A place in the country
Former city dwellers are joining forces with their new neighbours in helping save local shops and pubs as they make dreams of a rural idyll come true.
Britain is falling in love with country life. The soaring viewing figures for Countryfile, Springwatch and the Great British Bake Off (with its bucolic setting) show just how fascinated we are by the countryside and how many of us fantasise about escaping the city to live there.
Once seen by some as an opt-out from the vibrancy and verve of city life, rural life is no longer simply plan B for those who find the city unaffordable.
The rural renaissance
In recent years a rural renaissance has been taking place. In what were once perceived as sleepy backwaters, musty pubs have been transformed into award-winning restaurants, while the countryside is now home to world-class art galleries, such as Hauser & Wirth in Bruton, Somerset, and Messum’s in Tisbury, Wiltshire.
There is plenty to do in the countryside for people from all backgrounds, from cycling and walking to kayaking along rivers, leaping around inflatable obstacle courses on lakes, or exploring mazes and crop circles grown by enterprising farmers.
Little wonder that increasing numbers of city dwellers, inspired perhaps by television programmes or by celebrity countryphiles such as Elizabeth Hurley, Alex James and Martin Clunes, are swapping the sardine-squash of urban existence for the peace, space and opportunities offered by country life.
A recent census showed tens of thousands are moving from urban to rural areas. In 2012 the figure was 40,000 and the Office for National Statistics predicts that by 2025 the rural population will increase by 6 per cent.
The country strikes back
Although, sadly, many rural schools, pubs and shops have closed in recent years, the countryside is now fighting back to reverse this decline.
Communities are coming together to save their local shops, pubs and post offices, turning them into vibrant social hubs selling fresh, local food, holding zumba classes, yoga or film nights. Village halls have also got in on the act, many of them holding markets where you can buy fresh produce grown on the doorstep.
And thanks to technology, it is now much easier to work from home, hundreds of miles from a city. Although access to fast broadband connections is still a challenge in some rural locations. Even the kind of work that was once rooted firmly in urban areas, such as television production, can now happen hundreds of miles from the capital, in a spare room or outbuilding.
And when your screen break can take the form of an exhilarating walk through glorious meadows or valleys, no wonder the rural idyll is becoming a reality for more and more people.
How Wiltshire villagers set up shop in a chapel
Broad Chalke, in the heart of Wiltshire’s beautiful Chalke Valley, was once home to Cecil Beaton – locals would sometimes spot his friend Greta Garbo walking around the lanes when she came to stay.
In 2013 the much-loved old village shop and post office closed – and a mere month later, a new shop opened in the United Reformed Church chapel.
This came after community questionnaires were sent to all households in the parish and the retention of a village shop and post office was identified as fundamental to a thriving rural community.
This tiny chapel was converted into a small but well-stocked shop and post office at the front, with a coffee shop at the back, which reverts to being a chapel for Sunday services.
It’s now the beating heart of the community, staffed by more than 100 volunteers, its coffee shop popular with locals and passing cyclists alike. It holds food tastings, story time for toddlers, and sells fine wines and fresh flowers as well as household goods and local produce. In 2014 it won The Daily Telegraph and Countryside Alliance award for best village shop and post office in the UK.
How the village is changing
Village halls are no longer simply venues for parish meetings. Now they often host Pilates or art classes, cinema nights and markets that sell everything from vegetables grown yards away to fresh fish or art by local artists. Some double up as cafés or hold play sessions for children.
Often the beating heart of a local community, its playing field hosts the local fête – tombola and all – while the hall is used for carol singing, craft fairs and other community events. Village schools are usually much smaller than town counterparts, so they really contribute to creating a great spirit.
The local pub
It can be tough for rural pubs to make a living. Some have turned into highly successful gastropubs, others have metamorphosed into multi-purpose venues, providing services such as prescriptions, libraries, internet cafés and cash dispensers.
The local post office is often run within the pub or village shop, and now provides important services beyond simply posting parcels and letters. You can purchase your foreign currency for holidays, pay your bills and even do much of your business banking there.
Village shops struggle to compete with supermarkets but many have been replaced or kept open using volunteers. In the past five years, an average of 22 community shops have opened each year, says the Plunkett Foundation, which backs rural social enterprises.