Rufus Wade is an advertising copywriter responsible for writing slogans for products such as Creamo custard, on which subject he remarks “How the hell can anyone get ideas about that muck?” On his twenty-ninth birthday Rufus decides that he hates the lifestyle he is trapped in and that a change is required. He wishes to swap his sedentary, urban existence for a more active, rural one. Having upset a potential client, Rufus chucks in his job. Later that evening he rows with his fiancée about his uncertain employment situation and walks out on her. He then gets drunk in a pub where he meets a couple of men who are about to drive a furniture van to St Ives overnight. Rufus hitches a lift with them, intending to move to Cornwall and begin living his ‘simple life’ there. But when the van breaks down next morning near Salisbury, Rufus, enchanted by the appearance of the surrounding countryside, decides that Salisbury Plain is every bit as good as St Ives for his purpose and continues his journey on foot. He arrives in a village called Leaford, where he tries and fails to find work as a farmhand but succeeds in seducing a woman after a dance. Rufus then sets out for a walk on the downs next morning. He becomes caught in a heavy snowstorm, loses his bearings and finally collapses with exhaustion in a snowdrift.
On waking up, Rufus finds himself at Three Trees Farm with a man called Pip Mendel, who had rescued him from the snow the night before. Mendel and his girlfriend Ruth are living the sort of life that Rufus is seeking, doing just as they please without paying attention to the clock or eating meals at set times and indulging in a range of physical pursuits, such as going for long walks, tobogganing, furniture-making and woodcarving. They allow Rufus to stay with them and for a while he is very happy, although Mendel points out that he is just conforming to their way of life:
“…you simply drop in and accept what we do exactly as you accepted what other people did in London.”
With some encouragement from Mendel, Rufus soon falls in love with Ruth, sleeps with her and starts trying to prise her away from the other man. After a gradual build-up of friction, Rufus and Mendel fight for Ruth’s affections. Although Mendel, the physically superior specimen, knocks Rufus out, he had earlier pretended to be beaten and refused to continue the fight. Rufus returns to Three Trees and triumphantly informs Ruth that Mendel is “Absolutely bogus all through. There isn’t a genuine thought or feeling or action in him. He’s just a cheat and a sham.” Ruth consents to run away to London to live with Rufus, who has decided to return to the world of advertising, but not before she has checked on Mendel, who has been missing since the punch-up. The pair of them find him sitting by a fire in a natural bowl-like amphitheatre on the Plain. Ruth then changes her mind about running away with Rufus, saying that she has long known that Mendel is a phoney (“Don’t you see that I’ve known all the time that he’s like that? That he’s always playing – never quite genuine – never quite honest with himself or me?”) but that he would be crushed if she told him so. Rufus leaves her to comfort the other man and sets off to catch the first train back to London.