Let’s turn our rural fantasies into reality

Whenever the going gets tough, I ignite a lively internal fantasy about leaving it all behind for a quiet life in the country. It is never raining in my fantasy, and never cold. It is always either dawn or dusk. I never have shoes on. Nor do I appear to have a job.

I am not alone in my dreaming. Zillow, the US real estate website, has reported a rise in the number of searches for homes in rural geographies since lockdown began. Searches in suburbs were down. Why pay to live within commuting distance when you can tear up your rail pass and commute to the barn instead?

Sitting in my office that is actually my bedroom, I dream about flora and fauna beyond the ginger cat in my neighbours’ window and 15 bean plants I am rearing in yoghurt pots. They were the only seeds left in the garden shop on the eve of lockdown.

I love London. But the real reason I live in Zone 2 is proximity to the same non-essential office job that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed I do not actually have to be in, or even near, a city to do.

Workers move to cities for opportunity, culture, the endless diversions — the justification gymnastics that explain why we pay extortionate rents for shoeboxes in neighbourhoods where they serve extortionately priced drinks.

But as the world navigates a tragic global health crisis, a funereal quiet has stripped many cities of their specific magic. It is unclear, in a post-pandemic world, when or if it will return.

Under pressure of a sudden lockdown, remote working has accelerated like burnt magnesium. Working from home is no longer a privilege, nor the provenance of people we secretly envied but shunned as enlightened under-achievers. It is our normal.

No wonder the bucolic fantasy is spreading. If work from the kitchen table is likely to persist, why shouldn’t that table look over rolling fields?

True country life has been untenable for a generation, as rapid globalisation destroyed rural economies. Remote work has finally made my fantasy into a possibility. It opens the door to rebuilding ageing, shrinking towns, not through the creation of new jobs, but by the relocation of those who can work anywhere and are into absurdly inexpensive homes.

Friends sheltering with family in rural areas are reporting that they like this life. A lot. There are things from their BC — before corona — city lives that they just don’t miss. They are fed up with their costs of living. Many are homesick and the shock to the travel infrastructure has ignited a desire to be closer to family, to pare things back, to put down roots.

As long as cities have existed, so too has the fetishisation of the countryside as lush and idyllic, naive to the evils of the dirty city. This steamrolls over historical truths, such as reliance on enslaved labour and the difficulties of deriving a living from the land. And despite what Hollywood says, fixing up romantic, decrepit farmhouses can give you tetanus and splinters.

The dream of country living strikes a chord now because it represents an escape from pandemic anxieties amplified in cities. When the threat is other people, the danger calculus required just to run to the corner shop for milk can be paralysing. In the countryside, socially distant walks are not an exercise in sidewalk geometry.

Disease has a history of driving people from the city, hotbeds for plagues and epidemics, to the relative safety of the countryside. During the 1832 cholera epidemic the roads out of New York were clogged with stagecoaches and horses as the privileged fled. Thousands died.

In a parallel pastoral universe, the painter Asher Brown Durand produced some of the most idealised, sublime artworks that exist of the American rural landscape.

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Then as now, the ability to uproot without sacrificing livelihoods reveals inequalities of class and occupation. But these exodus tended to be seasonal. People always returned when the threat subsided.

The countryside fantasy, though based on a myth, persists because of the value structure we attach to it: community, wholesomeness, a slower and simpler way of living. Baking pies, early bedtimes. The last time Wide Open Spaces by the Dixie Chicks played during my once-daily amble around my local park, I bawled my eyes out.

I want to sit on the porch of my fantasy country house, with my fantasy scruffy dog and look out over grassy fields I could swear actually look greener.

We crave the countryside from the city, and I am sure the reverse is also true, when we feel at odds with our priorities — when we want to change our lives, not just our geography.

madison.darbyshire@ft.com

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