FOUR WALLS: A place in the country

FOUR WALLS: A place in the country - One City intern, born and bred to roam the countryside but who accidentally found himself condemned to a life sentence in SW54, finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition and broke free from his well-paid white-collar job t

by RORY ROSS, a freelance journalist and property owner
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

One City intern, born and bred to roam the countryside but who accidentally found himself condemned to a life sentence in SW54, finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition and broke free from his well-paid white-collar job to rediscover his hayseed roots. So he bought a farm and a few animals.

He built pigsties, chicken coops and milking parlours, thinking they'd blend in nicely with the countryside. But within two years the whole thing had turned into a nightmare. Trudging daily across the iron-hard soil in the depths of winter, making sure his animals were secure, fed and watered proved a Sisyphean struggle. And when he finally gave up and fled back to the City, he found his menagerie wasn't worth anything like what he'd paid for it.

Not even the smartest among us appreciate that the countryside is a luxury.

Hedges, ditches and trees need as much TLC as the urban infrastructure.

But farming and estate management are in their most parlous state since the war, with the poor farmer cast as the villain by those who don't know how hard farming is.

Traditional farms are packed with buildings unsuitable for modern farming.

There's hardly a stable block in the country big enough to house a small battery-chicken farm. And try parking a combine harvester in a space meant for a horse and cart. Clearly, there is a big motivation for landowners to find new sources of income while preserving the architectural heritage.

Rural regeneration programmes are designed to develop non-agricultural ways of generating income from the countryside without ripping it up.

What does this mean in practice? According to apostles of rural regeneration, any hovel with four walls and a roof could, with imagination and a small leap of faith, be the start-up base of the new Microsoft. At the very least, stable blocks, garages, pigsties and chicken coops can be made to pay for themselves and provide enough surplus to keep surrounding land in trim. One man's empty pigsty is another man's biotech lab.

'Rural regeneration can turn an asset that costs money into one that makes money,' says Rupert Ponsonby, whose family have been pillars of the Oxfordshire gentry for generations. 'It revives the local economy by bringing business to shops that are otherwise dead during the day; it provides increased rateable income for the county; and it keeps cars off the roads.'

All of this makes perfect sense, so why isn't everyone doing it? It isn't that easy. Try to do something in the countryside and someone will try to stop you - the National Trust, English Heritage, the county council, a neighbour, your bank manager. But these hurdles can be leapt, and a well- run estate can last generations.

The value of an estate building depends on its proximity to a city. Close by, even the smallest hut can be let out to one-man band operations; a space of 5,000 to 10,000 sq ft allows enough room for a biotech minnow or software tiddler to splash about in. Marry this to the modern management realisation that to motivate, inspire and retain good staff requires a stimulating, stress-free working environment, and there's every incentive to look afresh at any old pile of bricks and mortar.

Many estate owners have already done something towards rural regeneration, even if it's only letting out stables for dry flower arranging, candle-making or art centres. Lord Rotherwick has set the lead in Oxfordshire by turning the stable blocks at Cornbury Park into a fine suite of offices.

There may even be a little light industry. An estate originally built for, say, 60 people will have plenty of space, but whereas in farming yore the workers turned up to milk cows at 5am, today they're more likely to roll up in a BMW after a 20-minute drive tacked on to the school run.

And why leave all this entrepreneurial zeal at the front door? One member of the Staffordshire squirearchy with a 5,000-acre estate is not only converting his outbuildings into a high-tech business park, he is also turning his house into a mind-expansion centre for burnt-out executives thinking of going into farming.

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