Fringe First Award winner, Emily Jenkins talks about the devastating effects of Foot and Mouth Disease on her home town and how it pushed her to write Bobby & Amy.

Remember Foot and Mouth Disease?

I do. I grew up in the countryside in the late nineties / early noughties, and I remember the burning cows on the bonfire, the smell of disinfectant, and the bright yellow tape strung across every gate and sty. I remember my friends and I, aged 15 – who had always freely roamed the rolling fields – suddenly being confined to concrete and tarmac.

Even for those who didn’t experience it first hand, remember that weird time when, for a while, no one would eat British Lamb and Beef?

In February 2001, Foot and Mouth was discovered at an Essex abattoir and it quickly spread across the UK. The highly infectious disease, which mainly affected cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, plunged the agricultural industry into its worst crisis for decades. During the outbreak over 6 million cows and sheep were killed in an eventually successful attempt to halt the disease. However, the devastation it left behind lasted much longer.

The day the cows started burning, my community was changed forever. At first glance it’s still a beautiful rural idyll – the old Cotswold stone houses are still standing, the local church’s famous stained-glass windows still pull in the tourists and the local pub still serves a great shepherd’s pie. But look a little closer and things are very different: the farm and farm shop are long gone; the butcher has his meat shipped in; the local mechanic went out of work because his speciality was farm equipment; the independent, family-run pharmacy is now a Boots and much of the farm land has now been bought and built on by faceless corporations to provide new homes to city-dwellers who only visit at weekends.  As for the people themselves, some of the old faces are still there but many have been forced to pack up and leave the homes that generations of their families lived in.

Things have changed. Big time. But, as a Gloucestershire-raised writer and director, it struck me that nothing in the theatre I’d seen – or anything, really – was talking about an event that deeply affected the childhood of so many of us, or about the continuing erosion of a way of life centuries in the making.

Part of it is the fact that our news, our information, and our interests are so city-centric. There’s a pervading feeling that if something happens out in the sticks, what does it really matter?

The truth is it matters a lot. 71% of our land in the UK is currently being used for farming (it was a great deal more in 2000), and agriculture and fishing add close to £11 billion to our economy. We rely on agricultural for pretty much everything: the food we eat – I mean think about it: meat, eggs, cereals, fruit, veg, alcohol(!) – it’s the main source of renewable energy; it can protect and maintain species and habitats; and farmland plays an important environmental role for us acting as a carbon sink. Not only that, but it provides over 500,000 jobs to the UK.

Basically, British agriculture is pretty damn great.

Many are afraid that things are about to get worse again as, with Brexit approaching, the UK agricultural economy, which relies hugely on Europe for funding and trade, is about to enter another period of uncertainty and chaos.

Whilst this happens, with the continuing ‘regeneration’ by private companies taking place in many regional towns as well as London and beyond, entire communities’ lives and realities are being disrupted on a daily basis. Thanks to urbanisation and gentrification, no one can afford to live in the places in which they grew up, or even where they work. That’s a big issue in London particularly. Therefore, all this is stuff is important to talk about, because it feeds into a problem that encompasses country and city alike. 

So that’s why I wrote Bobby & Amy. To talk about what has happened to my town and others like it. And to celebrate British agriculture, small rural communities and the huge amount they contribute to the wider world.

(It’s also a bit of a love letter to the nineties. To Take That, Tamagotchis, Dib Dabs, and Pog Swaps. To Kickers, hair mascara, and curtain hair-cuts. Man, those were the days!)

So here’s to all that, and to growing up in a truly magical place where cows dotted across every field and the sun always shone (ok, maybe my spectacles are a little rose-tinted, it’s still British weather we’re talking about).

Bobby & Amy will play from 6 – 10 March. For more information, check out the Vault Festival website.