Saturday, 25 July 2015

Country Life

The man-bag that has served me well for many years is frayed and worn so I’m searching for a suitable replacement - and when I say “suitable” I mean fit-for-purpose, modest in appearance and devoid of flashy branding. It’s a tall order. Having just returned from the countryside, where man-bags are as seldom seen as polished black shoes. I’m also aware that there are those to whom this quintessentially metropolitan dilemma might seem ludicrous, but it takes all sorts to sustain society's cultural fecundity.

I've just spent a few days in a quiet part of the Marches, where the border of rural Shropshire nudges unevenly into Wales (or, if you’re Welsh, the other way round). This part of the country is attractive, especially in July when the valleys seem to overflow with fifty shades of green, the fields seem full - either with fat livestock or ripening crops - and the ancient, soft hills seem to overlook the whole, inviting you to ramble up and over their flanks to admire the vistas under their protection.

It’s easy on the eye but there’s much more to it than that. The ruins of medieval castles dominate strategically important promontories all along the border and the substantial mound of Offa’s Dyke weaves its way around and between them. It’s clear to see that the fight for possession of this fertile land was long and hard. What’s more, whoever gained eventual control subsequently kept the area to themselves. Whether picnicking alone on the ramparts of Montgomery Castle (Trefaldwyn if you’re Welsh), walking cross-country without sight of other people or driving ten miles of single-track road without encountering another vehicle you can’t help feeling that the place is a kind of historical theme park whose existence is known only to a few.

Although it feels timeless, change does occur, albeit slowly. Protected from over-development by being out-of-the-way, many of the small towns and tiny villages look like film sets for costume dramas and this, to some extent, has been to their advantage. The pubs remain in business, traditional inns survive as hotels and there are independent retailers on the high streets. I bought home-cured ham from a butcher’s wife who told me that tourists are increasingly important to trade now that “there’s no money in farming”. Tourists come for the countryside, for the history and for the produce. But the butcher and his wife were looking old and tired. Maybe the shop will be tea-rooms next time I visit. Likewise, at the farm which accommodated my campervan, the farmer’s wife told me she’d lived there for seventy years, which accounts for the old-fashioned, informal charm of the site. I dread returning to find that new owners have painted the fences white and festooned them with safety warning signs.

Finally, I made a token pilgrimage to Newtown, where Robert Owen was born in 1771 and where there is a museum dedicated to this son of a saddler who became a wealthy industrialist and one of the most famous social reformers and thinkers of his age. His heroic promotion of free education and better working conditions for all was so far ahead of its time that, in the UK at least, it still isn’t accepted. “To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.”  That doesn’t sound controversial to me.

I love this part of the world, with its history spun like a three-dimensional spider-web all over it, but after just a few days I had to drive home. Those hills are a cell-phone nightmare and there was no Costa Coffee shop with free wi-fi anywhere to be found. And as for man bags....

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