In the heart of England

View from the train, Exeter to Salisbury

On Saturday, Clare (my wife) and I visited Salisbury for the day. The direct train route between Exeter and Salisbury, two ancient cathedral cities, takes about two hours, and passes through the rural heartland of southwest England: East Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire, a landscape of continuous rolling fields and woodland. While Clare attended a playwriting course, I went on the guided tour of Salisbury Cathedral tower, a fascinating exploration of the hidden internals of an iconic British cathedral that was painted by Constable and Turner and many others. I joined Clare after her course, we had a meal, used up some time in a quaint pub called The Chough, and then we took the train back through a golden evening of a day that finally felt like summer. It was a day satisfying to all my ‘deeps’, everything I’ve liked from childhood about southern England, where I was brought up.

And yet this rural landscape is not the timeless idyll that it appears, and everywhere we passed bears the clues. Mediaeval cathedrals were not merely built for the glory of God; they were overt symbols of financial and political power, as much as The Shard nowadays. And that power came from wool, still evidenced by Axminster being a seemingly unlikely centre for carpet manufacture. This part of England was, in effect, a dispersed industrial centre that took the wool from growth to finished product.

And whether over wool, agriculture, or politico-religious issues, this region of England has seen many episodes of unrest. The picturesque honey-coloured ruins of Sherborne Old Castle date from the English Civil War; this area, on the margin between Royalist and Parliamentarian territories saw fierce fighting. Another example of “interesting times” was in the late 1700s, when paranoia about radicalism manifested in government-staged loyalist demonstrations. In the port of Topsham in 1793, for instance, the local bigwigs marched 4000 troops into town to burn the works of the radical Tom Paine and hang him in effigy. There were the ‘Swing Riots’ of the early 1800s, a protest by increasingly impoverished and dispossessed agricultural workers; and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, transported to Australia for forming a trade union. The West Country, as satirised in Trollope’s “Barchester” novels, was also the focus for some of the hottest controversy in the 1850s over the vast wealth differentials among the clergy.

I’ve contrasted these two pictures of the region because they represent a powerful tension in the English psyche: between the idealisation of southern rural England, and the reality that it’s a commercial community of working people who have suffered a history of traumatic social change.

That troubled history continues. For instance, the English press frequently covers disputes over installations of modern technology on rural land – wind farms, solar farms, and polytunnels. There are genuine environmental concerns. But often opponents of such structures conflate these with fairly overt views that the countryside exists for their viewing pleasure (this Telegraph story, England’s green and plastic land, exemplifies the arguments).

The idealised view of the countryside has been called “Deep England”; it’s a picture of contented anti-modern rusticism, a countryside that exists unspoilt as rest and recreation for urban visitors. This is probably a harmless fantasy if it stays as just that, but it’s pernicious when it transforms into action, such as incomers who settle in villages and start complaining about the noise of farm animals or agricultural machinery. But it is a long-standing and powerful fantasy, and brought up in a town with the occasional rural holiday, I can’t pretend to be entirely free of it. But I try. I still find southern England, however, to be deeply evocative – whatever misgivings I have about the basis of that feeling.

See The Spire at my own weblog for pictures of the Salisbury Cathedral Tour.