congregation. A way of life slowly suffocates.

When I lived at Graythwaite, the estate threw big hunting parties every winter. Men came from all over the world to shoot, mainly pheasant but a few deer, too, to help control the deer population. Range Rovers would be parked in rows at the side of the woods, and shots would echo off the fells behind our house on cold mornings.

I once joined the shoot as a beater. I tagged along with a few other estate kids and the dogs to flush out birds from copses of trees or bushes. I hated it. I don’t think it was the shooting of the pheasants I didn’t like; it was tramping through the cold, wet grass for someone else’s fun. As a child, I found it troubling on levels that I couldn’t yet pick apart, and my parents never suggested I do it again.

As an adult, I was invited on a pheasant shoot in Scotland by an old boss. I went, admittedly thrilled to be on the other side of the party. I sat high up on the heated seats of a Range Rover and watched the beaters and their dogs go ahead and scare the pheasants into the sky. I ate one of the fanciest sausage rolls I’ve ever tasted. I felt as though I had put on the wrong shoes.

I think that growing up the way I did has given me a kind of class ambiguity. As if having access to all this land, the outside world and all that’s in it, made us rich. As a teenager, if I answered the phone and it was one of the landowners, I learned to change my accent — I could and can still do a pretty good imitation. But class is one thing; land is another. If you don’t own land, you’re forever at the mercy of the people who do.

Tied housing still exists, albeit in a much-reduced form — and mostly for people who work in agriculture or hospitality. These days, I live in a new house in the suburbs near Falkirk, in Scotland. The central heating is cozy and reliable. I don’t need to chop logs or get coal delivered. When I move the pictures on the wall, I don’t see the true color of the wallpaper, untouched by soot. It doesn’t take hours to get to my kids’ school or the hospital.

But elementally I know that I am not where I am meant to be. I am constantly drawn to tree-lined roads, dry stone walls and a house — big or small, old or new — in the country.

I have been back to Graythwaite a few times, but it always felt like trespassing. In my dreams, though, I am often in the garden of the old house, in the shade of the big trees. Comfy as a dandelion in the dirt.

Rebecca Smith is the author of “Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside,” from which this essay is adapted.

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