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A Tale of Two Flights: Rural and European

I have often wondered why my town is blessed with creative writing clubs, heritage societies and yoga classes, whilst the town next door is communally and socially dormant. Reflecting on the economic makeup of my place vs that of the village 5 miles down the road, I realized this is partly to do with two flights: post-pandemic rural flight out of wealthy urban areas, and our collective 2016 flight out of the European Union. Marx was onto something when he wrote all that stuff about economic bases affecting cultural superstructures. It might be passe to recycle such old news, but I still think it’s a helpful balm against the argument that poor people are poor because they don’t try hard enough to have nice things. My town gets nice things because it’s populated by ex-Londoners and wealthy retirees. You can’t move for former doctors, lawyers and chartered accountants. My neighbouring town is populated by the people who – unable to afford rent in the town they work in – travel here to provide my doctors, lawyers and chartered accountants with shop assistants, bus drivers and end-of-life care. This isn’t a ‘Call to Action’ – I wish I had answers to any of the problems I hint at here. It’s more like a ‘Call to Observation’. It’s useful and interesting to ask ourselves ‘where is money happening?’, and ‘Who is it happening to?’. We can even begin to ask ‘How do the people from that town pay for what we enjoy in this one?’. Through this lens, we can draw a new kind of map of the countryside – one where disparate economic flows highlight the parasitic relationship  our towns and villages are trapped in, and a departure-point for making better choices.

My Hometown, Rural Devon

In the corner shop I stop I pause in front of the noticeboard. Patches of classroom-blue felt peek out beneath a fresh burden of community paperwork – an advert for watercolour classes, a dog walking service, an upcoming arts & craft weekend. Women in loose clothing wearing enigmatic smiles promise total spiritual restoration on their yoga retreats, or during their five rhythms class, their weekly ‘sharing circle’. The queue moves forward. I pay £1.50 for milk, and leave. Outside, the street is bustling. Linen-clad, wispy-haired women and bearded men in quirky hats swan between the health food shop and the zero waste store, armed with wicker baskets, slinging vintage green and purple Berghaus rucksacks. 

Down the street, a fortress of prams robustly haunts each coffee shop, circled by three or four nervous, whirling spaniels. Loud ‘Cool Mums’ uniformed in White Stuff and Fatface affect posh laughter, as their subdued husbands silently sip flat whites and sheepishly eye up younger women from the embarrassed pink space between their flatcaps and wellies. Saturday. I am here to ramble, to indulge my wallet. Autumn sun dazzles shop windows – slumbers peacefully against the beautiful green and honey-toned masonry of the grand Victorian facades. Church bells chime with the tuneless gusto of hobbyist campanologists. Old folk shuffle along arm-in-arm, the women in expensive woollen coats and thick lipstick, the men with cricked backs and shined shoes. They frown at the nervous dogs, scowl at children, and step out in front of traffic with blissful, forthright ignorance. Teenagers clatter past in an array of studs and box dye, decked out in the latest bootlegged Urban Outfitters Y2K fashion, each of their furious, embarrassed faces indistinguishable from one another. It’s a small place, I suppose, for so many Main Characters to flounce around in.

There is really only one large street, but the market gives our town a tubby, sated feel – a happy paunch that betrays spare cash and spare time. I consider the luxuriance of a cup of expensive coffee, or some new fabric, or a trip around Holland and Barett. These things have tempted me out into the chilly blue air. Ducking out of the streaming, heatless sunlight, I lounge around market stalls where small, hand-written white labels advertise upcycled bric-a-brac for fifty quid. I stifle a smile as I spot a Zara label on a polyester jacket chalked up as ‘vintage’. I chat pleasantly with the slightly superior man selling glass bottles dug out of a nearby Edwardian midden. In a box of broken pieces, I find a couple of clay pipes and buy them from him for 50p a piece. I am slightly embarrassed to be participating in the trend for purchasing historic trash, and furtively tuck the pipes into my pocket. They are still coated in grime from their turn underground. I can feel the grit on my thumb as I fiddle around inside their narrow bowls. I hope nobody sees me and assumes my interest in history is an act of self-marketing - I hope the man at the stall doesn’t think that, too. I tiptoe past the many soap-and-candle stalls, and think twice about visiting the haberdashery. It’s owned by my neighbour’s parents (it seems every shop in this town belongs to a friend or a friend-of-a-friend), so I am always socially manoeuvred into buying expensive ribbon I don’t need.

