Writing in 1906, Ford Madox Hueffer described an English countryside very different from what we see today. Through his book ‘The Heart of the Country’, Hueffer explored the tensions that existed between town and country, identifying how the different physicality of the countryside and the nature of its human community served to alienate those whose origins were in the town.
Heuffer’s exploration of town and country, although very much shaped by the ‘Fin de siècle’ literature that preceded him, in terms of style and perspective, still has relevance today. In many ways the tension between town and countryside still exists. Despite the move away from the land that came with industrialisation and the increasing mobility of our population, there is still a real division between the two. Many of the youngsters born to our inner city estates will never experience the countryside from anything more than a seat on a train or in a car. A sense of isolation can also be seen in some rural communities.
Heuffer was writing at a time when great changes were happening within the countryside and for England herself. Many of those living within the ‘dark, toilsome town[s]’ had been brought up in the countryside but could only carry the remembrance of it in their hearts. While the same is true today for some of our urban dwellers, for many others the town is all that they have ever known.
One important consequence of being divorced from the countryside is that people have a much-reduced sense of ownership over it. It is no longer the place that provides the backdrop to their formative years or sustains them through their working lives. It has less significance and its value is lessened in our increasingly urban-focused gaze. And this is where the tension begins to develop, as our towns are viewed in isolation from the countryside that surrounds them. There is a real danger that the voice of the countryside is being lost and this is something that needs to be addressed. It is not about maintaining country traditions, though this is where the more vocal protests are heard, it is about maintaining the link between town and country and re-establishing the bonds that once existed.