Village that’s turning the clock back to the heyday of the 4x4 — hoofs, that is
Groceries delivered by donkey? Don’t laugh, says Max Davidson, it could be a signpost to the future
It is a story that tugs at the heartstrings while simultaneously bringing a broad smile to the face: “Gloucestershire Village Needs a Donkey.’’ Why a donkey? What is wrong with 4x4s? Answer: because the village is set on a hillside and some of the houses cannot be reached by car, and because Old Mrs Miggins has trouble lugging her shopping up the hill from the greengrocer. The village used to have a donkey. Why, back in the 1950s, when Mrs Miggins was a girl. . .
I am inventing Mrs Miggins, but the rest of the story is gospel truth: one of those vignettes of English rural life that make one proud to live in this dotty, nostalgic island. The Gloucestershire village of Chalford really is in the market for a donkey. Some of its streets really are too steep for cars. Fifty years ago, donkeys hauled coal and other supplies up the hill from the canal. So why not turn the clock back?
The village has been deluged with offers, with media organisations vying to sponsor a suitably photogenic animal. A young male donkey, bought by ITV West, should report for duty later this year. The villagers, knowing when they are on to a good thing, wonder if one is enough. Won’t Blackie, Eeyore or whatever he is called, need a companion?
The story is a reminder of a deliciously idiosyncratic part of the country that defies pigeon-holing.
When people think of the Cotswolds, they think of honey-coloured stone, lambs gambolling across the fields, women in green wellies walking golden retrievers and antique shops selling grandfather clocks.
In the northern half of Gloucester- shire, some of those stereotypes still hold good. But south of Cheltenham, between the roads to Stroud and Cirencester, you glimpse a different Cotswolds: more rough-hewn, less obviously picturesque, less precious.
Chalford, which straddles the aptly named Golden Valley, does not lend itself to second-homers from London whizzing down for the weekend. The streets are too narrow, too fiddly, hence the need for a donkey. The nearest Starbucks seems a long way off.
With two primary schools, Chalford feels more like a real community than tourist-saturated Stow-on-the-Wold or Bourton-on-the-Water. If you saddle a donkey and ride over the hill, you find yourself in Slad Valley, immortalised by Laurie Lee in Cider With Rosie. Lee loved this part of Gloucestershire the way a dog-owner might love his scruffy mongrel. The valleys around Stroud, he wrote, are “greener and more decently lush than is decent to the general herbaceous smugness of the English countryside”.
Rosie is not drinking cider any more. She is catching the bus to Cheltenham and getting smashed on tequila. And she has lost her West Country burr, preferring Estuary English. But a heartwarmingly large slice of Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire is still intact.
The muddy roads that are too steep for cars criss-cross a region of wild hedgerows, crooked cottages and fields too vertiginous to grow a bean. “The roof-tiles of the cottages grew a kind of golden moss which sparkled like crystallised honey,” wrote Lee. “Behind them were long steep gardens full of cabbages, fruit-bushes, roses, rabbithutches, bicycles, pigeon-lofts. . .” Give or take the odd satellite dish, Lee could have been describing Gloucestershire today.
Chalford is in a conservation area, where the best of the past is treasured. Villagers have successfully fought to save their shop and post office. There is talk, once the donkey is up and plodding, of reopening a section of the disused canal at the foot of the valley. Again one glimpses nostalgia for past glories, when Stroud was a cloth-making town and the valleys around it hummed with industry.
“Oh, we’re not retro,” says Anna Usborne, the sculptor who has spearheaded the bring-back-thedonkey campaign. “We’re not getting the donkey for sentimental reasons. In fact, we’re very forward-looking.”
Forward-looking? The same mode of transport used by Joseph and Mary to get to Bethlehem? But perhaps she is right. Our shared future could be more connected to our shared past than we realise.
Ass it was: 50 years ago, donkeys were an integral part of Chalford life, hauling supplies up the steep hill from the canal