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

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Living -

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

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