Staying near Zutphen, Holland, recently, I came across a remarkably untidy Dutch farmer. With his ripped silage bags and rusty agricultural machinery cluttering up the farmyard, he was known as der Engelse boer, ‘the English farmer’.
But the days of the filthy English farmer are numbered. Gradually, the amiably run-down parts of the English countryside are being mucked out, hosed down and vacuumed to within an inch of their life.
The New Rustics have arrived — the gazillionaires who move to the country and take a chunk of Notting Hill with them.
Their version of country life is a cherry-picked, rose-tinted version of the real thing. They may not be quite as minimalist in the sticks as they are in their un-adorned London houses, lined with right-angled planes of steel, glass and blond timber. They must have a few rural identifiers at least — the Aga, the Cath Kidston oilcloth over the kitchen table, the battered Barbour for long walks. To be fair to the New Rustics, they do like going outdoors; they fetishise the country walk, worshipping the health-giving properties of fresh country air. Farmers, who view the land as a workplace, a factory with the lid off, don’t go for walks — it’s like visiting your office at the weekend.
A touch of countrified asymmetry is allowed over the New Rustic threshold. Slate and limestone floors — with their natural kinks and coloured streaks — are positively welcomed. You can even buy polished new flagstones for your country kitchen, artificially moulded from reconstituted stone to produce a natural, knobbly effect.
But that’s where the rural references end. The New Rustic interior is otherwise intensely urban, particularly when it comes to comfort and entertainment. The sitting room becomes a mini-cinema; the Aga is flanked by the fridge-freezer, groaning with the weekly Waitrose shop — God forbid that you should have to go to the village Spar for sliced white bread, or own-brand washing-up liquid that can’t shift the arborio risotto from the pan. The ultimate in New Rustic living is Babington House, near Frome, where Soho House members can be transported to Somerset and barely notice they’ve moved — there’s a spa in the old cowshed, an indoor and outdoor heated pool, a cinema, a steam room, a gym and an aroma room. A night in the Playroom, on the first floor of the 18th-century manor house, is yours for £640.
Across the country, peeling floral wallpapers and cracked magnolia paint have been replaced by Farrow & Ball beiges and whites, the pale void punctured by a lone work of modern art. The doghair-covered sofa gives way to a boxy, chocolate-coloured job from Sofa.com. The open fire — another crucial rural signifier — is backed up with underfloor heating. Bye bye, coughing pipes and weekly baths; hello, acres of fluffy white towels and hot water on demand.
Not that you really need many baths in New Rustic farmhouses. It is a mud-free existence, with the inside hermetically sealed against the outside, an inversion of the farmhouse’s original purpose. The house was originally an integral part of the farmyard; in medieval longhouses, the animals were kept in one half of the building, with the farmer’s family in the other half. A dwindling number of working farmhouses retain the overlap between home and working building: baling twine stuffed into the cutlery drawer; the smell of warm cow hovering in the hall; hunks of cold, butchered cow in the freezer.
Even the outside world has been swept clean by the New Rustics. I recently drove past an Arab financier’s farm near David Cameron’s house in north Oxfordshire. There wasn’t a piece of straw or a speck of muck in the farmyard, and it was like a cleaning lady had been at the fields — the grass was a closely cropped, even, rich green, the hedgerows clipped into cuboids.Rural life — like terraced houses in Notting Hill, the summer season and ropey prep schools — has undergone an international, gilded apotheosis.
Bankers are merrily converting their bonuses into farmhouses and rectories — ‘The Old Rectory’ is the most popular name for million-pound-plus houses, according to Land Registry figures from 2007 to last year. The number of million-pound-plus houses has risen in many parts of the countryside since 2006/7, the supposed peak of the market: in the Home Counties but also in Dorset, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, the Isle of Wight, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Suffolk and Norfolk — prime second-home territory. The English countryside has also become a haven for endangered roubles, Libyan dinars, Greek euros and Egyptian pounds. No wonder land prices are soaring.
But while the boutique farmers pour in, real farmers and rural natives — most of the ten million people in the English countryside — are suffering. According to the Commission for Rural Communities, rural life costs 20 per cent more than living in a city, with essential items beyond the pockets of many families. About 700,000 people in the country live below the poverty line. The usual direction of migration, New Rustics apart, remains from country to town. And as real farmers disappear, so do animals and crops. Three-quarters of British orchards have gone since 1950. Kent had 46,600 acres of hop fields in the 1870s; now it’s 1,000. Pig numbers have fallen by nearly half over the past 20 years; cows by nearly a quarter.
Much of England used to be milk country — our wet, temperate climate and fertile soils are ideal for grass-growing — but less and less so. The Chinese even used to say we smelt of milk; these days, New Rustic farmhouses smell of cleaning products, and money.
Harry Mount’s How England made the English is published by Viking