Surprisingly, when I return out into the daylight, the sky still isn’t threatening any rain, and between the floods of sunshine I am seized by a sudden romantic idea to sit by the river and watch the tumble of yellow-orange leaves swirl downstream. After a short walk, I turn off the path and slither down a softened, muddy bank. Perching on an outcrop of grey rock, I watch the ale-dark water, see froths of white foam gather in the corners of its stony mouth. To my delight, fat, grey wagtails flit to snatch fuzzy gnats from midair, secreting them back to an unseen clutch in the overhanging trees. I tear chunks of bread off an organic loaf, and peel the waxy paper from a bar of local, oak-smoked cheddar. The riverbank is on the outskirts of town. From down here, you can’t see the industrial estate hidden beyond the treeline, nor the algae-slathered roof of the tired, privatized leisure centre. Here, the soggy heart of this place carves its memory into the bedrock, as it has done for millennia. 

The river is the town’s namesake – these waters made it possible for a slim pocket of human settlement to coalesce, to flow in spate. Something strange occurs to me. This river is almost entirely obscured from view, save where it has been diverted to form a narrow, shallow, duck-laden canal to border the Victorian pleasure garden. Here the wild brown water, rich with pollution, chews lazily at the frayed far bank, like an old dog gumming religiously at a bone. I spot the wagtail flashing from the bank again, turning expert in midair with its formidable clawed feet. All the buildings – the supermarkets and cafes, boutiques and bakeries and optician’s offices - give this place the cold-shoulder. The quaint, single-glazed windows peer across at one another, or down at the glut of shoppers as they toddle in and out of shops. It occurs to me that a new kind of flow sustains the town these days. Its spring isn’t to be found on the high moor, but thunders down the A303, out of the Southeast. It doesn’t flow down over moss and stone, hill and woodland, but tarmac and metal, concrete and service stations. It’s drawn here by property, by post-pandemic rural flight. No wonder the coffee has gotten better lately. I am suddenly a little too full of organic bread and smoked cheese. I climb back up the muddy bank, and take my time to count which of the squirrels in the parks are actually fat, grey rats. 

Another town, 5 miles South, North Cornwall.

It takes my eyes a few moments to adjust. When they do, somehow the glow of the yellowed strip lights makes the place feel even gloomier. The decaled windows permit only a few slim rays of natural light to penetrate here. When I look up, I spot a blizzard of dust motes caught in the rays. I scan across the shelves – chocolate hobnobs with little yellow labels sprawl beside spare lightbulbs and cheap tampons. I’ve popped in to kill time. I’m looking for something to buy. A garish muddle of out-of-season Christmas chocolates catches my eye, shortly followed with horror by a clutch of googly-eyed knitted dolls in bright, plastic colours. A small sign written on printer paper in a shaking hand reads ‘£1.50 each – money to the local church’.

Even though it’s a corner shop, it takes me a while to find the paper stand. When I do, I am taken aback to discover that half the stock are porn rags. Gloss-lipped, smoky eyed blonde women  with stars over their nipples stare suggestively down at me from the covers. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this sort of thing in a corner shop, and I realize that I had forgotten they existed. They seem suddenly very old-fashioned and vaguely sinister, a pre-#MeToo artefact springing up like a bad memory from childhood – titty calendars, lewd postcards decorating the walls of working men’s clubs. 

Keeping my face neutral, I look at what else is on offer. It’s 10:00AM on a Tuesday morning. The Daily Mail has sold out, as has the Sun. There are a few copies of the Mirror still lounging in their plastic booth. Others are local papers, proudly covered by pixellated images of moorland vistas, with stories on farming, someone’s ceramic sheepdog collection, and a car boot sale to raise money for the local primary school. The only other paper here is the Guardian, stacked in abundance on the bottom shelf. Hating myself slightly, I pick one up and take it to the tired looking cashier. As he manually rings it through on a grey till with pink, plastic-covered buttons, an elderly man shuffles in, announced by an electric toned binnggg-bonggg from the low battery shop bell. Velcro shoes, grey tracksuit bottoms, a leather jacket. He is pawing at the porny mags. I worry suddenly whether any young girls work here, but decide it best not to ask. I momentarily consider buying cigarettes, but think better of it.

Outside on the narrow pavement cars thunder past on their way up the hill. A gaggle of folk have gathered around the bus stop, which sprawls awkwardly across the car park of a derelict pub. The cracked pavement snags at zimmer frames, trips unsteady, Velcro-clad feet. Beside me, a kind-faced gentlemen with rings in his ears and a leather jerkin open over his belly helps an elderly lady with her cases.

‘I’m going to visit my sister’

‘That’s right, it’ll be lovely’.

‘Have I got everything, d’you think?’

‘I reckon so, and if there’s anything you’re missing, you have my phone number there look’. He points to a faded pencil scrawl on a piece of torn envelope clutched in the lady’s trembling hand. ‘Best put that away safe in your purse’.

