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The go-between

Growing up in a tied cottage on a landed estate

If I tell you I’d lived on three private country estates by the time I was eighteen, you’ll already have formed an opinion of me. Depending on your own background (city, suburb or rural, north or south, state school or private) a judgement will be arrived at so quickly, it’s hard to shake. Understandably. We all do it. But, in the rural world I grew up in, class proved to be a more porous thing, something both solid and permeable at the same time.

I spent my formative years on one of these estates in the Lake District, where we lived in a gatehouse, made dens in the woods and played by the lake. Our gardens were full of exotic plants that Victorian plant hunters had brought back from the Himalayas 200 years ago. But we were not rich. Mum took a job washing up in the pub kitchen when I was young, both to earn money and have time to herself (“you kids were hard work”). We were living on grand estates like this because my dad was a forester. He’d come home from a hard day’s work, almost broken physically, peeling off his chainsaw trousers and emitting a strong scent of petrol and larch sap.

Family album photo of the author and the “death slide” built by their father in the second house they lived in on the estate

The job came with a house but Dad’s wages reflected that. It was called a tied house. It sounds great. It was great. There was no way we could have afforded to live in this area, in this manner, in the footsteps of the upper classes, without being given a home. But it was also a precarious way to live. When the house is tied to the work, you could lose your job and home in the same blow. Still, that was our parents’ worry. Us kids, with our muddy knees and jars of rhododendron perfume, were living the dream. The only thing that put us on edge was having to play by unwritten rules: keeping to the invisible boundaries that bordered places you weren’t allowed to go on the estate. I longed to see inside the pretty, white, hexagonal-shaped summerhouse, but it was situated too close to the Big House – a place we never went near. Understandable really, it was their back garden.

The estate workers and their kids were invited to the Big House for parties

The countryside in the UK is still full of rolling estates with stately homes that capture the imagination of writers and filmmakers. People visualise us living in the grounds of a place like Saltburn, Pemberley, Downton (fictional names, filmed on real estates). But a Big House with all its collated wealth (often from a questionable history) was the last thing that appealed to me. I had more in common with The Secret Garden’s Dickon, who spends most of his time in the gardens or on the moors, though he does eventually become friends with Mary and Colin at the house.

I didn’t experience this connection to the landowners’ children when I was young. Very occasionally we’d play with the children of the estate (there were five of them) but they were mostly away at boarding school. Looking back now, it’s ironic that while we explored their woods and played on the shingly beach by the lake at the weekend, the children of the landowner were doing whatever kids do at boarding school. The estate workers and their kids were often invited to the Big House for Christmas parties or to a bonfire and fireworks in the field on 5 November. But the connection was thin enough that when I served the eldest son in the pub he didn’t recognise me. I’m not sure I’d recognise him now, either.

Yet the porous way in which our two worlds sometimes ran parallel and sometimes overlapped gave me access to a fragile bridge between social classes when I reached adulthood.

Family album photo of the author with her brother

For example, as a child, I was employed as a beater on the estate, shooing the pheasants into the sky for the guns; then, as an adult, I was invited as a guest on a shoot, where I drank sherry produced from a mammoth picnic box in the back of a Range Rover (and watched as the beaters ate their packed lunches, apart). I wasn’t comfortable in either of these situations, which is partly to do with my dislike of pheasant shoots but also to do with my feeling of class awkwardness. At the fancy lunch after the shoot, I wasn’t sure how much I should talk and probably stuck out like a sore thumb. Yet I was there. Somehow, I had bridged that gap.

Working as the barmaid at the local pub offered interesting insights into the feudal theatre of the village because it was such a mixing pot. Some social occasions saw the laird, the gamekeeper, the farmer, the sparky, the chef and the underage teenagers out drinking on the flags, under the gaze of the town hall. But the question of where we ended up when the doors were pulled shut was never really an issue. We all knew our place and the path back to it.

The upper and the working classes lived together, separately. We shared spaces but knew where the fault-lines ran. We didn’t cross them. Not without a helping hand over anyway. And we always knew when time was up on this side of the fence.

Rural areas come up against one main assumption: that only rich people live in a beautiful place surrounded by lots of nature. But there is still deprivation, a chronic lack of affordable housing, fuel poverty, a lack of public transport and amenities. There might be three pubs in the village, but the nearest hospital is an hour’s drive away on winding roads. There are no taxis and no matter what job you do in a rural area, you are always up against the weather.

Rural areas come up against one main assumption: that only rich people live in a beautiful place surrounded by nature

The countryside is not an easy place to live but it’s worth it because you feel connected to the place, to the woods, the lake, the hills. The drive home becomes imprinted into your consciousness and the view of the mountains as you round the bend is etched into your soul.

I took my own kids back to the estate when I was finishing my book, Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside. It was an odd feeling, part nostalgia, part unsettling. It was a quiet sunny day in early spring and the rhododendrons were starting to bloom. I pointed out all the places we had played as kids, which trees and bushes were best for dens, where the swing used to be. I showed them the dog graveyard – imagine having a place that has been in your family for generations, where you can corner off a site especially for beloved pets.

Family album photo of the author with her brother

But I could hear the low throttle of a big lawnmower and I felt like we were trespassing. I wasn’t sure how I would explain our presence, despite the fact the gardens are open to the public from spring each year. I rushed the kids back to the car before the person on the lawnmower could say hello and ask in their friendliest manner what we thought of the garden. What would I say? I think it’s lovely, I once knew every inch of these gardens, where to hide beneath the giant rhubarb, where I buried a token from a boy I liked, how the river became a trickle every summer. I knew this place intimately.

I travelled a lot during the research of the book and in the village of Ae, in Dumfries in Scotland, where the Forestry Commission built their first planned village, I stopped a few times by the side of the road to see if I could wander down to the river and have my lunch. We have the Right to Roam in Scotland, but I still felt uncomfortable, again like I was trespassing. I fancied that if anyone stopped me, I’d say I grew up in an area like this and it’s ok, I’m not leaving litter, starting a fire, being an idiot. I just want to see if there are any herons in the water while I eat my sandwich.

That’s the thing about being connected to the land without owning it, you still feel like you know it. You recognise parts of it everywhere you go, you know how it will feel to sit on the log, to watch the birds flit and fly after bugs and you want to feel at home again. But I couldn’t find a gap in the fence to get to the river so I didn’t stay. I sat in the car to eat my lunch instead.

Rebecca Smith is a writer and journalist. Her debut book “Rural: The Lives of the Working-Class Countryside” is out now, published by HarperCollins

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June / July 2024, Life

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