As a housing crisis hits the countryside and forces locals out in droves, Rebecca Smith's debut reflects on the rural working class culture that could be lost
The word “estate” can be slippery when imagining the lives of Britain’s working class. On the one hand, it conjures up urban scenes—long lines of one-up one-down terraced houses squeezed together in factory towns, or the high rise tower blocks that speared city skylines through the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet, out in the countryside on the other side of the class divide, we also encounter lavish country estates, where generational wealth grants space, greenery and idyllic quiet.
For Rebecca Smith, writer of Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside, neither is quite the right fit. “When I read stories about the working class, it was all cities. That's nothing like what we grew up with,” she says, alluding to the recent flurry of working class non-fiction, which includes Dead Ink Books’ Know Your Place (2017) and Unbound’s Common People (2019).
“There's a weird duality, because we grew up with all that space in the fields, the lake and the woods. You don't own anything and you have to work hard to keep yourself there, but you also are stepping in the footsteps of people who own these places.”
Growing up in a tied house gave Smith access to country estate grounds usually reserved for its upper class owners
The history of tied housing
Smith grew up on Graythwaite Estate in Cumbria, where her father’s job as a forester gave him lodgings in a tied cottage. The estate’s impressive grounds became her playground.
Tied housing like this was once a key feature in the countryside, where homes were provided rent-free, but attached to a job. It’s what housed generations of slate miners, coal miners and mill workers, creating a culture of precarious housing that long predates today’s affordability crisis.
“I started writing thinking it was a bad thing, because if you lost your job, you lost your house too,” says Smith. “But now, because we have so few houses available at an affordable rent in rural areas, it does seem like we need something that fixes some of the issues.”
"We have so few houses available at an affordable rent in rural areas, it does seem like we need something that fixes some of the issues"
As Smith traces her family history, an intricate record of the rural working class emerges, with personal anecdotes sharpening details about poverty and labour.
When the Manchester Ship Canal was built in the late 1800s, her grandfather lived in a small workers’ hut with his three siblings and 11 lodgers—all engineers who had been drafted in. Smith's great-grandmother was pregnant at the time.
“You compare all the things you do at home,” says Smith. "How did she do that in a hut? There's no central heating. There'd just be a coal fire. How does she dry all the clothes, which is always an issue, even today?"
Smith's grandfather grew up in a worker's hut, which housed engineers who built the Manchester Ship Canal
Her grandfather later worked in a textiles mill, which her uncle visited as a boy. In the book, he recalls the overcrowding, the intense heat and the reek of chemicals in the air from nylon production, “like a sweatshop”.
“It was very easy to bring it close to home and think, Gosh, their lives aren't so different from us in some ways, which is horrible,” says Smith.
At the same time, a distinctly rural working class identity shines through, separated from its urban counterpart by the minutiae of day-to-day life—the grocery shop over an hour's trek away, the wood-stoked fires heating damp cottages, the whims of landowners who could, at any moment, oust you from their land in the name of business. And at the centre of it all, the views on your doorstep that make it all worth it.
"It's so difficult to live when you don't really own anything. You might lose your job. You have to drive everywhere. But it doesn't matter when you've got all that space," says Smith. "It really does form your outlook on life."
The rural housing crisis
Part of Smith's motivation in writing the book was to complicate the pastoral idyll that visitors so often attribute to the countryside. "I think sometimes people forget that the countryside isn't just something to look at and visit. It's a working environment in lots of ways," she says.
That tension is prominent in the tourism industry, which, even as it bolsters the rural economy, can erode a sense of ownership for locals.
Smith describes friends in the Lake District going out of their way to avoid the crowds, some waking up at 5AM to climb the Old Man at Coniston, and one mum foregoing the kids playpark at the height of summer. “It's a shame really, because you feel like it's not your own place anymore.”
That becomes even more pronounced when you factor in Airbnbs and second homes, which today both contribute to the depletion of affordable housing in the countryside.
"A friend up in Dornoch said, ‘It's like the Highland Clearances here,’ because there's nowhere to live"
In Cornwall, fewer than 50 rentals were listed in 2021 (compared with 10,000 Airbnb listings), while some areas of the Scottish Highlands have lost over 17 per cent of their housing to short term lets.
It’s forcing a virtual exodus onto locals, who are increasingly leaving the places where they and their families grew up in search of more affordable homes, and higher wages, in cities.
With only modest savings pooled between them, Smith's own parents chose to move to a town where they could afford to buy property—even as other, wealthier people their age did the opposite and joined the urban flight.
“Wages in rural areas are usually much lower than in the city, so you can't compete with incoming money like that,” says Smith. “A friend up in Dornoch said, ‘It's like the Highland Clearances here,’ because there's nowhere to live.”
Restoring the countryside
Credit: Dave Fergusson, CC BY-SA 2.0. Community buyouts could help to replenish affordable housing and rebuild communities in places like the Island of Ulva
Community buyouts are gaining currency across Scotland, where locals club together to purchase land that they manage cooperatively.
On the Isle of Gigha, this has led to new homes being built, which has reversed its population decline. There are plans for Ulva, the island off Mull whose population numbered just six before its buyout in 2018, to do the same.
"It's giving people an opportunity to take control of the land and manage it in a way that is right for them," says Smith. "Most importantly, in those rural areas they're making the houses properly eco-friendly. They won't be like the old ones, with people living in fuel poverty."
"It's giving people an opportunity to take control of the land and manage it in a way that is right for them"
There is hope that as awareness spreads about the countryside's unique challenges, that communities can be built that balance the needs of locals, visitors and the land. As Smith asserts, landowners and tourism are not inherently bad, so long as they invest properly into rural areas and the culture that they sustain.
“It'll be interesting to see where the next ten years take us," she says. "Everything does go in cycles. Maybe our villages will have all the pubs running again, and the country shows and the pantomimes. Let’s hope they come back soon.”
Banner: Julian Paren, CC BY-SA 2.0. The last house in Cleadale, Eigg, 1988
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