Cover story The great village renaissance
A quiet revolution is taking place in villages across the countryside, says Clive Aslet, as communities rediscover the spirit of oldfashioned co-operation, which, he predicts, will herald the comeback of a proud and peculiarly British institution
Clive Aslet heralds the comeback of a proud and peculiarly British tradition of community co-operation and we celebrate the stalwarts of country life
When Adrian Fisher sits down to design a spectacular, mind-baffling mirror maze, he does so in a Dorset village, yet the place in which his vision will be realised could be anywhere on the globe— China, Singapore, the USA or europe. his collaborators—maze-making requires specialised skills—are similarly spread around the world. The business couldn’t run without broadband. Although the speed may not be optimum (it so rarely is), he shares ideas on Skype; designs, photographs and brochures are sent over the internet; glass manufacturers’ material downloaded. Adrian Fisher Design Ltd is just one of hundreds of businesses that now operate from the countryside. It’s causing a village revolution.
Villages went through a difficult time at the end of the 20th century— a society that relied on car transport didn’t know how to keep them alive. employment moved to the towns and cities; pretty villages became the preserve of affluent commuters and the retired. They were deserted during the daytime and, as a result, services closed. Without a shop, school, pub or post office, the community had nothing but the church around which to cohere and falling congregations and over-stretched vicars made that an uncertain prop on which to lean.
There were always exceptions. estate villages stood apart from the general trend, because their socially committed owners chose only to let cottages to local workers —one of the many businesses that flourish at Miserden in Gloucestershire is a dental ceramic centre making crowns and false teeth—and the success of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) meant that, across Britain, micro-breweries sprang up beside pubs.
Jim Fearnley founded one at hesket newmarket in Cumbria in 1988 and his bitters include Great Cockup Porter and one named after his mother-in-law, Doris. A decade later, when Jim retired and closure threatened, local people got together and bought it as a cooperative. Four years later, another cooperative was formed to buy the Old Crown pub, out of which the brewery had been born. ‘It’s the future,’ announced one of the regulars, when I visited. It’s now said to be The Prince of Wales’s favourite pub.
Because the countryside was a popular place to live in, it was also a popular place to start businesses, but, in many villages, most of the working population drove off to jobs elsewhere—passing, as they went, a reverse tide of people from the local town: the cleaners and gardeners, nannies and carers, who kept the village going, but couldn’t afford to live in it.
That pattern continues, but a change could be coming, as communications networks extend. This will bring a wry smile to the face of my friend on the east Anglian coast, who has to drive to the top of an elevation (no hill— it’s norfolk) to get a mobile signal and whose copper-wire internet is unfit for modern life. however, systems really are improving and the pain of those people suffering digital deprivation only illustrates how much a part of everyone’s life the new technology has become.
Many of the self-employed no longer need to work in town, where office rents and housing are formidably expensive. Increasingly, workers whose jobs tie them to offices for part of the week find they can spend Mondays and Fridays at home—a privilege that used to apply only to senior staff.
‘Many of the selfemployed no longer need to work in town, where office rents are expensive
‘There are enough daylight hours to fit in a bit of fishing, as well as work’
Some companies are actually encouraging employees of all levels to consider home working; this would have been unthinkable in the days when a culture of presentism ruled managerial minds. Executives realise that the money that they save on desk space more than compensates for the loss of monitoring.
Commuters are saving an hour or two at each end of the day. The British countryside may not be exactly analogous with Santa Barbara, but more people are able to experience a Californian work-life balance: there are enough daylight hours to fit in a bit of fishing or sailing, time with the horse or a walk with the dog, as well as work.
Because they spend more time where they live, new village workers will also be more committed to village institutions. Gone are the days when a farmer was the first port of call when looking for the parish councillor or JP; farmers are fewer and their workforces have shrunk—they don’t have the time. It’s entrepreneurs and other home workers that are filling the gaps.
Naturally, there will be people who prefer city life—london has a magnetic attraction for the young—but not everybody fits that description and, unless your industry is particularly well paid, you may be in danger of being priced out. A village may beckon and, when it does, you won’t be alone. Villages are again becoming what they’ve been for nearly all of history: places to work as well as sleep. That means customers for the shop and pub and there are signs that some are reopening.
Not all villages will be the same, but then that’s the joy—they never have been. Ilmington in Warwickshire, with its embroidered Apple Map to celebrate the 38 different types of apple tree that grow around this Warwickshire village, is a world away from Inverie on the Knoydart Peninsula, a settlement that has arrived due
to often highly educated newcomers seeking a rhapsodic quality of life. (Even to call Inverie a village may be a historical misnomer: villages aren’t traditional to much of Scotland, where, before 1800, most country people lived in clachans or fermtouns, in which two or three families lived together to work a shared piece of land.)
