“The idea of the unspoilt and unchanging village is one of the most potent in the English imagination. We have waxed lyrical on the theme for centuries, while tens of thousands now leave the city each year in search of the rural idyll”
I’ve written from time to time about novels that I’ve read but rarely mentioned the non-fiction books that I also enjoy. By far my favourite, and one which I dip into often, is journalist and author Richard Askwith’s The Lost Village (2008). Worried that the traditional countryside was becoming lost, and villages a dying civilisation, he made it his quest to find out if his concerns were justified.
“One morning, without any clear idea of what I was doing, I set out in search of this (possibly imaginary) lost rural world. I had saved up a large chunk of annual leave…so it wasn’t entirely impractical….to spend a few weeks on the road”. His daughter thought him odd and his wife suggested he was having a midlife crisis! Through both his own experiences of village life and numerous visits to other villages, Asquith writes with both enthusiasm and despair of what he found. The book is fascinating, a thoroughly engaging, easy read.
Work in villages is often poorly paid and public transport barely exists. Whilst the indigenous inhabitants demand improvements such as new shops, leisure and banking facilities, few materialise since there is little commercial incentive for the providers of such. It’s little wonder that the population, with the exception of incomers (more of whom below), is ageing when even the least auspicious homes are priced way beyond the reach of most young villagers.
Askwith talks of the villages he visited of having charming cottages and pleasing views but “No farmers leant enigmatically on gates……every pavement was empty….the same chunky multi-coloured necklace of parked cars was draped around everything.”
It’s a description I recognise. After an absence of four decades, in 2015 I went to visit the south Gloucestershire village of my mother’s childhood. The bustling high street of my own childhood memories was no longer. At first glance the wide street looked much the same but it was quiet, so quiet. No longer was there a butchers, a bakers, a newsagent or drapery store, just a single coffee shop in what used to be the busy grocers. Well heeled commuters have moved into the village, some into the new ‘executive’ homes, others into trendy weekend homes that were once farm workers’ cottages, but they spend their money in Gloucester, Bristol or Bath. They have to – there’s nothing locally to spend it on. It’s a catch 22. One might reasonably hope that pressure from newer residents would encourage better infrastructure but according to Askwith in some villages the new residents oppose such improvements worried that they will compromise the exclusivity of their homes…and the rural idyll of village life that they have bought into after being seduced by the Sunday supplements and TV lifestyle programmes.
In the final chapter of the book Askwith concluded that, although the ancient woodland and fields are still there alongside “the sleepy churchyards and the beasts grazing peacefully in the fields – it wasn’t going to last, ” and that soon many more farmers will be growing biofuels, or managing wind farms or turning the farmhouses that have been in their families for centuries into B&Bs. He laments the endless encroachment of housing , the ripping up, the rebuilding and says that we must, “recognise that in an urban century, rural ways of living have value too,” but whilst the English village is changed, it is not yet lost. We must celebrate the tradition and luxury whilst we still have it.