Miss K put the question directly, as is her wont, as she packed her combinations for a week-end in the country: ‘which do you look forward to more: paddling about in wellington boots and having a desultory chat with the neighbours about the trouble you’re having with bind-weed, or a lie in and a delicious coffee at an artisan bakery on the King’s Road?’
She comes from Leeds and, having by no means tired of the comforts of the city, would happily settle for that simulacrum of country life that artisan bakers can provide.
What’s so good about the country? Nobody really likes it. Even that great master of rural landscape, Capability Brown, lazed and lolled, loving his life in the languorous suburbs (Hammersmith and Hampton Court), or as close to London as he could get, and the challenge for him was to find enough for his clients to do every day at the great palaces he was creating for them, miles from the metropolitan line.
Mr Honey, with whom I have often discussed the pleasures of country life, shivers at the sheer emptiness of the place when foxes and shooting are out of season. He has proposed that this compulsion, otherwise inexplicable, might have been a counter to the French tradition, fostered by Louis XIV, for bringing all the nobility together at Versailles and keeping them there, so that they couldn’t foment rebellion in the provinces. Yet the English custom of going down to the country pre-dates his reign. Indeed it seems to have emanated from the throne, for James I had ordered the gentry to return to their estates: ‘The cuntry is your orbe and proper sphere’. That at least is the advice to which I commend Miss K.