All villages have one point in common: they have been shaped by the economic activities they served. This could mean fishing in Cornwall, mining in the coal fields of Lancashire, iron founding in the Sussex Weald, the digging of turves in the Norfolk Broads or coaching in the case of Stilton on the Great North Road in Cambridgeshire (the cheese, made in other villages, was sold to the travellers passing through). We know that Bainbridge in Wensleydale was founded in 1227 to house a dozen foresters; a horn is still blown there at 10pm every night from Holy Rood (September 27) until Shrovetide to help guide them home.
Some villages disappeared after the Black Death, although the explanation is probably more often to be found in a landowner’s ruthless dedication to farming sheep rather than plague. Other villages declined from former glories—lydford, once the capital of Dartmoor, is the remains of one of King Alfred’s defensive burghs (they fought the Danes there in 997 and won) or they have, quite literally, followed the money. In Cambridgeshire, medieval Caxton—strangely, one of the few places specificially mentioned on Britain’s earliest map, the Gough Map of 1360—was bodily lifted up and relocated to a more economically favourable position on a road.
‘The modern village is better housed than it has been at any period in its existence’
The typical English village, if there is such a thing, farmed: this was what created it. Agriculture meant, from the 10th century, co-operation; under the open-field system, which divided strips of land between families, who sowed and reaped according to a common timetable while their animals fed together on the common pasture, it made sense for farmers, smallholders and landless cottars to live near each other.
The only place where any semblance of this practice continues is Laxton in Nottinghamshire and the first thing that one notices on driving into the village is how busy it is. There are 14 working farms in the village— only one ‘stackyard’, as farmyards are called there, has undergone residential conversion. The village always has people in it and, as a consequence, the Dovecote Inn and village shop are thriving.
Villages will continue to turn with whatever winds are blowing. We’ve had a period of cold easterlies, which blight communal life. It’s time for the benign zephyrs that encourage growth. Superfast broadband will create other Laxtons. A spirit of co-operation is reviving, too. Luxborough in west Somerset put up its own wi-fi mast, Dolphinholme in Lancashire has dug its own trench, as did Llanover in Monmouthshire.
The Plunkett Foundation, which champions the co-operative approach, points to post-office facilities, allotments, library services, childcare services, IT provision, cafes and meeting spaces as other areas in which villages are doing it for themselves.
In a way, this is the secret of village life. We like villages not just because some are pretty, but because the scale is right: they’re small enough for the inhabitants to know each other, big enough to contain the different talents necessary to mount a pantomime or a fête. Villageyness is a quality that the British aspire to, even when living in the immense global city that is London.
The poet Edmund Blunden described Yalding in Kent, where he had grown up, in 1947: ‘The butcher, the grocer, the cobbler, the barber, the saddler, the ironmonger are here, though the brewery has become a haulage concern. There is the chemist’s, and the cake shop, and if you want a dressmaker or a tailor we have them… you will be agreeably surprised by the supernatural efficiency of our village stores… I have been informed on good authority that Mr P.’s line in ladies’ silk stockings is inimitably fine, but then so is his bacon and his cutlery; and Mr C. is the man to go to if you are wanting a curious and beautiful tea set or a silk eiderdown quilt.’
At a time when high streets are struggling to survive, it’s difficult to imagine that the village will ever recover this degree of commercial life, but it doesn’t need to. Not only does the village stand to gain from broadband, but the internet confers other boons, in the shape of online shopping and supermarkets delivering to home; there’s no danger that the newly arrived metropolitan will be deprived of hipster coffee or sophisticated headphones. He may just have more time to enjoy them.
As recently as the 1970s, Country Life was worrying about rural depopulation. This had been an anxiety to Ruskin and the Artsand-crafts movement, ever since mills and factories began to tempt young rural dwellers off the land. Part of the trouble was the appalling state of cottages.
When J. W. Robertson Scott bought a manor house in the Cotswolds in the 1920s, he found that the cottages that went with it were practically unfit for human habitation. The stone walls had holes he could thrust a hand into, thatch that let in water, wormy rafters, weak foundations and rising damp. Now, those cottages would be tastefully restored and perhaps barely visible behind the 4x4s parked outside them.
The modern village is better housed than it has been at any period in its existence. That has not stopped it from becoming dead, but life is about to return, as the village enters what will surely be one of the most exciting phases of its existence.
Clive Aslet is the author of ‘Villages of Britain’ (Bloomsbury)
Picture perfect: evening sunlight over the village of Corton Denham in Somerset
Community matters: every two years, an 18th-century street fair descends upon Milton Abbas, one of Dorset’s most picturesque villages
In with the old, in with the new: as high-speed broadband connects the countryside to the city, modern businesses have begun to return and rebuild the classic English village
Despite the threat of supermarkets, the village shop is beginning to regain its place. Ewelme village store in Oxfordshire (above) is a not-for-profit initiative run by local residents