Monday 22 February 2016

Town and Country by Kate Lord Brown

The thought of a flock of sheep running wild in Cavendish Square seems bizarre to say the least, but in the eighteenth century it was all part of the trend to create ‘rus in urbe’. Then as now, the emulation of country life was promoted as a soothing therapy for the stresses of life in the capital. Not everyone was convinced. As John Stuart said of the Cavendish Square fiasco in 1771‘to see the poor things starting at every coach, and hurrying round their narrow bounds requires a warm imagination indeed to concert the scene into that of flocks ranging in fields with all the concomitant ideas of innocence and pastoral life … The ‘rus in urbe’ is a preposterous idea at best’.

Some would say there has always been a strong element of the country in town – you only have to look at the number of 4x4s, Labradors and Barbour jackets in Fulham. Indeed, it is over two hundred years since the great royal parks, garden squares and pleasure gardens came to life. The parks still enjoyed today were famously described as the ‘lungs of London’ by William Pitt in 1808, and the face of the capital was transformed by the eighteenth century fashion for all things picturesque and rustic. At Richmond, Charles Bridgeman turned the royal gardens into a pastoral idyll, introducing ‘cultivated fields and morsels of forest appearance’ according to Walpole. John Nash inspired the exodus to the suburbs with his developments at Park Villages East and West. Soon speculative developments of lesser villas were springing up all around the fringes of the capital, capitalising on the burgeoning desire of the middle classes to live like the gentry in country houses near to town.

In the eighteenth century, the rural idyll became a panacea for urban ills, restoring and comforting the body and mind of the frazzled Londoner. Trips to holiday villages like Islington were immensely popular. Those who could afford it built themselves rustic cottages and follies, such as Dr Johnson’s summerhouse at Kenwood. As ever, some had a naïve view of the delights of country living. James Malton described in 1798 how ‘the greatly affluent involuntarily sigh as they behold the modest care excluding mansions of the lowly contented.’

As a major capital London still has the benefit of some of the best green public spaces in the world. Lose yourself on a spring day on Hampstead Heath or Wimbledon Common and you feel like you are a million miles from the centre of town.

Look at a map of London, and you will see that the heart of the city is alive with green areas. The other half of Dr Johnson’s famous quote about the capital says ‘there is in London all that life can afford’. Nowhere is this clearer than where town meets country. There may no longer be sheep in Cavendish Square, but ‘Rus in urbe’ is a luxury we can't afford to be without.

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

I didn't know that the parks were only two hundred years old. I love them. I suppose it's like having a river running through a city - the river sets off the city and vice versa, and so do the parks. But also, yes, a little bit of countryside; I lived in London for a short while years ago, and the parks - particularly St James's - were such a refuge.