Pene­lope Keith goes in search of the Vil­lage of the Year

The ac­tress Pene­lope Keith is on a quest to find Bri­tain’s Vil­lage of the Year, a per­sonal odyssey that will cel­e­brate the wit, won­der and, yes, oc­ca­sional weird­ness of our of­ten ig­nored ru­ral folk, says

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page - Boudicca Fox-Leonard chan­ vil­la­ge­

‘There’s a lot of peo­ple who still lead ru­ral lives. We for­get about them at our peril’

‘Towns­folk know plea­sures, coun­try peo­ple joys,” pro­nounces the inim­itable voice of Pene­lope Keith. The quote from the writer Minna Antrim res­onates with the ac­tress, who as a vil­lager of 40 years’ stand­ing, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ex­tols the ben­e­fits of ru­ral life and the close sense of com­mu­nity that vil­lages fos­ter. “I like the fact that when I walk down my vil­lage street and I see any­body we say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and one smiles,” says Pene­lope. “I think that’s the most de­press­ing thing about Lon­don, no one ever looks at any­body. I said, ‘Good morn­ing’ to some­one on Water­loo Sta­tion the other week and you’d have thought I’d in­sulted him. It was as if the fact I ac­tu­ally spoke was ex­tra­or­di­nary.” Pene­lope is quick to as­sert that she was a born-and-bred Lon­doner. But she moved to Mil­ford, in Sur­rey, to be equidis­tant be­tween the cap­i­tal and her hus­band Rod­ney’s then job as a po­lice­man in Chich­ester. Her con­ver­sion to coun­try life has been com­plete; she has served as high sher­iff of Sur­rey and is cur­rently deputy lieu­tenant and pres­i­dent of the Sur­rey County Agri­cul­tural So­ci­ety. Yet it is her role as the pre­sen­ter on Chan­nel 4’s Hid­den Vil­lages that has seen her be­come some­thing of a con­nois­seur of the Bri­tish vil­lage in all its won­der­ful va­ri­eties. Whether glid­ing over the Scot­tish High­lands, skim­ming stones in Argyll, eat­ing sticky tof­fee pud­ding in the ham­let where it was in­vented or ob­serv­ing a spec­tac­u­lar cliff div­ing con­test in Pem­brokeshire, Pene­lope has first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the di­ver­sity of vil­lage life to­day. Ea­ger to see and ex­pe­ri­ence ever more of Bri­tain’s rich vil­lage life, this au­tumn she will be host­ing Vil­lage of the Year, which will cel­e­brate all the glo­ries of our smaller com­mu­ni­ties. To that end, Pene­lope is launch­ing an ap­peal for proud vil­lages and vil­lagers to come for­ward and be nom­i­nated to ap­pear on the pro­gramme. The win­ners will re­ceive £10,000 to be used for a com­mu­nity project. “Rather than in Hid­den Vil­lages where we choose a county to go to, this is an op­por­tu­nity for vil­lages to reach out to us,” says the 76-year-old. “So much of our me­dia is very ur­ban-cen­tred. We for­get about the rest of the pop­u­la­tion at our peril. There’s a lot of peo­ple who still live ru­ral lives.” Far from be­ing sim­ply a beauty com­pe­ti­tion, the show will be eval­u­at­ing a range of cri­te­ria in­clud­ing his­tory and her­itage, vil­lage events, ac­tiv­i­ties and vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence – as well as looks. “It isn’t only about ap­pear­ance,” says Pene­lope. “It’s all very well liv­ing some­where ter­ri­bly pretty, but as I’ve got older the pri­or­i­ties for me are hav­ing a doc­tor in the vil­lage, a shop and a post of­fice.” In­deed, Pene­lope was tick­led by the re­cent in­ter­net furore about a bright yel­low car parked promi­nently in the pic­turesque Cotswolds vil­lage of Bibury, which many felt was spoil­ing the view. “We ac­tu­ally saw it when we were film­ing there and no one said any­thing. I wish we had now.” As well as the in­no­va­tive ways mod­ern vil­lages are adapt­ing, she hopes the show will also dis­cover more of the weird, won­der­ful and unique events she ex­pe­ri­enced while mak­ing Hid­den Vil­lages. One such rit­ual was in Combe Martin, North Devon, where each May 600 vil­lagers gather to re-en­act the ex­pul­sion of the Earl of Rone. “Some poor boy is marched down to the seafront on a don­key and at the last minute an ef­figy is thrown in the sea and stones are thrown at him,” she says, still in­cred­u­lous. Or Oak Ap­ple Day in St Neot, Corn­wall, which marks Charles II’s birth­day. “They hoist a branch – or what looks to

