Media Headliner: Country Living chief shows off her rustic charm

Editor Susy Smith's focus on 'soft furnishings alongside hard issues' has proved to be a successful strategy.

There are a few names for the type of woman that lives in the city but does the school run in a giant 4x4 off-roader, wears designer wellies and shrouds her home in Cath Kidston florals. One of the nicer ones is "aspirer" - meaning a city dweller with aspirations to country living.

But the rustic dream is not confined to "Chelsea tractor" drivers. Many urbanites, usually after turning 30 or having children, find themselves suddenly drawn to gardening and harbouring ambitions to live the good life. "Aspirers" are one half of the readership of Country Living, according to its editor, Susy Smith. The other half, the readers who actually live in the countryside, she calls "authentics".

"We have to walk the line between talking to these two audiences who are quite different in some ways," Smith explains. "But it's about presenting a lovely world that is an escape from the dreariness of everyday life."

The Country Living world Smith refers to is a pretty parade of rustic interiors populated by artfully corroded wrought-iron chairs, woven baskets, Agas and the occasional hand-knitted owl. You're no-one in this neighbourhood if you're lacking vintage-patterned cushions or are incapable of baking your own organic cupcakes.

The magazine creates the ultimate middle-class fantasy, the notion of which Smith, its editor of 14 years, couldn't be more proud. "The feelgood factor is really important to us," she says. But those who write off the title, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, as merely frivolous aren't fully acquainted with it. "It has changed people's lives," Smith asserts.

Country Living occupies a unique space among its homes and interiors competitors in that it also tackles weighty countryside matters such as the environment, rural loneliness and farming, albeit with a positive spin. The Country Living team describe the editorial mix as "soft furnishings alongside hard issues". Comical as this sounds, it seems to work. There is no arguing with its circulation figures.

It has just had its seventh consecutive yearly circulation rise and became the bestselling title in the home-interest sector in the last set of ABC figures, leapfrogging IPC's Ideal Home and recording a circulation of 197,891.

Country Living is also responsible for 18 weddings, 11 babies and counting, as a result of its Farmer Wants A Wife competition, which launched in the late 90s and has since spawned a TV series on Five. The competition seems testament to Smith's skill at turning a serious issue (in that case, the high suicide rate among males in the farming community) into a constructive crusade. It was also an inspired piece of marketing for the title.

The title's Enterprising Rural Women Awards, launched in the wake of the BSE crisis, helped at least 350 small rural businesses, and its more recent Fair Trade for British Farmers campaign, advising readers on the importance of supporting the rural economy, was so successful it sparked an early day motion in Parliament.

"That campaign was taken seriously by a lot of people who until then had been dismissive of Country Living as frilly or 'roses round the cottage door'," Smith states. "We are publicising to a readership that is intelligent, concerned about the countryside and wants to engage. These are the people that can make a difference."

The polarising issue of hunting is one Smith is not getting involved with, however: "In terms of what goes on in the countryside, hunting is a minor part of it."

Smith worked on a number of homes magazines, including IPC's Homes and Gardens and The National Magazine Company's House Beautiful, before taking over at Country Living. She edited the NatMag title Coast alongside Country Living for two years, which she says "almost killed" her. She is now in the less hands-on role of editor-in-chief of Coast.

A graduate in graphic design, Smith has a strong visual sense and when she joined Country Living she moved it away from its worthy stance on hard issues and upped the focus on homes: "I felt that what all our readers have in common is a love of the Country Living look."

Smith is both disarmingly warm and chatty, and her office exudes homeliness. The editor, raised in the outskirts of Belfast, decided when she took the job she should experience country life as an "authentic". She moved her family out of the city to Hampshire for 11 years, raising twin girls and commuting four hours a day. The commute got to her in the end, though, and she recently moved back to Twickenham.

Readers of Country Living are a devoted bunch (subscriptions total around 80,000). "They see you as family," Smith says. The title's events, including its annual Christmas fair in Islington, are perpetually thronged. A competition a few years back to find the most loyal Country Living reader saw lots of fans of the title sending in photos of their homes painstakingly decorated in the Country Living style.

Smith is confident, therefore, that the magazine's latest campaign, which is called Your Countryside Needs You and will involve throwing Britain's biggest bring-and-buy sale to raise money for rural charities, will be a success. "Lots of our readers run jumble sales - it's meat and drink to them," she says.

Smith intends to "keep doing what we're doing" to maintain the title's success. And while this is her ideal job, she hasn't ruled out editing another title one day - if only, she says, "to prove to myself I'm not a one-trick pony".

Age: 52
Lives: Twickenham
Most treasured possession: Twin daughters Hattie and Connie
Interests outside work: Writing (poetry and prose), bird-watching,
gardening, walking
Last book you read: The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray
Motto: Every reader should leave the magazine feeling uplifted AND never
get complacent