The gamekeeper at the Surrey farm where I keep my horses has been banned from his local pub for looking too scruffy. Like the two farm workers in Berkshire who made headlines when they were turfed out of their local a few weeks ago, the gamekeeper has been left in no doubt that his muddy face no longer fits. Apparently, customers complained about his ancient shooting jacket, mud-splattered wellies and cloth cap.
These customers are not from the country, you see. They are townies who bought their dream house in prime commuter-belt countryside and now frequent the newly renovated gastropub in Armani jeans and Ralph Lauren sweaters.
The landlord is sorry but what can he do? Since he refurbished the place to include stripped oak floors, vaulted ceilings, designer sofas and a display unit featuring locally sourced organic produce, his profits have soared. Before the revamp, the gamekeeper sat at the bar nursing a pint. Now the customers in Armani sip chilled rosé by the glass all Sunday afternoon. They are happy to pay £30 a head for a roast lunch, so long as it is locally sourced and served with a ‘jus’ instead of gravy, although truthfully they are one and the same thing.
So he’s sorry, but he’s not all that sorry. He wasn’t that sorry either when he told me that my spaniel would have to be put in the car. Dogs always used to be allowed in this pub and mine was sleeping peacefully at my feet. But a man sitting three tables away — no doubt eating locally sourced, organic produce — complained that she was unhygienic.
Townies, don’t you just love ’em? I’m one myself, I admit it. I live mostly in London and only partly in Surrey where my horses are stabled. But when I am in rural surroundings, I try to fit in.
But what happens when newcomers to the countryside don’t try to fit in? What happens when wealthy metropolitan types decamp to the countryside and try to, well, townify it?
In the lanes around the stable yard where I spend a lot of my time, there are now three families within a mile radius of each other with their own helicopters. They live in enormous piles — typically a mock-Tudor affair with stable blocks, not for horses but to garage high-performance cars. One couple have his and hers matching Range Rovers. They fly their helicopters low over the fields where our horses are grazing, sending them galloping in circles.
One couple fly all of three minutes to the gastropub and back. They live so close that most of that three minutes is spent getting airborne and causing dust storms. No sooner are they up than it’s time to cause another dust storm by coming down. If you happen to be riding your horse while they are doing this, you end up hanging on for dear life as your mount rears and bolts.
When the helicopter lands, the wife totters out on high heels clutching a designer handbag.
One afternoon I was riding across a field when all three helicopters got airborne at once and had a sort of stand-off. I suppose it was the super-rich equivalent of three Vauxhall Astras racing each other down Streatham High Road. Possibly the wives were in the passenger seats of the helicopters urging their men on by shouting ‘Go on, Terry, have him!’ In any case, they all swooped low over a crop field as my horse reared and bolted.
But that isn’t the worst incidence of townie interference in my little corner of Surrey. Not by a long chalk.
A few years ago, we woke up one morning to find that a multi-millionaire living in a huge mansion had tarmacked a bridleway during the night. He hired his own diggers and tarmacking trucks and concreted over an entire lane, which was a public right of way, because he didn’t like the loose stones getting in the alloy wheels of his Lamborghini.When we complained to the council that he hadn’t done it properly, and that our horses were slipping over and nearly breaking their legs, they told us they had ordered him to put it back how it was. But nothing was ever done.
Since then, there have been many other instances to suggest that our rural idyll is changing to suit the very people who don’t understand, or indeed like it how it is. On the common land where we ride, ‘No Galloping’ signs have been put up on the wide sand tracks that horses, including those from a nearby racing yard, have been galloping on for decades. No accident has taken place, no one has been injured. But someone — I’ll wager a faint-hearted rural wannabe in Cath Kidston special-edition Hunters — has seen a horse getting up a bit of speed and decided it looks dangerous, so they’ve complained to the police, who have slapped a speed limit on us.
Meanwhile, motorists get faster and less understanding as they pass us in the country lanes. One woman wound down her window recently and shouted from her car: ‘Get off the road and on to the grass verge! I pay my road tax and you don’t!’
I don’t know where she was expecting me to attach a tax disc. Maybe she thought I could stick it to the horse’s bridle.
But it’s not just horses the imposters dislike. A walker with a dainty little Dachshund covered her face and screamed blue murder the other day when Cydney the spaniel jumped out of the undergrowth and dropped a furry carcass at her feet.
Townies don’t agree, philosophically speaking, with the accidental killing of rabbits. Or with the necessity of keeping pests such as foxes and rats under control. They are a mass of contradictions in this respect. While disliking horses and spaniels, they love all vermin, especially if it has mange or myxomatosis. Strangely, however, while defending the right of vermin to be as filthy and dangerous as possible, they don’t like mud. They think of mud as dirt. But that’s just the start of their pickiness.
Mike Bennison, a Surrey County Councillor, says he has handled many choice complaints from newcomers to the countryside over the years.
‘They want it as clean and clinical as Ikea. They complain about tree roots being hard to walk on, or mud on the ground. I get calls from people saying, “I’ve just moved to the area and the roads are a disgrace. There are overhanging hedges and trees everywhere.” You want to say, “Well, yes, that’s the countryside.”’
He cites the case of a man who rang to demand that the council cut all the roadside hedges down to make the area look neater. ‘We had to explain to him that there were birds nesting in them.’
Another resident called the council to demand that a small piece of litter was picked up from the end of his driveway. ‘I asked him if he had thought about going to the end of his driveway and picking it up himself.’
This is the nub of the problem. While wealthy newcomers to rural areas are unusually demanding, they are less likely to do the sort of volunteering that is done by more traditional country residents. They are quite happy to tarmac a public road if it is damaging their alloys, but less interested in picking up sweet-wrappers to improve things for the wider community.
Consequently, an ageing generation of residents are the backbone of small rural communities, with no one to replace them. ‘Ten per cent of the people who do all the volunteering die each year,’ Mr Bennison says. ‘So sooner or later there will be no one doing voluntary work.’
To complicate things further, the super-rich are pushing house prices into a realm which puts good housing out of the reach of genuine country dwellers. In Surrey, there are not only British millionaires but Russian, Dutch and American too, with a lot of property bought merely for investment. The new rich are not always in residence so they don’t much care about the goings-on at the parish council. Their glossy wives are not natural volunteers
for the bring-and-buy sale. As long as there’s a Zumba class and a Waitrose, they’re happy.
I can’t be sure, but I assume these are the same people who complain when the gamekeeper is trying to buy a pint. As a result, the local pub is now devoid of the sorts of people who know what end of a gun to look down when a fox is bothering your chickens and full of unfeasibly glamorous women who look like Demi Moore.
But instead of standing up to the rural wannabes, we are giving in and changing the country to suit them. We are even allowing the dreaded health and safety culture to get a foothold in rural life. No galloping, dogs on leads… it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Last month, stiles were banned on Dartmoor because, the authorities said, people couldn’t get over them. Nobody thought to point out that if visitors to our national parks are now incapable of tackling a stile it might do them good to try. You never know, it might make them a bit more hearty. Isn’t that what the countryside is all about?