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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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