Coming Soon: The Age Of Exurbia

I bought land in Devon. Now I’m part of a megatrend. 
I started prepping for Coronavirus in September 2019, after I heard about Disease X.   A World Health Organisation staffer told me of plans to war-game a major pandemic –  create a dummy Situation Room where various luminaries would form a world government once deaths reach a million.
The world ignored them then, but I didn’t ignore them.
In November 2019 I bought an acre of land in the West Country at auction, without even seeing the plot.   
After the hammer fell, I did my research. It took about a day to pinpoint the exact location of my remote field, in a hamlet of smallholdings dotted with sheds and horseboxes. At least I have neighbours.
Some of those neighbours won’t welcome an outsider, especially now. 

But they will have to learn to accept people like me.  I am part of a megatrend. As successive waves of the pandemic break over Western society, hundreds of thousands of newly-unemployed workers from the big cities may begin to think along similar lines. After all, how long will the state be able to pay everyone even a basic income? The gig economy is set to explode, and many of those part-time jobs can be done from anywhere with a phone and a computer.

Zoom Boom

The move from the suburbs to remote rural locations started a decade ago, as the ratio of house prices to income steadily increased. That migration is turning from a trickle to a flood. This is set to to be the Age of Exurbia, defined by Washington Think Tank the Brookings Institution as places at least an hour from the nearest city, with housing density in the bottom quartile. And the boom in video-conferencing during the lockdown has shown tens of millions there is a way to stay in touch with friends, family and work colleagues. That will be a huge benefit to the environment.

 Academics and demographers pooh-pooh the idea of a really major exodus from the cities, pointing to a lack of broadband and scarcity of medical facilities.  These are serious obstacles, but if you are determined to leave the city behind there are two ways to overcome them.  One is to make do without broadband, live a disconnected life, and ensure that your community includes a doctor, or at least a nurse.
This has its attractions, but I chose another way: my newly acquired land was purchased for its location – near one of the greatest concentrations of internet bandwidth in the United Kingdom – Morwenstow, the northernmost parish of Cornwall, and home to GCHQ’s  Composite Signals Organisation Station. In other words, the nerve centre for hundreds of spooks. There are excellent community hospitals in the area.

“If you think the world will end tomorrow, plant a tree today”

 I’d bought my agricultural acre both as an escape route from society, but also to plant a wood. I even managed to secure a small grant from a division of the Woodland Trust.  
Separately I applied to the local council for permitted development approval for a large shed (6 metres by 5 metres), with a woodburner and a composting toilet.   This, I argued, would be needed to manage the wood efficiently.  

Permission was recently granted and I expect to complete building in early summer,as long as I can purchase the materials, with the help of a local husband and wife team who are isolating together.
For my wood, I have opted for a mixed English broadleaf wood rather than the serried ranks of conifers which are depressingly common in the area.   I chose shrubs like Blackthorn around the outside.  Willow, Oak, Alder, Hazel will make up the bulk, with the tallest trees in the middle.
In years to come, the wood will benefit the environment in many ways, and also benefit the local community.  After all – they helped to plant it after I put out a call on Facebook seeking volunteers.
They will use my shed to make tea and shelter from adverse conditions. 
I had been planning to hire a local farmer to plough the field with a tractor, but that would have turned it into a quagmire during the soaking months of February and March.
Instead I invested in some local scythers. Three men turned up in a 1950s LandRover. They looked like The Detectorists from the BBC series starring Toby Jones. Instead of metal detectors they had long handled Austrian scythes which they honed frequently, as they slowly scythed their way through bracken and overgrown grass without disturbing the earth beneath, saving all sorts of tiny wildlife from abrupt eviction.

Each tree requires a stake to be pounded in the ground, then a spade-slit for the tiny sapling itself.  The tree-guard slides over the tree and is fastened to the stake and presto – add ten years and you have a mature English woodland. 
Its a laborious process and by the end of the first day my wonderful volunteers and I had only scythed half the field and planted 150 trees.  Out of 500
We headed back up the track expecting to return a week later.  But then came Coronavirus. The second day of planting never happened.
The remaining saplings are stored in a trench on the land. They need planting soon.
Surely there must be a way to get those trees in the ground.  We don’t want to spread the virus, but we do want to deal with the climate emergency. We must deal with the climate emergency. In a recent poll released by Evian, 68% of us think benefits to the environment – clean air, less noise, less consumption are the silver lining in the giant cloud which is Covid-19.

Those saplings symbolize the choice we must all make now, not at some abstract point in the future. If they die a little bit dies in all of us. The time to step in and restore the environment is now.

I am back in London – in the lockdown, but if you live near Morwenstow, and you want to join the group of volunteers who will shortly go out and plant trees, please email me now.

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