At the point in the nineteenth century when Britain completed its transformation from a largely agricultural to a predominantly industrial economy, another transformation was all-but complete as a consequence of the changes. Every industry eventually had its own accompanying metropolis, boasting recognisably Victorian town centres resplendent with civic buildings, statues and squares, adhering to a familiar formula that also stretched to housing, encompassing both suburb and slum. The speed with which industry facilitated the urbanisation of the landscape gave the impression such locations were prototypes for the mid-twentieth century ‘New Towns’, as though they had sprung-up overnight, going direct from an architect’s drawing board to land that had previously been little more than mere fields.
The truth was, however, that most British cities had grown organically, at first filling in the empty spaces dividing networks of ancient villages and then swallowing the villages whole, absorbing them into the bigger picture. Although the areas of some cities today retain their village roots solely in terms of the rivalries between different neighbourhoods – sometimes even varying in their interpretation of the locality’s accent – there are others that defiantly cling to a townie’s ideal of village life, complete with the conveniences genuine village living lacks and missing all the inconveniences that come with the country.
A friend of mine once lived in such a ‘village’ on the outskirts of a certain town famed for its production of footwear. Her account of the so-called community seems like an accurate barometer of those who want the best of both worlds. The majority of homes were hidden from view behind high hedges and fences; everyone resident there travelled to and from their castles via the internal combustion engine, so anybody passing through on foot would be immediately suspected of being up to no good. Children playing on the street were notable by their absence on account of so many being dispatched to private schools, and the high price of housing meant anyone born and raised there couldn’t afford to retain their roots in the vicinity, anyway.
Communication between dwellers of these miniature citadels would be limited to sharing complaints about planning applications to build a genuine village necessity such as a shop, i.e. something that threatened to despoil the pseudo-rural facsimile; otherwise, nothing beyond a communal gripe could unite the disparate residents. Once the commute from the workplace was done for the day, inhabitants would retreat behind doors that caused a regular headache for the postman on account of lacking something as common as a number. This ‘commuter community’ was essentially a collection of isolated properties populated by people for whom the substance of the environment in which their home was situated would be restricted to its superficial surface.
All to a man were city expats that had fed into the urban notion of countryside, one that the actual countryside isn’t exactly conducive to. Natives often comment on how new arrivals to rural neighbourhoods tend to moan about sonic disruption from cockerels at the crack of dawn or church bells indulging in Sunday morning pealing; they whinge to farmers about the aroma of manure and view traditional country practices vital to the agricultural calendar as disruptive to the bucolic idyll derived from TV shows wherein smug, moneyed middle-class couples convert decrepit barns into homes possessing all the mod cons their past address possessed, basically transplanting their London life to prettier surroundings with no attempt to adapt to those surroundings at all.
When her house was on the market, it seemed at one stage that my friend’s home would be purchased by a pikey-ish Irish builder bearing more than a passing resemblance to the late lamented actor Brian Glover, a man not known for playing urbane sophisticates. I think the prospect of the upset such a gruff and ‘uncouth’ character – along with his brood of children and grandchildren – would cause her snooty neighbours appealed to her mischievous side, though the exchange unfortunately fell through due to the builder’s eagerness to do a cash-in-hand deal because he didn’t have a bank account.
Fear of the rougher element they imagined they’d left behind in the city bringing down the tone of their new neighbourhood is extended to the locals on occasion by these nouveau-riche villagers. One such local is stable-owner Linda Watson, whose exasperation with the attitude of those who have colonised her village in Cambridgeshire led to her publicly declaring they were ‘up their own arses’ following council rejection of her plans to build temporary accommodation for her stable workers thanks to village opposition. In response, she has tapped into their deepest fears by offering to sell her land to travellers, provoking a further storm of protest in the process.
The plot in question has an estimated value of £350,000 and Linda Watson says she’s already been flooded with calls since she made an announcement which sounds more of a cry for help. ‘I have had it up to here and I want to leave and move abroad,’ she says. ‘I can’t do this any longer. I would be a bastard to offer this land to a family that wants to use the land for stables because the neighbours make keeping horses here a nightmare.’ She does add a conciliatory note, however, by saying ‘I would welcome any villager to come and see me and talk to me and know that I’m not an ogre. I’m just at my wit’s end and I have had no support from the village.’
Relocating to the rural is a luxury of the wealthy, but the relocation is on their own terms; they often bring little to what’s already there, especially if it doesn’t square with their idea of what the rural represents. But in their attempt to remodel the rural in their own image, they’re ironically killing what made it such an alternative to the urban in the first place.
© The Editor
3 thoughts on “VILLAGE IDIOTS”
In all fairness, it’s not only Londoners who move countrywards, only to destroy the object of their desires. Even in the northlands, I have had close connection with one such village, a ribbon of rustic cottages previously occupied by agricultural types, a blacksmith, its primary school teacher, caretaker and the like. Over a couple of decades, they’ve all gone, replaced by brash, newly-moneyed, commuting-types from the nearby big city.
Once established by pathfinders as a desirable location, their peers soon followed, driving up property prices way beyond the reach of the local cow-hand, spending outrageous sums to update (improve?) their bucolic cottages, hiding within their protected exteriors all manner of apparent must-haves from designer providers.
That’s OK in principle, it’s a market-place, it’s their money and their choice, although it’s tough on the local cow-hand who now needs a car to get to his work from the nearest affordable rental home. And, now he’s moved away, his kids can no longer get into the village primary school, as that’s now over-subscribed by the Tabathas and Tristrams of the fecund yummy-mummies, so his kids get bussed to the local sink-school instead.
The newcomers’ next, more cynical, step is to ‘pull up the ladder’ by vigorously opposing any plans to add any further properties to the village, preserving its scale in aspic (and the implied value of their own houses, what a surprise), but now devoid of its very soul. These are professional folk ‘with connections’ and their skill/vigour in opposing development is utterly dedicated and remarkably successful.
So what’s left now is only a ‘shadow village’, true there are cottage houses and folk who sleep there, but they don’t ‘live’ there – their hearts (if they have them), their minds and their priorities are elsewhere. They don’t really care about the village, they only care about themselves.
As a fellow northerner, I am both saddened and embarrassed by that – if it were only rapacious Londoners doing it, I’d kick them with the usual pleasure, but it seems that we’re all guilty (if we can afford it).
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Yes, I should imagine it happens in the Dales and the Pennines. Ironically, villages in the latter were quite isolated and cut-off before the M62 was constructed (especially during the winter months), yet there was probably more of a sense of community then than now.
I think this is a fragment of a much deeper problem – a housing crisis, and split between those who got on the housing ladder at the right time and those like me who for complicated reasons hopped off at just the wrong time, or cannot get on at all. No wonder the so called “metropolitan elites” think life is peachy. Sell your pad in St Johns Wood which you bought for £100,000 in 1989 for £3,000,000, retire to the country and buy a villa in Tuscany; have Polly Toynbee round for dinner, laugh at the proles. Meanwhile my twitter feed is awash with reports of knife crime and acid attacks as large areas of all our major cities regress to third world anarchy.
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