‘Television reception in many villages was erratic at best, the Internet didn’t exist and it was impossible anywhere in these hills to get a mobile signal’
Twenty years on and I still can’t get a phone signal
Twenty years ago this April I moved from London to the Cotswolds. I was reminded of this fact while negotiating potholes on the B4425. There are, I concluded, more potholes and fewer dead badgers on the twisting road between Bibury and Cirencester than there were two decades ago. I am not sure why this should be so, my mind may have been playing tricks, but what is certain is that much has changed in my corner of Gloucestershire since the end of the last century.
When I first arrived here, for example, scores of the old Cotswold threshing barns stood empty and unloved (and barn owls were frequently caught in one’s headlights at night). A decent smattering of small, unconverted cottages were still lived in by agricultural workers, and one never saw a big house with locked gates or a field with a chain and padlock. The ageing Subaru was the four-wheel drive car of choice for the gentry, the braying Hooray from the Agricultural College was the drinking face of the district and hunting was legal and dominated social life (you were an outcast if you even voiced let alone agreed with an ‘anti’ argument). The pub in my nearest village was called The Greyhound (it was gentrified early in the millennium and re-named The Village Pub) and served gammon, egg and chips while muddy boots and muddy dogs were encouraged.
The Wimpy was my nearest, and only, fast food joint. It was in Cirencester, which also boasted (perhaps that’s not quite the right word) a weekly cattle market, a cinematic fleapit called The Regal, a Slug and Lettuce pub, a tobacconist, an Iceland supermarket and the smallest and most useless Curry’s electrical shop in Britain. The town also managed without a greengrocer or a delicatessen.
Meanwhile television reception in many villages was erratic at best, the Internet didn’t exist and it was impossible anywhere in these hills to get a decent mobile phone signal.
And so what has changed? I suppose the single most important development has been the upgrading at the end of the Nineties of the A417, the road between the M4 and the M5, from single carriageway to – almost – dual carriageway. It helped (along with the Internet) revive Cirencester and to a lesser extent Cheltenham and it made the heart of the Cotswolds accessible to London money. It ushered in the City slickers, media professionals and the celebrities (Findaproperty.com recently reported that there are more celebrities per acre in the Cotswolds than anywhere outside the Capital). It introduced fleets of Chelsea tractors, in particular the black Range Rover, and the gastropub (who can forget the smoked trout pate, chicken livers, pigeon breasts and stovies all washed down with Napa Valley plonk?). Farmers’ Markets arrived in the small towns selling 10 different types of olive and 20 different English cheeses while organic farms shops selling scraggy home-grown vegetables opened in the countryside. And then there was Daylesford, which has and is spawning copycat rural emporiums.
In Cirencester, The Regal was demolished (its last feature was Calendar Girls) and replaced by a block of flats. The cattle market moved out of town and the Agricultural College became a Uni. Woolworths went bust, Waitrose and Tesco built superstores (followed by Lidl and Aldi) and Macdonald’s, Burger King, Subway and KFC filled the gap left by the happily forgotten Wimpy Bar.
A score of coffee shops – I am sure there was only a single cafe in the town in the Nineties – replaced the dated small stores, building societies and post office. Meanwhile Cheltenham, which when I arrived here was faded and achingly provincial, has morphed into a smart metropolis (thanks in part to GCHQ, which in turn is much more important today thanks to terrorism). Now the town has more festivals and more coffee shops per head of population than anywhere else in the country.
In the countryside no barn remains unconverted and every cottage has been transmogrified into a mini-gent’s manor house. The local buses have all but disappeared and so too have the locals that used them. The old fashioned farmer’s shoot has become corporate while the hunts, which apparently don’t hunt anymore, have blossomed. as have the raptors, in particular the Red Kite which was unknown in the nineties.
I have no particular axe to grind about these shifting sands because what hasn’t changed for me is that 20 years on the Cotswolds still retains its special magic. Oh, except for one gripe – I still can’t get a decent mobile phone signal in my hamlet.
When I first arrived here, scores of the old Cotswold barns stood empty and unloved