The hidden terrors of the countryside

It is time for town-dwellers to be very brave. We are about to venture into the perilous unknown. There is a place, according to no less an authority than the director-general of the National Trust, which is “alien” and “full of unfamiliar, unexpected things”. Today’s generation, Dame Fiona Reynolds has warned, “runs the risk of being terrified by the countryside”.

She is right. For millions of people, a world without streets, houses, buses, takeaways and video shops will seem hostile and scary. There are very real dangers in the countryside, and for those brave souls who are thinking of spending a weekend there, maybe even longer, it is worth knowing some of the more obvious threats which could be lurking around the next hedgerow.

The dawn chorus. You know how annoying it is when someone sits near you on a train with an iPod chattering at full volume. Multiply that experience by a hundred, and then imagine being assaulted by the sound at five in the morning! Unlike the town, the country will stress you out even while you are still in bed.

The village shop. In the civilised world, shopping is simple. You want to buy something. You enter a supermarket. You queue. You pay. You leave. The countryside is different. There you drive miles to buy something. If, by some fluke, you find it, you wait while, in front of you, various arcane forms of social bonding ritual take place. An old codger is collecting his prescription and has forgotten his name. A child is selecting her weekly sweet rations and is picking them, sweet by sweet, from a number of large glass jars. Its mother then needs to discuss every lottery ticket as she buys them, and then has an important matter to discuss (a neighbour’s cat has gone missing). When finally you reach the front of the queue, the shopkeeper wants to talk about the weather.

Mushrooms. Away from towns, the simplest things become mysteriously complicated. Normally, a decision to make a nice risotto al funghi will involve a trip to a local delicatessen. In the country, it can kill you. The things are growing everywhere at this time of year, and yet the merest nibble from a tasty-looking bit of fungi can leave you on dialysis for life, or worse. In the autumn, it is a common sight to find an urban visitor, prostrate, twitching and frothing at the mouth, beside a footpath, having unwisely partaken of “nature’s bounty”.

Children on bicycles. Health and safety has yet to reach the countryside. One can be driving down a windy country road, sound system blaring, tyres squealing as you put the new motor through its paces when – Bloody hell! – there, taking up most of the road, is a gang of children on their bicycles. And whose fault is it if you happen to wing a couple of the smut-faced sprogs as you floor the throttle coming out of a bend? Don’t even bother to ask.

Farmers. “A lot of people,” says Dame Fiona Reynolds, “aren’t confident in setting off for a walk.” No kidding, Dame Fiona. In London, you would not have to think twice before strolling across the grass of Regent’s Park. In the wilds, a walk will invariably end in disaster. What to any normal person looks like slightly threadbare grass turns out to be new-mown wheat. A ruddy-cheeked psychopath in a battered Range Rover will appear out of nowhere and roar at you like a bull. A discussion of the laws of trespass, threatening behaviour and slander will get you nowhere. Remember two things on these occasions: 1) there is still a lot of inbreeding in the countryside; 2) all farmers are armed to the teeth.

Darkness. Suddenly, it is as if you are in the most terrifying computer game imaginable – a world where there are no street lamps, where you can see absolutely nothing. A real, live owl starts hooting at you. Something is barking nearby. A fox? A hedgehog? A rutting stag? A village idiot? A werewolf?

Get in the car and head for the nearest city lights.

Independent, Friday, 12 November 2010