Rebecca Smith

Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside

Rural paperback cover

Publisher: William Collins
ISBN: 9780008526313
Number of pages: 256

Available to order from Bookshop.orgHiveFoylesBlackwell’sWater­stones and Amazon.

A revelatory history of the communities and individuals that have shaped the British countryside, Rebecca Smith’s exquisitely written account brings little-known rural roles and practices into the light whilst also emphasising the precarity for those whose lives are entangled in the natural landscape.

Work in the countryside ties you, soul and salary, to the land, but often those who labour in nature have the least control over what happens there.

Starting with Smith’s own family history – foresters in Cumbria, miners in Derbyshire, millworkers in Nottinghamshire, builders of reservoirs and the Manchester Ship Canal – Rural is an exploration of our green and pleasant land, and the people whose labour has shaped it.

Beautifully observed, these are the stories of professions and communities that often go overlooked. Smith shows the precarity for those whose lives are entangled in the natural landscape. And she traces how these rural working-class worlds have changed. As industry has transformed – mines closing, country estates shrinking, farmers struggling to make profit on a pint of milk, holiday lets increasing so relentlessly that local people can no longer live where they were born – we are led to question the legacy of the countryside in all our lives.

This is a book for anyone who loves and longs for the countryside, whose family owes something to a bygone trade, or who is interested in the future of rural Britain.

Longlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2024

Shortlisted for Lakeland Book of the Year 2024

A BBC Radio 4 Non-fiction Book of the Year 2023


‘[T]his intensely personal investigation of rural people’s working lives … is both eye-opening and persuasive… effective and affecting. Smith is trying to understand what it means to work on the land but not own it… This is not just a polemical book. It is more generous and ambitious. “It feels we are only at the beginning of understanding how our country was really built,” Smith writes. And books like this, which look at history from new vantage points, and with fresh eyes, are part of that new beginning.’ – SUNDAY TIMES

‘Its most memorable passages resound with all the get-off-our-land fury of a gamekeeper’s shotgun… How we manage people’s competing claims to ownership of places is one of the great questions for the world in the 21st century. As Rural shows, the British countryside is a good example of how not to do it.’ – OBSERVER

‘[An] intelligent, multifaceted exploration of working-class life in the British countryside… it is to Smith’s huge credit that she achieves her aim with the book, of revealing parts of society that are too often simply forgotten.’ –INDEPENDENT

‘A brilliant book about another side of working-class life, not a tower block in sight. Clever and honest, tackling slavery, loss and aspiration with humour and candour. I loved it.’ – KIT DE WAAL, author of My Name is Leon

‘Rural is a book about the vast social changes that are often difficult to spot from the outside, and the villages where an appearance of timeless serenity is maintained by heritage paints and second-homers.’ – TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

‘Part memoir and part historical document, what emerges is a love letter to life in the countryside and a distinctive rural working-class identity. As Smith and countless others attest, rural life may be challenging, but it’s a lifestyle worth defending.’ – DAZED

‘[A] considered and considerate book… her analysis is acute and dislodging and revelatory. It is also very self-aware, in a good way, the author constantly cross-examining herself on the ambiguities and paradoxes of what the rural life really means… Smith has written something which does not reduce the world to easy answers but revels in its difficulty.’ – SCOTSMAN

‘The author’s understanding of the land, innate curiosity of people that live off it, and emotional connection to it makes her book an educational and moving read that I believe no matter where you fit in society, you can enjoy… But most importantly, her work is a voice for working class people in rural communities from the past to the present day whose voices have so often been overlooked… Smith beautifully stitches together the beauty, tragedy and comedy that underpins rural communities today making her book a fascinating history lesson.’ – SCOTSMAN MAGAZINE

‘Smith is alert to the fact that when we aestheticise the countryside we mistake natural beauty for something that has been largely shaped by human labour, and, because we define that beauty as belonging to nature, we fail to value the labour and the lives of working people who live on the land today… unsentimental, clear-sighted accounts of the realities of rural life.’ – LITERARY REVIEW

‘A thoughtful, moving, honest book that questions what it means to belong to a place when it can never belong to you: a timely and illuminating exploration of the lives of the countryside working class. Rural reminds us that human stories lie at the heart of the land ownership debate—and that a feeling for place traverses the class divide.’ – CAL FLYN, author of Islands of Abandonment

‘A shrewd, inquisitive and enlightening guide to a vitally important aspect of the nation… While Rural has an undertone of melancholy with centuries-old social injustice burning through every chapter, Smith’s writing is good enough and the personal anecdotes uplifting enough to keep the book a lively rather than depressing read. It feels like the introduction of an important new voice to landscape writing in post-Brexit Britain and, importantly, one speaking from a perspective too long underrepresented.’ – NEW EUROPEAN

‘Smith explores these issues without turning the book into a polemic, leaving room for nuance and difficult questions… Rural explores the diverse lives and industries entangled in the natural landscape and how they’ve changed. It’s a personal and insightful read for anyone who wants to get under the skin of Britain’s green and pleasant land.’ – GEOGRAPHICAL MAGAZINE

‘Rural sets out to identify some of the huge and near-invisible changes to rural life that have occurred in recent decades… should be considered by anyone with an interest in the future of the British countryside.’ – COUNTRY LIFE MAGAZINE

‘[Smith’s] perspective is nuanced, coming to positions through discovery and weighing all views rather than lecturing the reader. That makes her critiques all the more powerful: she persuasively shows how Britain has treated its rural working classes – past and present – with contempt, harshness and insecurity. With rural workers too often absent from conversations on British industrial history, books like Smith’s are a welcome corrective.’ – NEW HUMANIST

Rural tenderly reveals the precarious lives that underpin the beauty and the wealth of our countryside. Essential reading for lovers of the land and its people.’ – KATHERINE MAY, author of Wintering

Rural is a refreshing and necessary reminder that … we should all aspire to be generous caretakers of rural environments and properly appreciate the skills, resilience and perspectives of the working people that sustain them.’ –QUIETUS

‘A corrective to a one-sided story of ownership and control … restores the drowned voices of those who weren’t heard in their own lifetimes. Her style gives the lie to the lingua franca of scholarly pursuit – at once entertaining and conversational, the reader is surprised by Smith’s depth of investigative acuity…[Smith] has an extraordinary feeling for the past and its underpinning of the present.’ – YORKSHIRE TIMES

‘Brilliant… deeply thought out… packed with affecting scenes.’ – CUMBRIA LIFE MAGAZINE, BOOK OF THE MONTH

‘It is a wonderful book, beautifully conceived in its movement between different dimensions of a rural working life, Smith’s and her family’s and all the others, both past and present. So immediate and clearly seen, so gracefully and gently written.’ – ADAM NICOLSON, author of Life Between the Tides