When Ralph Waldo Emerson lost a useful amount of his income in the banking panic of 1837, he wrote a poem called “The Humble-bee.” Busy, buzzy Bombus — the Latin name for the bumblebee means buzz or drone — seemed to have got life about right:
Wiser far than human seer,
So it will be during this present crisis. A lot of us will be looking to, or dreaming of, the countryside to cheer us up, provide a bit of hope, and remind us of what was normal before normal became something else. When the restrictions on daily life are over and we get out the other side, the pleasures and practicality of the countryside — it is resilient — will surely be remembered. The new normal will include more time spent out of town. There will be a renaissance of the country homes and villages where people who were previously excited by city life will want to live.
I write this from the city. No bumblebees where I am now, in the center of London. Don’t think I complain. There are also no cars, no planes overhead, no litter, nobody on the street; the buses go around empty. Of course people are anxious about their jobs and how the economy will ever restart — but purely in terms of my environment, it’s a million times improved. Let’s hope we manage to hang onto some of those benefits after La Grande Rentrée.
It helps that the time of COVID-19 has coincided, so far, with a long spell of fine spring weather. It has been quite eerie in its loveliness. Zephyrs have with their sweet breath been inspiring the tender crops (read, as regards my tea tray of a Pimlico garden, ferns, hostas, and clematis), just as Chaucer prescribed. Absolutely no “shoures soote,” or fragrant showers. Each day I walk around the tea tray, feeling like Oscar Wilde in the “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” I note the progress of each unfurling frond. I’ve ordered some more plants.
Normally I hate the pigeons, which sit, doing disgusting things, on an elbow of drainpipe outside my study window, taunting me with their stupid gurgling noises. I am like the Bird Man of Alcatraz in reverse; he spent his confinement feeding birds, while I’m of Tom Lehrer’s persuasion and would poison them if I could. But in the garden, somehow my heart is softened.
They bill, they coo, they fly off with little bits of dried grass to make nests. Bless them. Even the loud flapping they make to lift their fat bodies into the air becomes acceptable. It’s part of the natural world, insofar as anything is natural in a city like London. Much more of this and I’ll go the full St. Francis.
In short, it’s spring, and even in the city what passes for Nature has a reviving effect. How much more is that the case outside it. Look at the pictures country friends post on Instagram. One family barbecues around a newly completed folly in Batty Langley style, designed by Quinlan Terry. Others ride horses, go on five-mile walks, spread rugs for al fresco meals. A left-wing friend, proud to live in a gritty area of the East End, has been posting artistic photographs of Snowdonia, where presumably — like all good socialists — he has a second home. It made me want to read Wordsworth.
Lucky them. I don’t pretend they form a socially representative sample of the rural population, and there are many people who are struggling. Isolation isn’t good when you’re on your own — worse when you’re in a relationship that’s collapsing. People predict a spike in the birth rate around January 2021: what else is there to do during a lockdown? But domestic violence and suicides will also increase. Remember, though, that the pressures are probably as great in town and in the country, but more people in rural areas can get outside. It’s easier to social-distance in a field than on a sidewalk. There is somewhere to sulk.
Admittedly the countryside is more crowded at the moment. A friend complains that the paths he usually walks along without passing anyone are now more crowded than Oxford Street (which wouldn’t be difficult. I went to Oxford Street the other day and could have done handstands in the middle of the roadway; there was nobody there — not a soul.) The parking bays of Belgravia are empty; the well-heeled residents have all gone to their country places. This has caused considerable resentment in rural communities who see second-home owners as plague carriers from the city who will strain their hard-pressed local services. Or it could be that they’re jealous.
Forget the real or imagined injustices for a moment. The simple fact is that lockdown has not affected the countryside very much and people are remembering how very nice it is to be there. This isn’t just a British thing. On Rhode Island, the architect Oliver Cope has been out with his chainsaw, logging and planking fallen trees. He makes furniture for a hobby. He’s now had time to finish the table, made to designs by the eighteenth-century French cabinetmaker André Jacob Roubo, and is after other projects. Oliver’s professional life is spent designing ultra-high-end residences — city apartments, seaside places, country homes. I saw some of them recently (it seems barely possible: was there ever a time when one could travel?) for a book. They’re fabulous, through being, like a piece of furniture, very carefully crafted and considered. When the economy starts again, people like Oliver will be in demand.
For one thing, we’ve all been getting to know our own homes rather better than we would wish. That’s lockdown for you: a compulsory meditation on domestic life. I suspect that even some of the best-appointed homes will have been found wanting. Imperfections that would once have been overlooked get on one’s nerves after a while of living with them. I didn’t mind about the bookcases on the way down to the basement that make the stairs so narrow I descend sideways. I didn’t go into the basement very often. Now I go up and down several times each day. I’ve always bumped into the books that stick out. Now it’s annoying me. Something will have to be done.
As a matter of fact, in our case it will be, because we have been planning a project of building work for some time — we’ve got the plans, we’ve got the permissions, we can go out to tender. Not sure when builders will be allowed into people’s houses, but we’ll be front of the queue.
