Urban v rural: Which is better?

Samuel Palmer's self portrait, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford Samuel Palmer's career shows a more complicated countryside story

The haunted face of the English romantic artist Samuel Palmer has been staring at me, his dark hypnotic eyes following me around. At odd times and in odd places, there he is again, questioning me about something.

My daughter has been writing a history of art degree essay on the self-portrait for the last few months and copies of the chalk drawing have been pinned up around the house. Samuel Palmer in the kitchen, in the bedroom, even in the bathroom. Then this week, when I thought the picture had been safely exported back to her student digs, I opened my morning paper and there he was again, still challenging me with that dead-pan gaze.

A new book on the artist is out this Friday, Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by the art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston, and through the story of his strange career, she reveals something of the strained relationship that has long existed in England between the urban and the rural, between town and country.

Also just published is the Statistical Digest of Rural England, the annual government report which charts the contemporary relationship between urban and rural England through facts and figures. Here, too, one can see a sharp divide - but not in quite the way I had expected. More of that in a moment.

Palmer was a city boy by birth, but he was a dreamy and spiritual character who longed for rural escape. Campbell-Johnston paints a ghastly picture of industrialising England in the early 19th Century: "Huge, stinking slums spread unsanitary ghettos which developers ignored, an entire urban underclass was being created, its members grist to the economic mill." Small wonder, she suggests, that people like Palmer were fantasising about a simpler, ancient rural idyll.

"Here was a spiritual antidote to contemporary materialism; here was an era in which, it was wistfully imagined, the values which modernity was destroying could be rediscovered again. The towers of England's gothic churches stood like stone guardians amid its patchwork landscapes, stalwart survivors of a lost age of belief."

'Pastoral fantasy'
Countryside Is there more to the green and pleasant land?

The English countryside still has that hold on many of us, I think. As portrayed in countless tourist brochures, upon chocolate boxes and jigsaw puzzles, the sun-kissed landscape feels more "authentic" than the bland suburban housing estate or the shopping precinct. It still provides an antidote to the deadening commercialism of contemporary urban life.

As a young man, Palmer moved to Shoreham in Kent, determined to live the simple and authentic existence he assumed would be found in rural England. His drawings and paintings reflect a romantic vision which still shapes many people's mental image of the countryside. Campbell-Johnston describes it as a pastoral fantasy.

"As he wandered the fields of the fertile Kentish valleys, along wooded ridges and down sloping pastures, among orchards and hop gardens, by hayricks and cattle sheds, he beheld a landscape transfigured as if by some miracle of divine grace."

The reality, of course, was very different. The enclosure of common land was seeing the eviction of peasants from the fields that lay between them and starvation. The desperate search for food to feed their families resulted in thousands facing imprisonment, transportation or death. The agrarian and industrial revolutions were demolishing the English countryside as it had existed over centuries. But Palmer "failed to see the reality that lay right in front of him because he was looking straight through it in search of some higher truth".

Modern idyll

So, what do the graphs and tables tell us of the reality of rural life in England today? Before I looked at the statistics, I would probably have said that the idyllic vision instilled in our consciousness by Palmer and other Romantics like John Constable and Joseph Turner still means we overlook the poverty and sheer hard grind of rural communities, that city dwellers don't realise just how tough it is to make a living in the countryside, that we look straight through the privation because we want to believe in some Arcadian paradise.

What the data tells us is that the people of rural England are healthier, safer and better educated than their city cousins. They are less likely to be homeless, living in poverty, unemployed or a victim of crime and they will probably live longer too. Of course there are downsides to living in the countryside - with seclusion and space come inevitably higher transport costs, poor mobile phone coverage and slower internet speeds - but the stats defy any notion that the English rural scene is threatened. In fact, by almost any measure, life is better in the country.

A man in the town can expect to die a full two years earlier than his equivalent in the countryside, and it is a similar tale for women. The risk from dying early from cancer is significantly lower in rural areas, as are the risks from stroke and heart disease.

You are almost twice as likely to be the victim of violent crime in towns and cities, almost three times as likely to suffer a burglary. The proportion of the population living below the poverty threshold is 18% in the country and 23% in towns while people living in villages and hamlets have significantly higher amounts of disposable income (between £640 and £700 per week) than their urban neighbours (£555).

Weekly expenditure graph

The weekly household expenditure bill offers a clue to lifestyle: village dwellers spend 20% more on alcohol and tobacco than city dwellers; 10% less on housing, water and electricity; 9% more on recreation; a little less on restaurants and hotels. Rural residents do spend more on transport - 18% of total expenditure as opposed to 15% among urban folk, and fuel poverty is obviously more of a problem in more isolated areas.

Employment rates are significantly higher in rural areas (78.0%) as opposed to urban districts (71.5%) and unemployment much lower. In 2009, one urbanite in 12 was out of work compared to one in 19 in rural areas. One table that surprised me shows how little of the rural economy is based upon agriculture these days. The dark blue bar that relates to farming, forestry and fishing is easy to miss.

