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Jonathan Self: ‘Town folk know pleasures, country people joys’

Live in a village and you'll live longer, says Jonathan Self — just be prepared for everyone to know your business.

One of the most useful skills that any country dweller can possess — assuming that they can’t afford that most basic of necessities, a butler (in our case due to an eccentric decision to feed, clothe and educate the children), and thus have no one to tell unexpected visitors that they are not at home — is the ability to hide quickly.

Since the death of our goose, who used to greet callers with a honking loud enough to wake the dead, we have depended on two far less reliable early-warning systems: the sound of car wheels going over the cattle grid at the end of the drive and the dogs. The former only works for motorised visitors, the latter when the dogs can be bothered.

We are, as it happens, very sociable. Our kitchen door is never locked, we keep a kettle permanently simmering on the stove and neighbours know that they are always welcome to come in and make themselves at home. However, there are times when one is trying to do something quite difficult — say, think — and it is preferable to remain undisturbed.

Given that I can easily be seen through the study window, my policy, on becoming aware of an untimely caller approaching the house, is to dive onto the floor and lie there until they go away.

“Bless you, no. We all know how you duck down when you don’t want to be disturbed”

This morning I was just wondering if I had made a mistake — I had been staring at the underside of my desk, straining my ears and trying to stop Elsa from licking my face for five long minutes — when I discovered I was not alone. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ said an unexpected voice, ‘but I just wanted to ask you about the fencing for the back field.’ Clearly, its owner could have taught Chingachgook a thing or two.

When we had finished our conversation, and I was rising to show my visitor out, I asked him if he had been surprised to find me in a recumbent position. ‘Bless you, no. We all know how you duck down when you don’t want to be disturbed’, proving that Charles Spurgeon was right when he said: ‘A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass.’

This, to my mind, is one of the reasons why village life is so attractive. Villagers know, understand and are tolerant of each other’s foibles. Geography and proximity come into it, of course, but it is really all about relationships, common interests and shared history. Interestingly, there is research proving that belonging to a strong village community leads to a longer, healthier life.

In 1961, Stuart Wolf, a doctor, launched what was to become a major, 50-year study of the population of Roseto, Pennsylvania, in the US. Wolf had noticed that its inhabitants were considerably healthier than the average American. To offer one example, they were half as likely to suffer a heart attack. Why? The residents were of Italian descent. Indeed, their families had, almost without exception, come from another village called Roseto, which lies in the Apennine foothills about 100 miles from Rome.

The researchers had ruled out diet, genes, exercise and location before they worked out the answer. Rosetans visited their neighbours, chatted in the street, cooked for one another and helped each other. Many homes had three generations living under one roof. Everyone went to church. The rich did not flaunt their wealth; the poor were looked after. They formed a tight-knit community and it had the effect of making them healthier and happier. As Minna Antrim pointed out: ‘Town folk know pleasures, country people joys.’