‘She only lives a town over, but it’s been so long now since I been anywhere’.

‘Don’t you worry, I’ll speak to the driver, he’ll help you when you need to get off’.

I read the front cover of my paper and learn that, like yesterday, climate change is going to kill us all, and I’m unlikely to be able to afford a house anytime soon. Down the street, at the next pub, I spot a young lad dragging a chalk board out and opening it on the narrow pavement. It advertises a lunchtime fish and chips deal to passing vehicles. Besides the public toilets, a year-round remembrance Sunday memorial fades in the drizzle, hand-knitted poppies wilting from the railings in the clinging mist. 

The windows of each dank cottage are hung with yellowed lace curtains. Each is decked out with ceramic milkmaids, or horse brass, or dead flies. In one, a tangle of overgrown houseplants conceals a shrine of tiny, smiling brass Buddha’s, arranged around a tarnished Ganesh with a mouldering incense stick in each arm. The bus is late. I fold my paper into my bag and pace restlessly. Leaning against a cracked wall, a teenager with enormous headphones and her hood up stares glumly at the floor. Black clothes, black eyeliner, black hair, chipped nail varnish, black knock-off converse held together with good will and parcel tape. She leans so hard into the wall it’s as though she is trying to disappear. Around us, shift workers in crumpled uniforms send plumes of watermelon-scented smoke into the soggy air. They stand staring at their phones, shifting their weight from one polyester-clad leg to another in a posture that suggests they are used to spending long hours on their feet. No-one talks much because it’s hard to hear anything over the engine noise blasting from the road.

As the traffic lights change to red, one car stands out in the line of belching land rovers and Honda Jazz’s. Three cars back, there is a Tesla sporting last year’s plates. It purrs to itself quietly amidst the coughing exhausts. Beyond the glass, a perfectly coiffured woman wearing large sunglasses and neat, pink lipstick stares at us through the window, a hard, down-turned look of disgust sitting around her mouth. Her husband keeps his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Neither of them speak. It is as though they have made an unspoken agreement that, if they must acknowledge their surroundings at all, the only look it’s worth is disdain. I stare back, and hope that no-one else at the bus stop has noticed. When I glance to check, I spot the teenager’s eyes flick for a few barely noticeable seconds from the pavement to the woman in the Tesla, and back again. The lights change. 

The bus arrives, and other kind strangers step forward to help the elderly lady with her bags. They speak deliberately for her benefit, accents as wide as a sunny field. Her companion – a neighbour, I think – promises to meet her at the same spot in three days’ time. He has Sex Pistols and anarchy badges on his jerkin; heavy signet rings on his fingers. The teenager insists I get on the bus first with a series of silent hand gestures. From my vantage point on an upstairs seat, I stare into the window of the only other shop. It’s a small place with large windows, its façade painted a strong shade of orange. Inside, white cabling and pet food and lampshades and Easter decorations and thermal socks press in a heap against the glass. There’s spray paint and super glue and inspirational signs. I spot another thing out of its proper time - pointy fluorescent orange and yellow cardboard signs, these onest advertising two-for-one deals on mouse traps. The last thing I spot is a series of sun-faded mugs with unflattering caricatures of old women on them, sporting half-arsed dirty slogans. One reads ‘TEA BAG ME’. The shop is shut. Everyone finishes boarding, and the elderly lady waves to her friend from the window. The lad who raised the A-board outside the pub takes a break to vape and scroll TikTok. 

With a hiss and a roar, the bus wheezes into motion, and hobbles out of the bus stop. We pass rotting cottages sporting tidemarks of green algae where the damp has risen. In one, I spot a ‘TO LET’ sign in the window. Out of the other window, watery sunlight catches my eye, and I turn to see a beautiful sprawling valley dozing in the mist above a chalky-brown river. 

I am closing the mileage between here and the town I live in, yet it feels as though I am travelling between two different countries, different worlds. There are fewer than five miles between here and there, and yet a chasm of wealth and opportunity. There, in the plush land of chartered accountants and retired lawyers, historical societies and craft guilds and market gardens have sprung up. Here, starved of EU funding, golden-hearted communities (perverts notwithstanding) rot in a post-Brexit wasteland. As we wind our way to the valley floor, I notice something else. Whilst all the buildings in my town face only each other, here every single house looks out high over the beautiful wooded valley, facing the sky.


Emily is a nature & travel writer living in west Devon. Fascinated by voice, place and space as well as themes of climate and political (in)justice, archeology, geology, travel, art and encounters with wildlife, Emily's work often weaves together a variety of topics, interrogating the complex interleaving of beauty, uncertainty and precarity that make up the fabric of our world today. 

Instagram: @Emily Widdecombe 

Twitter: @EWiddecombe

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