We all have our roots in the countryside

Gloucester Cattle Market, 1958

Gloucester's rural heritage: The cattle market in 1958 - Credit: Gloucestershire Archives

Farming life in the Cotswolds with the Countryfile presenter

Adam Henson – May 2022 

Are you a town mouse or a country mouse? It’s a question that’s been asked for centuries, and the story of the two rodents with totally different tastes is probably best-known from the Beatrix Potter version, The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse. I’m a second-generation tenant farmer from the Cotswolds but I love the buzz of Birmingham and Bristol, and need my fix of big shopping malls, great restaurants and a good night out. So I’m definitely a country mouse but I’ve got a streak of town mouse in my blood!  

I suppose it just proves that the old rivalries between rural and urban, country life versus city life, are a bit artificial. Every one of us has roots in the countryside; even if you grew up in the bustle of London, Manchester or Newcastle, you’ve got farming ancestors somewhere in the family tree. The agricultural labourer, carter, plough-boy or dairy-maid in your family may be only three or four generations back. It’s the same with the places where we live and work. Where today there are bright lights, there used to be bales and livestock. 

The world’s newest city is the Essex holiday resort of Southend-on-Sea, granted city status on March 1 this year in honour of its long-serving MP, the late Sir David Amess. He had campaigned for the distinction of city ranking for years, and you can understand why. The urban area of Southend is home to 300,000 people, it has an international airport, two direct railway lines to London and a university campus. But how many people realise that Southend was originally a clutch of farms and poor fishermen’s huts at the South End of the neighbouring village of Prittlewell? Until the 1880s a gardener lived in an isolated thatched cottage on a country lane leading to the shore; today the cottage site is occupied by a fast food restaurant and the lane is now the city centre High Street.  

Change has been slower in other places, and my nearest city, Gloucester, still shows the signs of its rural heritage. Westgate Street is one of four Roman roads which meet at a crossroads in the heart of the city, and for hundreds of years it brought traders, drovers and shepherds in from the Forest of Dean and Wales on market day. As recently as the 1920s, wooden farm waggons were being built in Westgate Street, in the shadow of the world-famous cathedral. Further up the street is a wonderfully preserved four-storey Tudor building which became a seed merchant’s store in Victorian times, staying in business there until 1989. More than three decades after it closed, the tiled step at the front of the building is still adorned with the name of the old agricultural firm, ‘Winfields’.  

Gloucester has been a city since Roman times, but this summer it will be joined by one or two more, when new Jubilee cities are announced to mark the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. More than 30 locations are vying for city status, and most of them have their roots firmly in farming. For instance, Reading in Berkshire is a town built on wheat and barley when biscuit-making and brewing employed hundreds of thousands of local people; Boston in Lincolnshire used to supply a third of London’s grain; Blackburn in Lancashire was once described as ‘all milk and butter farms’; and Crewe was where fortunes were made at the great Cheshire cheese fairs. I’ll be fascinated to find out who wins – and discover the back-stories of our first ever Platinum Jubilee cities. 

Follow Adam on Twitter: @AdamHenson

Cotswold Farm Park, 01451 850307; cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk