Rural Reads V: The Fat of the Land
When lockdown was announced early in 2020, it was only a few weeks before the exodus began: wave after wave of city dwellers started fleeing to rural villages, buying-up quaint cottages, converted barns and expensive new-builds. Nobody wanted to live in the city anymore. The end of the office – and its evil sibling, the commute – meant that people could suddenly live wherever they wanted, provided it had a good internet connection for all those online meetings. House prices soared, especially those properties with a bit of outdoor space: dilapidated houses that had languished on the market for years were suddenly snapped-up, so long as they offered a garden and a room that could be turned into a home office.
This idea of the countryside as “an escape” – rather than just a brief “rural retreat” – may seem a product of our troubled times, but really it is as old as the hills. For the urbanite, the countryside suggests more space and a slower pace; in wilder dreams, it might signify an escape from the relentless rat-race, and a doorway into 'the good life'.
...full of fascinating insights about their life, from preserving and foraging all the way to the rearing and slaughtering of one’s own pigs…
By the 1950s, writer John Seymour had already escaped from London, having convinced his mother to send him to agricultural college instead of inheriting his father’s manufacturing business. After his marriage to Sally Medworth, a potter from London, they moved first into his boat, and then to rural Suffolk to settle in a quirky cottage, the Broom, in the middle of nowhere.
The Fat of the Land, published in 1961, charts these chaotic early years of their marriage, following them as they set-up their home at the Broom and begin to explore the rhythms of self-sufficiency. It is full of fascinating insights about their life, from preserving and foraging all the way to the rearing and slaughtering of one’s own pigs…
In many ways, John and Sally’s journey towards self-sufficiently was inevitable, considering their remote location. John explains early in The Fat of the Land that they “never had any real conscious drive to self-sufficiency”, but living miles away from anywhere to buy milk, eggs and meat, without a car, meant grow-your-own made sense: “For every single thing we wanted we had to go a mile and a half to the village to buy it”.
John is at his most enthusiastic when championing the impact of traditional mixed farming. Today, the scale of most modern farming practice requires vast quantities of chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics and fertilisers – to replicate benefits of simple, ancient crop-rotation. The Fat of the Land champions the mixed farming method, which involves rotating different types of crops and livestock around the land, enriching the soil and avoiding the build-up of disease and parasites without the need of chemicals. The result: higher animal welfare and organic produce.
At the Broom in 1954, the Seymours owned three and a half acres (or 14,164 square metres) of land. A 2020 survey found that the average garden size in Great Britain is 188 square metres: approximately 1.5% of what John Seymour had...
As keen amateur preservers ourselves, we were also fascinated by the world of pickling, jam-making, bottling and brewing that John depicts. The endless task of making seasonal harvests last throughout the year is described like a military operation: “the house is – or should be – the firm base for all the campaigns outside: somewhere to fall back on, and recuperate, and attack from again”. Anyone who has watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Escape to River Cottage will understand the stamina (and bravery) required when faced with the daunting task of butchering and preserving a whole pig to ensure that nothing is wasted.
As a practical guide, The Fat of the Land is not very useful: if this is what you are after, we will point you in the direction of his 1976 The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (recently republished as The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, with a foreword by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall). Instead, The Fat of the Land is a funny, personal book: a window into a family trying to live the best life they could imagine.
Reading between the lines, however, it is clear that the Broom was not always a happy household. There is an underlying tension between John’s focus on self-sufficiency and Sally’s attempts to balance her creativity and the bringing-up of their three children. Getting enough time to pursue her interests in pottery and painting must have been an ongoing challenge. While they hired help for many household tasks, there was clearly never enough time. Anne Sears, one of their children, explains in the foreword to The Fat of the Land that there was little time for fun: “It was sometimes tough for us children growing up with my parents’ chosen lifestyle; there was little time for play. Life was full to the brim and they both have their own interests which took up more space than we did.”
One of the challenges of The Fat of the Land is the impossibility of achieving John’s dream of self-sufficiency in Britain today. This is a point he acknowledges this in the afterword to the book, written thirteen years later. John and Sally belonged to a time, a generation, and a class for whom land and labour were cheap. At the Broom in 1954, the Seymours owned three and a half acres (or 14,164 square metres) of land. A 2020 survey by the Office for National Statistics found that the average garden size in Great Britain is 188 square metres: approximately 1.5% of what John Seymour had, and which he described as “a piece of land which is no more than that family’s fair share of the land surface of its country”. The Seymours struggled to support themselves on 3.5 acres; what are we likely to achieve with a fraction of that?
Despite this, the lessons in The Fat of the Land are still valid and valuable. Self-sufficiency may be an unrealistic dream for most people in Britain today, but it is a relief to find that the Seymours were far from self-sufficient themselves. They relied on a community of friends and hired help to keep themselves afloat. Some of us may still harbour a dream of sustaining ourselves entirely from our own land, but John makes it clear that finding ways of avoiding mass-production and global supply-chains is more important than growing, rearing and building everything completely yourself, and that’s certainly a lesson we can apply today.
So, despite the fact that our garden is much smaller than the national average, we spent our weekend preparing our vegetable beds for next year. If you’ve seen any of our Garden Diaries posts, you’ll have seen that we have given almost all of our tiny garden space over to raised beds and trellises for growing our own produce. We may not have enough space for chickens, geese, pigs and a cow, but if we work hard, we should be able to supply most of our summer and autumn vegetable needs next year, with enough left over for pickles and preserves.
It may be an impossible dream; but some dreams can help us to make the right choices.