Friday, 4 January 2008

Dreams Of English Country Living

As England returns to work amidst the usual transport failures and the start of the first real winter cold, while recovering from the gluttony used to stave off Xmas depression, thoughts inevitably turn to dreams of escape from the rat race. Every year, millions eagerly await the bumper issues of the Xmas-holiday TV guide, thumbing through it and marking up favoured viewing, which leans heavily towards nostalgia and escapism.
However, as fellow club-member Zeno was saying, Xmas TV, which used to be a showcase of the best British TV had to offer, has become a ‘desolate wasteland’. (I blame the dilution of content into digital pay TV myself.) The most promoted highlight was a BBC1 To The Manor Born Xmas special, revisiting the dream of genteel country living a quarter-century since the still-syndicated sitcom ended. Inevitably, the BBC tried to make the special ‘topical’ by using the current issue that Tesco et al are bullies driving farmers to the wall. In the event, this was all conveniently sorted out in a manner as convincing as Marjorie healing a badger Richard had run over by keeping it at home for a few days.
What turned out to BBC’s Xmas-holidays real hit was BBC-TV’s new Jane Austen, Sense And Sensibility, which began on New Year’s Day. Although the tale has been filmed before along with a plethora of recent TV Austens, the papers report the main setting has made the BBC1 serial a hit. (The DVD, officially released January 21st, is already available for ‘pre-order.’) This is the cottage where the Dashwood family retreat after they are dispossessed from their estate. Instead of using a South Devon cottage (as in the novel and the 1995 film version), the location scouts looked for a more remote ‘Barton Cottage’ that would emphasize the family’s social isolation. They found it on the windswept north Devon coast.
Southwest of Exmoor’s “Lorna Doone Country,” the Hartland Peninsula was said by early guidebooks to be as remote as you can get in England from civilisation, in the form of a railway line. The website of the Hartland Abbey Estate which lets the cottage advertises the locality’s attractions – “…a remote Atlantic cove … approached by a private track through woodland …. no telephone or television! … huge open fireplace… (Even to get a mobile phone signal, you need to climb to the top of the cliff.) “The only two lights to be seen are from the lighthouses on Hartland point and Lundy Island.” The Estate has now been inundated by enquiries from people wanting to stay there. As a circulation booster, the Telegraph has set up a competition to win a week's holiday at the cottage. (Of course all this may have the same effect as the David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter, where the film drew visitors and investment to the setting, again a remote windswept peninsula, leading to modernisation.) Though the estate had replaced the cottage’s original 15th-century mud floor, and electricity was installed in 2007, the BBC filmed interiors at Pinewood Studios since inside the actual cottage was too small and “scruffy.” "The art director said although Mrs Dashwood had fallen on hard times, she hadn't fallen on such hard times," explained the estate owner Lady Stucley.
What the location has “value-added” is something people have complained was lacking in Austen, a sense of England outside the Home Counties village and great estate – what has been called Austen’s ‘doll’s house world’. It is also a sense of the land as a dramatic setting, found in the Gothic school of romantic novel, as in the work of the Brontë sisters. This was a genre Austen openly derided, and Charlotte Brontë reciprocated the antipathy, calling Austen’s work “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck … ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.” But now we have the blue hill, the bonny beck or stream, the bleak moorland, the cliffs or bluffs as dramatic as those of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Though apparently it’s not true the Brontes walked everywhere over the moors in all weathers, as Mrs Gaskell’s early biography of Charlotte claimed, there are certainly opportunities for long ‘bracing’ walks here, as the series showed.
There are two dreams of English country living, the genteel (on the great estate) and the rustic (in the country cottage). This is the latter as a more realistic modern vision. A few diehard romantics may entertain the fantasy of ending up like Austen’s heroines on a country estate with servants, but for the rest, the vision must be more modest to be convincing even as a daydream. In fact the growing reaction against the urban lifestyle as stressful and unrewarding makes the primitive living conditions appealing – at least for a weekend break.
View South from Hartland QuayThe weather on the Hartland Peninsula can itself be dramatic as in any Gothic novel, at any time of year. Where the cottage stands actually faces west, with nothing between it and the Newfoundland coast but the vast Atlantic rollers, from where storms can sweep in at any time. (The BBC crew spent 3 weeks in May filming there, amidst almost incessant rain.) I can attest to this, having spent a rainy and windswept week exploring this vicinity at Midsummer. I’ve posted a pair of souvenir photos from this trip here for anyone else who dreams of English country living in such a rustic setting.

View North from Hartland Quay

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