Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


The importance of going to the countryside (or just watching Countryfile)

In times of global chaos, there’s nothing like nature – and nature programmes – to ground a person, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

A couple of months ago, during a group email to organise some drinks in the West End, a girlfriend said she couldn’t make a date because Springwatch was on and promising unmissable action from an eagle’s nest. I found it endearing, but unfathomable, just as I had all the Countryfile love on Twitter. Why were people with full and busy lives clearing their schedules to watch some twigs in night vision? Unless they were tuning in to gaze lovingly at Chris Packham, I couldn’t begin to relate. And then came Florida, and Brexit, and Caroline Aherne, and Bangladesh, Baghdad, Dallas and Nice, and leadership contests, and well, I suddenly longed for fixed camera footage of a quivering egg.

I am a news junkie. But there comes a point where you’ve watched so much aggressive questioning, spin-doctored evasion, interrupting and confrontation for its own sake, that you reach critical mass and long for a gentle chat between John Craven and an orchard owner in Dorset – even if you do suspect she voted Leave. The joy of nature programmes – whether Springwatch, Countryfile, David Attenborough epics, or Steve Irwin reruns, is that they are populated by enthusiasts. People who are more excited by an inquisitive badger than they’ll ever be about a political punch-up between Boris and Gove. For 30-60 minutes, they devote their attentions and ours to the positively cheering, to the implicit optimism in nature.

I sat in the garden with another cup of tea, birds singing, dogs pelting around a field, wonky rural WiFi refusing to let me know much, and felt the calmest I have in months

I had, until this month, never fully understood how nature acts as a soothing balm for the soul. My whole life, I have known I am resolutely a city girl. Having been in London for 17 years, even a relocation to bustling Brighton felt like a huge and positively bucolic move. I’m an indoors person who freaks out if there’s no Whistles, Space NK and major branch of Boots on my doorstep, despite the fact that I do almost all of my shopping online. I want to be able to get a curry at 11pm, a taxi in five minutes flat and invisibly to glide through drunken crowds when I alight the last train at 2am. I like the anonymity of a city, the notion that no one has the slightest interest in the washing on my line or the to-ing and fro-ing from my house. It is undoubtedly the result of growing up in the then-industrial South Wales Valleys where everyone knew our business and I had a constant, nagging sense that all The Stuff was happening elsewhere.


But currently, I am exhausted by The Stuff. Seriously. Enough of The Stuff, now. The relentlessness of world events, the rolling news coverage on television and social media of dastardly political acts, heinous massacres and other atrocities. The white noise of unyielding opinion, baseless accusation and abject rage directed at those broadly on the same side. There have been times in the past month when, brain buzzing with frustration, despair and anger, that I have genuinely felt like I’m going mad and believed that just one more breaking news item would break me. I needed silence.

And so I went to visit a girlfriend in rural Suffolk. Four hours, ostensibly to the middle of nowhere, where phone reception was dreadful and chickens out-populated humans, to see someone who never annoys me and with whom I can enjoy very comfortable silence. To be clear, she lives very much on-grid. But between rushing indoors to watch the latest round of results in the Tory leadership election on Sky, or checking Newsnight for signs that Jeremy Corbyn might at some point emerge from his locked office, I sat in the garden with another cup of tea, birds singing, dogs pelting around a field, wonky rural WiFi refusing to let me know much else, and felt the calmest I have in months.

To be surrounded by jaw-dropping loveliness and calm, by even stripes of gold and untethered donkeys, is a therapy when the wider world seems so increasingly ugly

It’s not that escaping to the country is even running away as such. Running away is sitting under the kitchen table with earplugs and a shotgun, singing “lalalalala can’t hear you”. Newspapers and news are hardly the preserve of townies, and nor is the resulting panic from their over-consumption. But there is something about fields of wild flowers and sheep milling about that forces you to acknowledge that the world is much bigger than the events within it. And when seismic changes in domestic politics and global affairs are being machine-gun fired from TV to sofa, there’s something immensely comforting about taking time out to observe the unchanging lifecycle and rituals of rural life that have proceeded in much the same way for thousands of years. Lambs feeding, chickens sitting on fat eggs, cars forced to slow to a sloth-like pace behind horses or agricultural vehicles doing much more important things than getting to Asda before it shuts. These are the things that make the world turn, reliably and uneventfully. This didn’t feel like running away, it felt like essential respite.

Of course people who live in the country have plenty to do, socialising to enjoy and myriad ways to stay informed. But somehow all of these things seem more bearable when surrounded by crops arranged in perfectly even stripes of gold and untethered donkeys hanging out like they own the place. To be surrounded by jaw-dropping loveliness and calm is a therapy when the wider world seems so increasingly ugly.

I’ve been home a fortnight and a daily session of RightMove cottage porning aside, I am not thinking with any seriousness about moving to the country. I love where I live and feel extraordinarily fortunate to be able to hear the sea and walk to school in under a minute. But a week in the country has certainly broadened my horizons and given me a newfound appreciation for the nature on my doorstep. I’ve stopped moaning about the noisy seagulls on the roof, the slugs leaving trails in the garden. A walk to the beach – something I’d normally avoid in the height of summer, when stag nights convene on it to burn their chests and dump their cider cans – and just watching miles of sea doing its thing like a boss, has become an antidote to the hourly horrors unfolding online. I finally get why people crave it, and why at the end of a stressful week, a piss-up with friends might seem much less important than a date with baby eagle.


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