‘Country Life is Britain’s one serious magazine that is relentlessly happy’: Sir Simon Jenkins on 125 years of Country Life magazine

Author, journalist and former National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins — who began his career at Country Life as an up-and-coming scribe — marks the magazine's 125th anniversary by considering what Country Life does each week, and why it matters so much.

This article appears in Country Life’s 125th anniversary special commemorative issue, on sale now at all good retailers — or you can buy the issue online from Magazines Direct. You can also subscribe, getting six issues of Country Life for just £6.

Country Life is Britain’s one serious magazine that is relentlessly happy. Each week, my hand hovers over the heap of pessimism and gloom lying on my doormat. Irresistibly, it moves to a glimmer of light in the darkness, to a reminder that there is still beauty to be found in Britain’s natural and manmade environment. If ever I had to put the British Isles on the property market, I would smother it in copies of Country Life.

One hundred and twenty-five years is a good span of history. Memory is dead, but recognition still alive. Much of Britain at the turn of the 20th century would be familiar today. Suburbs were heaving with commuters. Schools and hospitals were proliferating and houses and businesses humming with electric power. Hypermobility was coming of age. Above all, an overwhelmingly urban population was discovering Octavia Hill’s ‘life-enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky’.

The magazine founded by Edward Hudson in 1897 was intended to aid that discovery. Initially, it was an upper-crust assistance. Hudson was no farmer or forester. He took a gentleman’s delight in the joys of the country, his obituary recording that ‘all his life he searched for beauty, for himself and for his beloved Country Life’. But Hudson was also a Liberal. He saw rural Britain not only as a rich playground for the emergent middle class, but suffering from the effects of industry, with its agriculture in desperate need of support.

Country Life Agriculture number front cover, from June 1941.

Early contents reflected Hudson’s diverse interests. They carried reports on agricultural shows, Cruft’s ‘kennel notes’, ‘golfing pastures’ — he was a golf fanatic — and the heady joy of early motoring. Some were self-consciously esoteric, discussing Italian portraiture, Lough Corrib mayfly or using silver birch for ‘witches’ brooms’. Readers were expected to return from a day’s hunting or fishing to discuss fine art, fine clothes and, above all, fine buildings. If there were such people as Renaissance countrymen, Country Life was for them.

By the 1920s, travel writer H. V. Morton was begging his readers to use their new-fangled private transport to get out and explore. He saw an England liberated by cars to ‘return to the old thatch… if not for the sake of our bodies perhaps for the sake of our souls’. Tradition was upheld. A 1940 copy of Country Life assiduously reviewed ‘the first hunting season of the war’, with the writer ‘having myself to do the whipping in as our Albert is now a trooper’. But next door was an editorial on the need for an agricultural workers’ bill.

Hudson’s countryside was not simply a source of health-giving vitality as championed by Hill and the new National Trust. It was an aesthetic whole, with his magazine as arbiter of its multiple beauties. The rustic masthead was Arts-and-Crafts (and still is). Writers promoted the works of William Morris, Philip Webb and Edwin Lutyens, the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. The latter’s love of wildness was bequeathed to the garden columnist Christopher Lloyd.

The magazine could not stay a passive observer of rural ritual. Among articles on equine elegance, threatened partridges and ladies’ tweeds were campaigns to save Box Hill from development, to promote art exhibitions and back the Trust’s houses scheme. The signature articles on English domestic architecture were a feature from the start and were emphatically not only about ‘stately homes’. The first house to be eulogised was Baddesley Clinton, a romantic revival of a Midlands moated manor. Country Life not only promoted ‘the lesser country house’, but held competitions for its design.

Country Life, 26 May 1977.

As a result, Hudson and his circle played a major role in the English stylistic revival of the early 20th century. In 1913, the magazine was referred to by Lord Runciman as ‘keeper of the architectural conscience of the nation’. But more than a conscience needed keeping. With rural (and urban) houses falling on hard times, there was a note of desperation to the pages of property advertisements. They talked of bedrooms by the dozen, staff cottages and ample stabling ‘convenient for the Belvoir’, all in the range of £2,000–£5,000. But where space had been a virtue, it soon became an incubus. By the Second World War, great houses were being demolished at an appalling rate, rising to one a week in the 1950s.

