Imagine the quintessential English countryside. It is a beautifully sunny day. Birds flit along the hedgerows. A farmer, in shirt and flat cap, steers a plough pulled by a sturdy Shire horse. He stops and wipes his brow with the back of his hand. Church bells quietly peal in the distance, rising out of the Norman church tower. It is the type of scene you imagine whilst listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.
When he has finished, and he goes back to his cottage, he will sit by the fire and polish the brasses that will hang on the Shire horse’s leather straps on festival days.
This, of course, is an idyllic scene, but it is not unrealistic. It would be a common sight, even as late as the Second World War, for ploughs to be pulled by horses and steered by hand. But in time, he will retire the horse from service, and buy a tractor to pull his plough. The brasses will hang only by the fire place as decorative ornaments, and eventually find their way to charity shops and car boot sales.
The story of the decline and loss of Britain’s rural heritage and traditions is one infinitely sad to people like me, who base a large part of their identity on British – in my case, particularly English – culture, and who are seeing it recede day by day.
If you go to a village fete, and see the Morris or the Maypole or the Long Sword dancers, many of us will view the event perhaps with a bemused expression – as though we are just watching the local eccentrics at it again. But how many of us watch it through the perspective of it being a recreation and celebration of England’s rural culture?
The renewal of interest in the Gaelic language and heritage of Scotland and Ireland, as well as Wales, are all efforts to reconnect with one’s culture and identity. But in England, there doesn’t seem to be that same movement and momentum. Perhaps it points to the larger question as to why so many young people are uncomfortable or afraid to identify themselves as and feel proud to be English or British.
I’m a Town Mouse myself, having lived all my life in a busy city, but I’ve always felt a connection with the countryside. I’ve always felt more at home there than I have in my home city. And, having a deep interest in history from an early age, I’ve begun to lament the slow death of these traditions, which were once passed down for generations but are now facing relegation to history books and museums.
The story begins with the Industrial Revolution, when thousands migrated from the country to Blake’s ‘dark, Satanic mills’, and others, who perhaps would later become the famous Luddites, had their trades, professions, and livelihoods replaced by machines. The countless inventions, such as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny, would revolutionise production and cause Britain to become the Workshop of the World – but at the cost of an irrevocable decline in rural heritage. Though some revival efforts have been going on in modern times, mostly by an older generation, the worrying thing is the fact that there hasn’t been a widespread interest or effort among young people today to revive the traditions of our ancestors.
Corn dollies, lace making, well-dressing, and Aran jumpers are all traditions which have centuries of history behind them, yet now they’re nothing more than mildly interesting museum pieces. They were once meaningful to people as an activity, as it expressed who they were. One of the trademarks of the 19th Century Cottage industries was the fact that they were all stamped with high individuality – certain regions or groups of craftspeople would have their own certain lace motifs or straw plaits, for example. The skill would be passed from parent to child, and each item would be made in a unique form – different to the mass uniformity of products that were made in the mills and in our modern times.
Another aspect of heritage lost due to the modern world is that of accents. One of the wonders of the English language in Britain is the fact that it is expressed in so many different and vibrant regional dialects and accents. But because of the mass importation of American words, and the general feeling of the world being closer together, we are beginning to lose the strength of these dialects. Language change is, of course, natural and inevitable, but it is rather sad to see once unique words be dropped from the vernacular and replaced with common ones. Once broad accents are beginning to sound watered-down, and I’ve noticed an emergence of a particular accent-less accent among many young people today, a sort of placeless, watered-down RP, a generic London-esque twang that does nothing to speak of regional heritage but rather cast everyone as sounding the same.
If you look at this classic Yorkshire poem, you’ll see how it’s very much ‘in it’s own world’ – it could only ever be a Yorkshire poem, and it’s typical of the traditional Yorkshire accent spoken all over the county. But you would be hard-pressed to find a young person speaking like this – this broad sort of accent is to be found in the older generation.
“’Ear all, see all, say nowt;
Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt;
And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt –
Allus do it fer thissen.”
One final thing I want to touch on is folk music. Folk music is, by definition, the music of a people, and English folk music doesn’t seem to penetrate the consciousness of many people beyond Greensleeves and the easy-listening faux-folk peddled by bands like Mumford & Sons. English folk music is wonderful and vibrant, consisting of ballads, jigs, carols, sea shanties, work songs, protest songs, and many more, and, just like the industries of the pre-industrial Old World, are unique to each region. Folk songs from Cornwall are different to folk songs from East Anglia, and once again forms a large part of that regional identity. We seem to have forgotten the songs and sounds of our forebears – and what brilliant songs and sounds they are, too.
There is much more I could witter on about, including myths and folk tales, but I’m conscious of sounding repetitive and hammering in the point, so –
Unless we make a concerted and sincere effort to preserve and pass down our cultural heritage, as a genuine act of celebration and not of merely the re-enactment of quirky activities of our past, then we will lose our identity and ourselves, and these historical traditions will simple become an unusual footnote in the history of Britain.