Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside

Rebecca Smith

William Collins, £18.99

Review by Susan Flockhart


Rebecca Smith lives in a modern house on a new estate somewhere in Falkirk. Though commodious and centrally heated, it’s on a treeless street “lacking in wild, natural places” and she spends much of her spare time wandering with her children around the nearby Muiravonside country park.

Now owned by Falkirk Council, it once contained a lofty old mansion house and those agrarian acres remind Smith of her childhood home. Her family weren’t wealthy. As a forester’s daughter, she lived in a series of tied cottages that came with her father’s job and when she was four, the family moved into the lodge house of Graythwaite Estate, Cumbria, where the plumber, housekeeper and estate manager were all housed as part of their wages. “Our homes were old, damp and cold, and we were four miles from any kind of shop,” she writes. “But it was idyllic.”

Raised amid a soundscape of birdsong and roaring stags with a wonderland of woods to wander and hills to roam like “a modern Bronte sister”, Smith’s yearning for that bucolic environment is palpable.

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Yet her book, Rural, is not some sentimental paeon to the delights of the countryside but aims, instead, to explore some of the challenges facing those who live and work in the places we urbanites often think of as leisure retreats. Subtitled The Lives Of The Working Class Countryside, it also traces the history of communities that have eked a living from the earth: not only farm-labourers and foresters but also miners, dam-builders and millworkers.

And if some of those industries don’t sound particularly rural, the defining factor for Smith’s purposes seems to be that they all lived in homes owned by their employers. For people doing hard, often dangerous work, tied tenancy added to the precarious nature of their existence since losing a job often meant instant homelessness.

North of the Border, the Clearances were the most notorious example of this iniquity and the Highlands and Islands form an important part of Smith’s round-Britain itinerary, which also takes in former slate miners’ cottages on Easdale, mill houses at New Lanark, and an old coal-workers’ terrace at Jawcraig, Falkirk, where  according to an 1875 Herald report, the interiors were so damp, steam rose from the floors when fires were lit.

The Herald: Rebecca SmithRebecca Smith (Image: free)

Many of the streets on Smith’s estate are named after victims of the 1923 Redding Pit Disaster, which claimed 40 lives after the shaft became flooded leaving many trapped. As hope of rescue faded, one miner had written heartbreaking letters to his wife. “Dearest Maggie – tell Peggie, James, Lilly, Jeannie and wee Maisie to keep up.

It is a sore blow to you, Maggie. Good-bye.” Whether widows had to vacate their cottages in such circumstances isn’t clear, though often, writes Smith, “miners and their families were literally turfed out of their homes, their furniture thrown after them”. Following a strike at Denaby Main, Yorkshire in the winter of 1902-3, newspapers reported groups of women and children huddled together at roadsides with their rain-sodden possessions.  

These historical details are enthralling. Writing largely during the Covid lockdowns while pregnant with her third baby, Smith adds a rare dimension to such accounts, putting herself in the shoes of those raising children in cramped, inadequate housing.

Among the itinerant community of workers building the Manchester Ship Canal in 1891, one young mother of four, who’d already lost five babies and was expecting another, was sharing a hut with 11 lodgers – doubtless fellow “navvies” like her husband. “I think about the day she gave birth and who was there to help. Could she rest? Did some of the lodgers help out?” The baby died at five months old. Part memoir, the book traces Smith’s family history as millworkers, coalminers and foresters.

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Many readers will have similar ancestral backstories –  wherever they were raised. During the Industrial Revolution, city populations mushroomed as people were forced off the land and when the working classes were finally granted some leisure time, many relished the chance to escape to the hills.

Think of the Creagh Dhu mountaineers who escaped the grimness of Depression-era Glasgow during the 1930s, or the families who poured onto boats to head “doon the watter” when shipyards and factories closed for the annual fair fortnight. In her account of early UK tourism, Smith mentions middle-class wanderers who couldn’t afford the aristocracy’s European “grand tours”, and also the disdain expressed by the likes of William Wordsworth towards the humbler wave of travellers, who were often no strangers to damp, squalid housing or many of the other problems she lists as afflicting rural communities.

 “I am tired of reading a tourist’s view of the countryside,” writes Smith. “Yes, the mountains are spectacular and mushrooms are pretty but tourists quite often forget that this beautiful place is a working environment. People actually live there.”

She has a point – and doubtless, there are issues relating to the rise in holiday lets, which she says “have changed the very fabric of rural areas”. But while she accepts tourism now plays an important part in rural economies, many of Smith’s interviewees take a jaundiced view of the hordes who clog up the Lake District’s windy roads or “queue to reach the peak of Snowdon or Ben Nevis”, admitting “sheepishly but truthfully, how wonderful lockdown was [because] their land was their own for the first time in years”.

Understandable as that sentiment may be, it seems a tad mean-spirited, given how many town-dwellers spent the Covid era peering out of high-rise windows. Certainly, those who live and work on the land are entitled to refer to it as “theirs”, although as Smith demonstrates, power actually lies in the hands of those who hold the title deeds and on Eigg – the first island ever to be purchased as a community buyout – she witnesses what many will agree is a progressive alternative to often exploitative private ownership. How do we balance the right to roam with the needs of rural communities? How do we protect the beauty of our hills and glens, while building much needed housing and industry?

The politics of land ownership and rural economics are complex and Smith deserves credit for grappling with some of this territory within an accessible and thought-provoking narrative. There’s much to enjoy in Rural and plenty to provoke debate on a subject that should matter to everyone. The countryside, surely, belongs to all of us. And perhaps, instead of tolerating visitors as a tiresome nuisance, the challenge is to encourage them to feel invested in protecting places they love.