Graph breaking down percentage of industry

Rural wage-packets are thinner than urban ones - median earnings in predominantly rural areas were £21,000 last year compared to £22,600 in predominantly urban districts, but taken as a whole, the statistics are a useful corrective to the notion that city dwellers have a cushier life than their country cousins.

Samuel Palmer's self-portrait was drawn before he left "horrid smoky London" for "that genuine village" in Kent. It is the face of a romantic teenager trapped in a brutal urban environment. Perhaps he has been urging me to question some of my assumptions about England's glorious and beautiful countryside: yes, it has significant challenges that a metropolitan elite might too easily overlook, but rural communities have not been abandoned or forgotten. If anything, compared to urban neighbourhoods, they are thriving.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I live in the country, the Fens to be more exact, and I'd strongly suspect that the figures given here are biased by the presence of an essentially urban Elite who choose not to live in urban areas. If you look at the living and working locally rural folk, you might well see a different picture emerge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Big cities, like London; have always been marked by an excess of deaths over births.

    They rely on immigration from outside.

    In the past this was from the immediate area. Today, the 'catchment' is global.

    Essentially cities are parasitic on a healthy environment.

    Always have been.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    If we exclude commutable from London from the numbers I wonder what the figures look like?

    Once you go out of the commuter bands everything changes. There is a double whammy because within the commuter bands the rural economy adapts to take advantage of the disposable income that very successful people from London bring into an area, and the money is redistributed many times over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Hugh Parker's comment is spot on. I'd like to understand both what is being defined as "rural" versus "urban" here and, more importantly, how much of this countryside wealth is actually being directly financed from -
    1. Urban retirees who owe their wealth to urban areas
    2. Urban commuters who earn from urban areas
    3. Direct government subsidy from CAP and other "support" mechanisms

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    If you're trying to find a place that offers a safe and comfortable environment for a cow, then yes, I would guess that a rural setting would probably be better than a London flat! As a teen who went to a Rural school life there is so boring. There isn't a good library for miles, of course mobile signal is rubbish and the bus service is atroicous! One bus every hour! Mine come every 5 mins!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    While i love the countryside, the rural statistics are definitely distorted in the UK. The thing is, "rural" UK isn't really rural. Come to Canada and see what a real "rural" environment is. I drove across this huge country last year and some of the poverty i saw in remote hamlets (even right on the Transcanada Highway) was astonishing. Northern Ontario is remarkably poor compared to Toronto.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    So Rural people smoke & drink more but live longer !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This page looks like the UK Advert on how well we are all doing since signing up to the Kyoto Treaty. Perhaps there could be another UK government addendum upon what percentage of our Carbon Footprint can be sold on and exchanged between other countries in the pact. The transparency award has to go to the United States for opting out of this bring and buy sale rubbish with no payback.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Life's not perfect in village or city
    Sometimes it's good
    and sometimes it's sh ...... not so good

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Urban v rural which is better? Better at what? Rural fields are better for grazing cows, pedestrianised city areas are the places, in which best to run shops. It takes both to make a balanced country, and whichever part one wishes to relate with most closely is a matter of personal preference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Urban dwelling to rural dwelling can be quite daunting. What will you do - raise produce, endure the headaches of big corporations dumping Monsanto seeds that will deplete your crops, face competition from big business? Then there is distance for medicals and non-local necessities. I think to be successful you would need to go with a "group" (mutual support) & perhaps keep produce totally local.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I come from a small town being urbanised. It falls between the two but it is the urban crowding that causes most problems and distress. But I cannot get on with rural life either: it seems too close and limited (in opportunities).

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    To continue I would suggest that much of the countryside is now as fraudulent as one of Tom Keating's `sextons' of Samual Palmer. They were excellent expressions of Palmer's style but not attributable at all. Never mind, the dealers lapped them up and flogged them on to the unwitting and daft. Keating got porridge, the dealers got rich and the punters got the picture. A bit like agricultural land.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Twnety years ago this Cockney made the move to a working village as my job shifted up-country. In those years what was a rural economy became foot and mouthed into a sort of suburb for commuters. No doubt we are still classed as rural but the incomers want street lighting and pavements rather than husbandry. I think your statistics are open to interpretation as otherwise it is more `urbe in rus'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Do the statistics you quote show us the situation for most people, or the average? There are a lot of well-off people who commute from, or retire to, the countryside. These data you've used could be showing that rural life is better, or they could be showing the effect of that well-known economist who has his feet in the freezer and his head in the oven, and reports that on average he's fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Urbanites are well represented in Parliament, whereas the rural population tends to only make up the numbers in larger, urban-biased, constituencies,.where matters of the country get side-lined or ignored altogether. You only need to look at the hunting ban fiasco and planning and home-ownership scandals to see the effects of not having a rural representation dealing with rural interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Use of rural areas as dormitories by affluent commuters can easily distort the picture.

    Eg. One lovely country area near me is apparently amongst the most affluent in the disunited kingdom, but only thanks to rail links to London and good roads to nearby cities.

    Interesting to know if the stats can control for this.



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