Dream your rustic dreamsSimon Jenkins
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,OR AS Goldsmith’s critics might put it, give us a break. Surely not more sentimentality about villages. Here we go with another league table, for “the best English village”. And this year’s celebrity winner is . . . hold your breath Broadway, not so fast Cerne Abbas, calm down Lavenham — it’s Kingham!
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loiter’d o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endear’d each scene
Kingham? Where is Kingham? But the chaps at Country Life have hit the bull’s-eye. The point about Kingham is that it is not a picture village but, of course, a “real” one. It may be in the golden triangle, the weekender fairyland where Oxon cocktails with Gloucs and Wilts and the surging Cotswolds pay tribute to the stripling Thames. It may be the magic “60 minutes from Paddington” and thus home to rock stars, bankers and lawyers. But this is the age of reality topography. Kingham has a lollipop lady, afford-able housing and “real people”. It wins.
We are all villagers of the mind. Unlike most Europeans, the English take no pride in urbanism. Country Life would not conceivably nominate “England’s best suburb”, let alone its best new town or best sustainable Prescott-style executive homes estate. Alec Clifton Taylor, in the BBC’s good old days, did celebrate England’s market towns. But the village holds the imagination. The word may be French but its root is Latin, for a country farmstead. It embodies England’s cultural correctness.
This was not always so. Village was once a derogatory term, like its synonym, parochial. Escaping its pettiness and claustrophobia was the ambition of every young person. To Walter Scott “village notes could ne’er supply that rich and varied melody” of the town. To Crabbe “no longer truth disdain . . . but own that village life, a life of pain”. Goldsmith’s lines above were on the death of Nuneham Courtenay, removed in the 18th century to flank the new road to Oxford. “Thus fares the land by luxury betrayed,” he fumed. But he reflected a general belief that such medieval time capsules would make way for progress. As recently as the 1940s, Oxford University’s geographers thought that the Thames valley villages could not survive free trade in food and the drift to the city. Like the mining communities of Co Durham, they should be abandoned and their death properly planned.
So much for predict-and-provide planning. Today the village concept blesses all it touches. We have holiday villages, retirement villages, urban villages, the Westminster village and that contradiction, the Olympic village, lasting a month. When broadcasters wanted to repeat the success of rural Ambridge on television, it was with the ersatz city village of Coronation Street. Methuen recently reprinted H.V. Morton’s In Search of England, which contrived to omit all cities from its odyssey. Morton pleaded to guard what he saw as threatened villages, “where the rustic evolved his shrewd wisdom”, as a national root stock against the alien pollution of the city.
Villageness is clearly deep in England’s cultural gene. Londoners may live in Hampstead, Notting Hill, Chelsea, Hoxton or Bermondsey, but they claim that it is “really just a village”. Though these are city enclaves where few people know their neighbours, the term seems a necessary emotional prop. Likewise the rural encampments to which these people move at weekends. All village life may have been drained from them, like blood from a taxidermist’s corpse with only the skin left intact. But it can be restuffed with London money and boast a few “affordable homes”, so someone local can keep the grass mown, houses clean and incomers’ fantasies intact.
To me a proper village was an Akenfield or a Foxton, where everyone really did know everyone, day and night, warts and all. It was a place whose institutions were universally supported and where income and welfare alike were locally generated from agriculture. Those days are clearly over. Few villages depend on farming, nor do most rural families. They depend on towns and cities, however vehemently they deny it. English villages, especially in the South, are mostly dormitories, weekend retreats and retirement homes, fed by incomes from outside their bounds. Yet these new villages have been reviving with phenomenal vigour, well demonstrated by Kingham. Roads and fast trains have made them accessible for commuting and weekending. Modern jobs are craft-based or electronic and can move anywhere. For young families villages also offer the unmentionable: house prices high enough for ex-urbanites to escape urban squalor and find schools with no immigrants. The village thus offers security amid community, mobility amid tranquillity. You cannot ask for more.
Nor is this all. While England has allowed its provincial towns to grow ugly, hastening pressure on the countryside, the planners have kept villages beautiful. They must rank among the world’s most desirable places to live, idealised in the church, rectory, pub, cottage and garden, set amid trees and countryside under skies of perpetual blue. Shorn of Crabbe’s isolation and pain, modernised and connected to the mains, this is residential bliss. The image of “England as a village” that flies round the world does so for a reason: the image is compellingly lovely.
It is also fragile beyond belief. As Virgil warned a rural friend, “you practise your pastoral music on a thin stalk”. Nothing could be more hopeless than to believe that any but a tiny number of people can enjoy the sort of village life celebrated in Country Life. It is desirable because it is intimate and set in countryside. By definition it is rationed and must become ever more exclusive, like the richer parts of London. The rest of the world may visit villages, admire them and experience their joys by association or fantasy, much as they enjoy visiting a stately home.
That is all. If in a frenzy of greed and envy, epitomised by the Government’s “housing expansion targets”, we build over these places, we simply destroy them, and destroy them for ever.