Rural Britain Then and Now

I am sure we have all experienced that sinking feeling when somebody lends us a book for the holidays and, instead of it being a page-turner by John Le Carré or Len Deighton, it turns out to be a compilation of academic papers with endless charts and graphs. “Oh this looks interesting, I’ll enjoy reading it.” Said no one ever!

However, an account of the changes to rural Britain over the decades proved surprisingly interesting. Did you know, for example, that in 1870, 22% of the British workforce was employed in agriculture but by 1913 this had dropped to 11.3% and today is only 1.5%. Not that this massive reduction has resulted in lower output, quite the contrary. In 1900 there were 16 million sheep but by 2017 that number had increased to 33 million. Similarly with cereal production. In 1900 each acre produced on average 0.89 tons of wheat but by 2017 that was 3.36 tons.

Of course the picture is not as rosy as it seems at first glance as, despite the significant increases in productivity and with 212,000 farm holdings covering 43 million acres, the UK still only produces around 60% of our food requirements. Another worrying statistics is the one which shows the average age of farmers is rising and now stands at fifty-nine.

Along with agriculture the way in which the countryside is used has also changed. The industrial revolution saw a movement of people from the land to the new manufacturing towns and cities where they sought more lucrative employment. We can see that from the population of Barnsley. In 1751, it was 1,740, in 1831 – 10,330 but by 1971, the old County Borough was home to 75,439 people. Now we see a movement away from inner cities and to the countryside, something which started in a limited way in the 1930s when workers in London would commute by train from the suburbs and from what we now call the Home Counties. In England 17.6% of the population live in rural areas and the ONS estimates this will rise a further 6% by 2025. The countryside is no longer a place where only farming occurs but increasingly a centre for leisure activities as well as a place where people have second and holiday homes. These changes place a strain on an infrastructure already stretched by increased building. With more people now living further from their places of work and with public transport limited or non existent they have no alternative to the car. How do we respond to the challenges all these changes will bring?

Whilst I might have preferred sitting by the pool reading a thriller, this one posed questions more difficult than finding the Russian mole.

First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living - October 2018