The magazine employed a cadre of architectural writers more appropriate to a university department. It was led by Christopher Hussey from 1920–64 and included H. Avray Tipping, John Cornforth, Mark Girouard and a young Marcus Binney. The style was often academic Pevsner rather than romantic Betjeman, a record of styles and dates. But at a time when houses lacked statutory protection, such a record was vital to the new conservation movement. Hussey himself lived in picturesque Scotney Castle in Kent, but was not hostile to interwar Modernism, even featuring some of its houses. But as Michael Hall recalls, he held firm that revivalism was ‘a more creative response to precedent than Modernism offered’. It was most truly English.

The most extraordinary aspect of the magazine was its continuity, as unchanging in its subject matter as the countryside it sought to perpetuate. It flattered rural dwellers by portraying them as the envy of town dwellers. It kept the two distinct, but established a conversation between them. Rural Britain was not to be seen as a place of drudgery and mud, bleak open spaces and impenetrable roads. Rather, it was seen as a harking back to the genteel 18th-century landscapes and decorous peasantry of George Stubbs.

As the 20th century progressed, one feature of this landscape was new. It could no longer be regarded as infinite space. Especially after the Second World War, the rush ‘out of town’ became a mass migration. The qualities Country Life had prized seemed under threat. The extent of England that was ‘under the plough’ plummeted to 60%, with a further 20% as forest or open space. But 90% of the rural economy now depended not on agriculture, but on commuting to towns, on retirement, leisure, home-working and holiday-making.

A 1961 Country Life Motor Show front cover, with a design by Rowland Hilder.

Country Life thus found itself in a paradox. The more it enticed city dwellers to savour the countryside, the more that countryside was threatened. Intensify development within a city and it is still a city. Develop the country and it ceases to be country. The advent of greenbelts and town and country planning in the 1940s attempted to regulate suburbanisation. In reality, lines were drawn for what has become a running battleground over the defence of rural Britain. On one side are the custodians of the existing countryside and on the other a demographic horde egged on by their allies, the developers. The Surrey field where I patted cows over our garden fence as a boy is now a housing estate stretching to the slopes of the North Downs.

You can almost feel the money in the property pages of Country Life, rendered irresistible by colour printing in the 1990s. Parts of the Home Counties are as expensive per square foot as Italianate west London. A Chiltern cottage costs the same as a Notting Hill mews house. Country Life’s regular ‘Cotswold edition’ might be narrating a Klondike gold rush. Thatch, gables and wide acres have become electronic gates, swimming pools and helipads. Taverns and village stores have given way to gastropubs and organic farm shops.

Country Life cover, 15 April 2015.

What is remarkable is that the new ‘Country Lifers’ appear to be yearning for the same qualities Hudson so valued. They want picturesque villages and discreet manors. They want country sports enjoyed amid a cherished natural beauty. In 2022, Country Life’s blossom still blooms in spring, native ponies need breeding, trout need catching and kitchen gardens need tending. Yes, it can be expensive, but that does not make these things any less important or worthwhile. You can add three noughts to Hudson’s house prices and wonder who on earth can afford them. But people do afford them — which is why I imagine they have never been in better repair.

Where the conversation of town with country may lead is unresolved. As the conservation lobbies constantly point out, there is no need to build over Britain’s green fields and woods. There is ample space for development in ‘brownfield’ areas. Building over surviving green spaces is not a necessity, but a choice.

That is why we must grit our teeth and plan meticulously how much countryside we wish to preserve or we will bequeath swathes of England to our descendants as another New Jersey or Los Angeles. The near collapse since the 2000s of strategic planning control has thrown the future of much of the landscape into doubt. Rare is the county free of conflict between conservation and development, with the money on one side and the odds stacked by Government in favour of building.

In this, I do not see Country Life as a crusading periodical. Its influence on public opinion is more subtle. It is what it has always been, a reminder of what is at stake. This is not only rural industry, homegrown food and energy, important as they are. At stake is something much deeper, the contribution that natural beauty in all its facets should make to a rounded human existence. The magazine’s role is simply to illustrate, week after week, what it is we must defend, as it has faithfully done for a century and a quarter.