The need for speed

Excerpts from an essay, ‘The Countryside’, by Lord Ernle (1851-1937)

My own recollections date back to 1855 – a Golden Age of agriculture for squires and farmers, when the land not only supplied bread to 17,000,000, and meat to the whole, of the existing population, but employed nearly 1,100,000 rural workers. Men ploughed, sowed, reaped, and threshed almost as they had done in Biblical days….

Vintage postcard of haymaking in the English countryside.

Preparations for the coming annihilation of time and distance had hardly begun. Few railways had been built; the mercantile fleet mainly consisted of sailing ships, small in number and carrying capacity; except for short distances no submarine cables had been laid; roads were still barred by turnpike gates, and, off the railways, horses or “hiking” were the only means of land locomotion or conveyance….

Life travels faster than it did. Its pace is no longer set by ploughmen behind their horses in the furrows. But rich in advantages though the change is, those who live by the land – tenant-farmers, landlords, workers, parsons, or tradesmen who depend on their custom – have not found speed an unmixed blessing. With one hand it brings the farmer help, with the other disaster. Speed saves his time, cheapens his production, checks the caprice of climate; but it is also speed that ruins his market by bringing perishable products from the ends of the earth. By innumerable means it has made life easier in the countryside; for all who live by the land it has made it harder to live. But speed clashes with the dominant force of the countryside. Nature refuses to be hustled by mechanics.

However much the handling of her products may be accelerated, her own processes of production remain unhurried. It is from her deliberate methods that rural life derives the air of repose, or, if you will, stagnation, which gives it dignity and independence. If its special needs are wholly sacrificed to urban interests, the country becomes only a poor relation of the town. Road authorities might save expenditure if they more often remembered that cattle can shift their quarters without a Rolls-Royce, and that horses cannot keep their feet on skating rinks.
‘Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts’. Thornton Butterworth Limited, London. 1932.

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