Country Life as it Really was
by Valerie Porter
pub. David & Charles, 2000
Hardback, 320 pages, £25.00
ISBN 0 7153 0968 4
If the British have a nostalgia for a countryside that they imagine exists or existed, then Valerie Porter's book will correct many of the rose-tinted myths. It is a book which 'seeks to highlight the ways in which living in the countryside, in all its aspects, has changed, as seen through the eyes of an older generation still living and through the written words of generations long gone'.
Yet the book seeks to be uplifting and the final result of Porter's efforts is a real treasure, its chapters covering everything from country journeys, markets and work, to the people themselves, their recreational activities, and the impact of war on the countryside. There are hundreds of pictures throughout the book's 320 pages - not picture postcard scenes, but warm-tinted black and white images of country people going about their daily lives. Urchins grin at the camera, though their elders frequently look to have more pressing thoughts on their mind, but as Porter says: 'Even for the toilers of the field, it was not all work. Country people knew how to enjoy themselves, in particular they knew how to entertain themselves.' Opposite is a wonderful photograph of five old timers with toothy grins, grey whiskers and wry smiles looking at the camera.
However, life was not rose-tinted for those who lived in the countryside. Things which we take for granted - electricity, running water and sanitation - were frequently unavailable to countryfolk. Even in the 1970s this reviewer can remember one Cumbrian household lighting their front room with tilley lamps, and a welsh farm in the 1980s where the only light bulb fitting was in the kitchen. Porter's book has many such tales about all walks of country life.
From the pages you will rediscover long-forgotten trades and craftsmen like the 'Higgler' and 'Lengthsman'. Higglers would collect home produce from cottages - butter, eggs and the like - and sell them on your behalf in local markets, while the Lengthsman was responsible for maintaining a section of country lane in good order, patching up potholes in the road, and keeping ditches clear.
There's a constant comparison bewteen old and new throughout the book; such as Shepherd's remedies for flock health including ground up hellebore for scab, and gin and ground pepper for colic. Today the farmer is more likely to turn to a veterinary medicine bottle. Then there are the tales of smuggling, of village eccentrics like the one who always cut out the crown of his top hat, and of traditions such as churchgoers popping their Sunday roasts into the baker's oven and collecting the finished roast after the church service. And while people weren't rich - and were frequently poor by city dweller's standards - they did know how to take care of themselves, and their neighbours.
With so many pictures, and boxouts of anecdotal tales, the text is broken into easily read chunks, yet doesn't fall into the trap of catering for readers with an attention span of only one sentence.
Porter concludes her journey of yesterday's country life with a poignant thought: 'The children in today's village will look back at their childhood in years to come and shake their heads, telling their grandchildren that life was wonderful in those days, those good old days, when there were still fields and woods and streams, before the village was engulfed by the tidy concrete suburbs of the town.'
We have reviewed quite a few books on this website over the last year, but nothing has shone quite as bright as this one. If you have an interest in country life - as opposed to looking at pretty pictures of landscapes at sunset - this is the book for you, and friends of a like mind. It is an absolute treasure that will provide hours of enjoyment as your explore the past and, in an age of materialism, the stories and anecdotes are perhaps a reminder that all that is good in life doesn't always have a value attached.