We’re not the only people to feel like this. Sales of DIY goods have gone up. Householders can’t stand those niggles anymore. The silence of the coronavirus city is broken by the whine of distant drills.
The simple fact is that lockdown has not affected the countryside very much and people are remembering how very nice it is to be there.
Bigger questions will be raised. The family that has been stuck in a city flat for several weeks, if not months, will behave like cows in springtime, let out of their winter barn. They will rush, bound, and frolic towards green spaces. They will feast their eyes, glut their senses, and ask if, ahead of the next crisis, it wouldn’t be very nice to move out. How long will it be before people feel comfortable in coffee shops and theaters? Could be a while. We’ve lost the habit. Selling a property in the city — or anywhere — will be difficult for a while; but what a great time for buyers.
Traditionally, architects get a burst of enquiries after Christmas and the New Year, when families have had a chance to talk over future plans. Imagine what it will be like after COVID-19.
The countryside has not only been better equipped to cope with the coronavirus horror — for goodness sake, in the last resort you can grow food on your own lot (which isn’t possible when your only lot is a window box). Rural communities have been inventive. They’re self-reliant. They don’t expect the full range of shops and services you find in a city; they find ways of managing without. One of the lessons of COVID-19 is that local networks really matter; we rely on neighborhood stores not just for the purchases we can make from those that have stayed open but also for the friendly recognition from the shopkeepers who know us. You get more of that in small communities than in cities.
While working from home was theoretically possible before coronavirus, people didn’t really believe in it. Now we have Zoom. Will employers want to return to renting expensive office space and paying executives to travel? I doubt it. And providing there’s broadband, you can Zoom as well from the countryside as anywhere.
Britain is famous for its Downton Abbey–style country houses. Recently I visited twelve of them for Old Homes, New Life, a book that will be one of the first from the publishing company Triglyph Books, which I’ve founded with the photographer Dylan Thomas (not the drunken Welsh poet). Not a great time to start a publishing business, but it’s been a fabulous project (more on www.triglyphbooks.com).
Forty years ago, these enormous mansions seemed to have a rocky future. They were being demolished in the 1970s. When I started to work for the magazine Country Life at the end of that decade, they would be advertised with the dread words “suitable for institutional use.” Now, a new generation is at the helm, with young families, and they’re finding new ways to keep them going. Weddings have helped — there’s money in them, although some house owners have surrendered altogether, turning their ancestral homes into venues and moving out. There are other events that bring in money, from rock concerts to corporate shoots. These aren’t always so original. I’m struck, though, by the number of country-house owners who see the future as being in their landholdings. They want to farm environmentally and effectively sell Nature. There’s a market for wellness. In a world in which travel is likely to be more circumscribed, it will suit the post-coronavirus vibe.
The U.S. has always done this well. For one thing, it has the National Parks. There is no true wilderness in Britain, and we are having a vexed debate on “rewilding” (rewild to what? The primeval forests were cut down before the Romans came.) But the Adirondacks remain practically virgin (sorry, reader: I realize that practically virgin is not a valid concept, any more than practically unique; one’s either virgin or one’s not. But I trust you know what I mean).
And because of the vastness of the country, when Americans have gone into it, they’ve generally done so in groups. So historically there were resort places like Newport, Rhode Island, and Palm Beach, Florida: full of big and expensive houses but close together, on relatively small lots. And families like the Rockefellers at Kykuit on the Hudson River built compounds in which different generations had their own homes, so they could create their own social lives. Which was just as well at the beginning of the twentieth century because they got scarified by the press. At Kykuit, the family stuck together and closed ranks.
When I was researching a book called The American Country House in the late 1980s, some otherwise well-informed American friends refused to believe that such a phenomenon existed, or had ever existed. It would have been quite simply un-American. By which they meant that, in the Land of the Free, not even a robber baron would have so flagrantly aped Europe, adopting a way of life that was showy, idle, and anti-democratic. Wrong. Extravagant homes were one of the excesses identified as “conspicuous consumption” by the economist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Plutocrats — as they were coming to be called — cast their eyes across the Atlantic to see what lifestyle tips they could pick up, before, sometimes, sending their daughters across too, to marry into Burke’s Peerage or the Almanach de Gotha. You bet they wanted the best the world had to offer, including country houses. Joseph Duveen was on hand to sell them the Gainboroughs and Fragonards to put on their walls.
But they also created something new. I met my friend Oliver while visiting the works of the great English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who worked during the glorious flourishing of domestic architecture that took place in the early twentieth century. The U.S. had its own flowering, due to McKim, Mead and White; Harrie T. Lindeberg; Mellor, Meigs and Howe; and their contemporaries.
Nobody would now deny that there was an American country house tradition, because it has been revived, since the 1980s, by architects like Oliver Cope. This product of the Gilded Age was different from what happened in Edwardian Britain, being designed around sport and pleasure, convenience and machines; the future Edward VIII loved it. When we all move on from coronavirus, today’s equivalent will become the new domestic ideal.
Clive Aslet is Editorial Director of Triglyph Books.