Retire to the country? Don’t fall for the myths, city folk warned

Author Mavis Cheek, who can’t wait to get back to London, says country life ‘is tough, a little bit dangerous and not for wimps’

Exchanging the harsh reality of urban life for the romance of rural living is a dream for many nearing retirement. But a campaign launched on Wednesday warns against falling for the myth of a rose-tinted third age spent among fields, rose-covered cottages and village greens.

“Contrary to the romantic notion of blissful calm, living in the country is tough, a little bit dangerous and not for wimps,” said Mavis Cheek, the author and commentator on country living, who is launching the national campaign.

“Very few of the myths are true. All you need is one thing to go wrong, and you’re vulnerable to anything from immediate danger to a long life of isolation and poverty,” added Cheek, who moved to Wiltshire in 2001 from London but plans to return to the city “before I become feeble”.

“I cannot imagine growing old here,” she admitted. “If your car breaks down, you need to be able to afford taxis because the public transport is so bad. If you stop being proactive in keeping your brain and social life active, you will find yourself completely unstimulated. If you do something unspeakable at a dinner party, everyone in the area will know about it by the next morning.”

“Living in the countryside is a constant effort,” Cheek added. “For every glorious summer’s day, there’s a long, hard winter. For every Constable-esque view over fields, there’s a trip that requires driving. And for every kind neighbour, well, scratch many countryside dwellers and you find a sexist, racist, homophobe.”

Over the Hill? is a three-year campaign, funded by the Nationwide Foundation’s Investor Programme, which tackles financial exclusion and homelessness, focusing particularly on disadvantaged older people.

In partnership with Action with Communities in Rural England (Acre) and Age UK, the campaign seeks to warn city rats looking to become country mice that becoming old and frail in the countryside is no fairy tale.

“Our aim in Over the Hill? is to highlight some of the challenges of rural retirement so people in their 50s, 60s and 70s can think about what they want and plan for the future,” said Sylvia Brown, the chief executive of Acre.

“We want to encourage people to be proactive about their rural retirement dream, to lobby local politicians, service providers and government so when they get to retirement age, their local services are not found wanting and they are not forced into making choices they don’t want.”

The rate of migration from the countryside to the town has increased in the past 30 years and is expected to continue to grow. Within 20 years half the adult population in England will be aged 50 and over, accounting for 40% of the total population – a disproportionate number of whom, said Nick Le Mesurier, author of Growing Older in the English Countryside, will live in the countryside.

“Likely population change in the rural population is about 15% compared to 8.8% in urban areas,” he said.

Le Mesurier warned that people who move to the countryside chasing the myth of the rural idyll are in danger of “ignoring the complex reality of modern rural living for a wide range of groups”.

Isolation in the countryside increased the risk that disadvantage among all social groups was more likely to be hidden than in a city, increasing the risk that problems were not recognised or were overlooked.

“Vulnerable people … in the countryside may easily merge into the background,” he said. “The way we respond to the needs of vulnerable older people in the countryside is a test of how we as a society will care for our elderly generally, whom soon enough we ourselves will join, if we are not there already.”

Rural ageing is a particularly acute problem, he warns. “The rate of rural ageing is faster than in urban areas [but] the issues are quite different – for example, isolation, transport, access to financial services are all much more problematic if you live in the countryside.”

Hannah and her husband, Jake, agree. The couple moved from London to an isolated village in Northumberland when they retired five years ago. “I’m embarrassed, in retrospect, to admit that I fell for the dream: I thought it would be like The Archers,” said Hannah. “Instead, we find we’re isolated, bored and not physically strong enough to live this life. We’re putting our cottage back on the market next month and moving back to the city. I can’t wait to get back to everything I thought I was so desperate to leave behind me.”

Amelia Hill

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