me like half a tree – to cel­e­brate the restora­tion of the monar­chy.” It is dis­cov­er­ing the his­tory of vil­lages that ex­cites her. An­other favourite con­cerned the Isle of Bute. “The Mar­quis of Bute made his money be­cause he bought a small town in Wales called Cardiff,” says Pene­lope. “His house on the is­land con­tains more mar­ble than any other house in the land. To keep un­cov­er­ing these things is ex­tra­or­di­nary.” Gems such as these are what she and the pro­duc­tion team are hunt­ing for. “We don’t know yet the amaz­ing sto­ries that are go­ing to come to light. It’s ex­cit­ing.” How­ever, Pene­lope is hor­ri­fied by the sug­ges­tion she would judge the com­pe­ti­tion her­self. In­stead she will present the se­ries, which will run on Chan­nel 4 over five weeks, cul­mi­nat­ing in a Sun­day night “fi­nale” where the win­ners will be re­vealed. The judges are yet to be ap­pointed but all will have ex­per­tise in coun­try mat­ters. Im­por­tantly, she hopes the event will ig­nite de­bate about what does make a good vil­lage – and what we want our vil­lages to be in the fu­ture. “It’s an enor­mous ques­tion, be­cause it’s not what we want to do, it’s what the vil­lagers want to do. It’s some­thing that has to be worked out by the peo­ple who live there.” She cites the ex­am­ple of a Welsh vil­lage where the lo­cals saved their pub from clos­ing and now staff it on a rota. “They de­cided that as the cen­tre of their com­mu­nity it was im­por­tant to them to keep it open.” Pene­lope has cer­tainly seen changes in her own Sur­rey area, re­call­ing how her lo­cal sta­tion once had a sta­tion mas­ter man­ning an empty plat­form, dol­ing out tick­ets from a to­bacco tin. “Now it’s crowded with com­muters.” Forty years ago the main em­ploy­ment was agri­cul­ture, but since then two farms have “given over to golf cour­ses”. But far from be­ing for­lorn, Pene­lope is in­spired by the di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, wel­com­ing vine­yards, nurs­ery schools in barns and even a woman who trained sheep dogs to round up ducks. “Which was huge fun,” she says. Storms may rage over is­sues of house prices and empty sec­ond homes, but she hopes that Vil­lage of the Year will be an oc­ca­sion to unite in cel­e­bra­tion of the Bri­tish coun­try­side. “What’s strange for some­one of my gen­er­a­tion is the fact that your gen­er­a­tion, most Lon­don­ers, don’t know what lies north of Wat­ford. They may have an idea where Le­ices­ter is, but they’ve al­most cer­tainly been to Corfu and Ma­jorca. Peo­ple don’t re­alise quite how beau­ti­ful our own coun­try is. “I had a cab­bie say to me, ‘ You know, I’ve never been to Scot­land’. And I said, ‘I bet you’ve been to Greece and Spain?’ and he said, ‘ Oh yes’. I thought, ‘ Come on! Peo­ple need to know how spe­cial Bri­tain is.”

‘Some poor boy is marched down to the sea on a don­key and at the last minute an ef­figy is thrown in’

May day: the ex­pul­sion of the Earl of Rone, an an­nual rit­ual in Combe Martin, North Devon

Coun­try flavour: Oak Ap­ple Day fes­tiv­i­ties in Castle­ton, Der­byshire

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