Abstract This paper presents a summary account of the associations made, in a variety of questionnaire responses and interview questions, by residents of six English parishes with the term ‘rural’. The case is made for defining ‘the rural’ as an abstract ‘social representation’, a set of rules and resources existing out of space and time which are drawn upon in both discursive and non-discursive actions. The precise form that this representation takes in these actions is highly contextualised and depends upon its precise usage. The content of respondents' representations of the rural contained many aspects of the ‘rural idyll’ familiar to academic researchers, especially in the interviews where the social aspect of rurality was more strongly expressed. However, this resemblance was not a naive acceptance of the idyll but involved a more engaged and often critical reflection on rural living. Hence, the respondents should not be dismissed as the ‘cultural dupes’ of a Pastoral ideology. Nonetheless, in general, they still set themselves up in representational opposition to what have been labelled ‘neglected rural geographies’.