Our Amazing Villages
They are usually centuries-old communities but even today remain the heartbeat of rural Britain where many of us dream of living. And as a new book reveals, some of them have remarkable stories...
By Clive Aslet
EVERYBODY thinks they know what a village is - it has a green with a pond on it, with a church spire in the background and a pub opening its doors. Actually there are many villages in Britain that aren't like this at all.
Once they were nearly always self sufficient; then the car and out-of-town supermarkets arrived. People no longer work where they live, many villages - as I discovered as I made my tour of 500 villages for a new book - are pretty empty after school dropoff. Assuming they still have a school.
But villages remain an ideal. They're a favourite place to live, the stuff of many a town dweller's dreams. I believe that this has something to do with architecture: not so much that cottages are pretty but they're jumbled together in a way that encourages neighbourliness. They are big enough to contain a variety of talents (often increased by the arrival of newcomers) while being small enough for people to know each other.
Here are some of the villages I found on my travels.
A wonderful example of what makes a village worth living in. This village has a fire brigade, a fire engine with a big silver bell and a real working hose, and a fire station with a fireman's pole. It has never, however, put out a fire, and it probably shouldn't be allowed to since none of its members have had any training.
It was formed in 1977 in response to the firemen's strike that year, when villagers thought it best to be prepared as so many of their houses were thatched.
When the strike ended, the brigade was not disbanded and now raises money for local good causes, giving a dinner every autumn for elderly residents.
They get to play with the hose once a year on Boxing Day, fighting it out with the real fire brigade to see which team can squirt a barrel hung on a wire across the brook first.
This is the thing about village life.
Where pre-existing traditions do not exist to satisfy the deep human need to belong, a village is the right kind of size to create those traditions.
Go to the annual Hallaton bottlekicking before the EU bans it. It is a throwback to football's early roots but there is no ball and no rulebook.
The ball is a small barrel of beer which has to be rolled, carried or otherwise propelled to one of two boundary streams and the game is a cross between a rugby scrum and civil war.
Play, on Easter Monday, is preceded by the blessing of a hare pie on the steps of the church - although these days it is made of beef.
In former times the pie was scattered on Hare Pie Hill outside the village, presumably an ancient pagan rite. One rector tried to ban the pie because of its pagan undertones until he was forced to back down when the slogan "No pie, no parson" was daubed on the rectory wall.
Which detective story has the most eerie sense of place? All must yield to Conan Doyle's Hound Of The Baskervilles, based on the many ancient legends told about the Dartmoor hound.
His friend Fletcher Robinson's family had a house at Ipplepen, nine miles from the moor and its infamous bogs, inspiration for the Grimpen Mire - and the Robinsons' coachman was called Harry Baskerville.
JUNIPER HILL, OXFORDSHIRE
Marooned within the bleakness of huge fields, the four unexpected balls of an RAF station on the horizon, tallsided lorries passing along the main road on the other side of a hedge, the hamlet that was the original model for Flora Thompson's Lark Rise is a rather different place to the one in which she grew up - not least because the grinding poverty she knew is gone.
There is a plaque on the tiny one-upone-down cottage she shared with her parents and five siblings at Juniper Hill. She left, not surprisingly, as soon as she could get a job, as clerk in the Post Office in nearby Cottisford - the Fordlow of her stories. Unlike the recent BBC adaption of her work, her stories were unsentimental depictions of the hard lives of many village dwellers in the late 1800s.
KEIR MILL, DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY
In 1842 Kirkpatrick Macmillan was fined four shillings at the Gorbals Police Court for having injured a small girl. Not a bad accident, it was nevertheless a remarkable one; Macmillan had been riding the world's first bicycle. He had started his journey at the blacksmith's forge at Keir Mill, where he had made his machine and had travelled 70 miles to Glasgow. His machine weighed around 56lb (about 25kilos) and had wooden wheels rimmed with iron. Presumably he rode back home on it because he later married, took over his father's forge and remained there for the rest of his life. He hadn't patented his invention and it was widely copied. He wasn't concerned about the fortune he had missed out on, preferring instead to enjoy the village life he loved.
For 500 years Meriden has considered itself to be at the centre of England. It has a cross and a metal plaque to prove it. No matter what the Ordnance Survey concludes with its gravitational mapping, nor what it says on the plaque by the so-called Midland Oak near Leamington Spa a few miles away, Meriden remains certain of its central place in English geography. It is at the heart of the ancient Forest of Arden and the woodmen held their meetings in Meriden.
A great archery contest, showcasing the skill most essential to a forester, was still being held there in the Thirties.
John Woodcock Graves was asked by his daughter one evening in 1829 for the words to an old ballad sung to a tune known as Bonnie Annie.
He had just been chatting to an old friend about the foxhunt which was planned for early the next morning on the misty Cumbrian fells and decided instead to pen new words to the tune. He sang the new lyrics, D'ye Ken John Peel, to his friend.
"He smiled through a stream of tears which fell down his manly cheeks and I well remember saying to him, in a joking style, 'By Jove, Peel, you'll be sung when we're both run to earth.'" And indeed without Graves's revision of the song, no one would now remember John Peel, the hunting-obsessed son of a farmer and horse dealer who lived in Caldbeck all his life.
RUDSTON, EAST RIDING OF YORKSHIRE
Stonehenge and Avebury may be the most famous but the monolith at Rudston is the tallest of the ancient sacred stones still standing in Britain. Nearly eight metres high and almost two across, it is at the same time surprisingly thin and looks rather like a giant iPod Nano.
In the 18th century the landowner Sir William Strickland dug down at its base and concluded that there was as much of it below the surface of the ground as there was above it.
It is gritstone and must have been hauled by prehistoric worshippers to where it stands from Cayton Bay, 10 miles away on the east coast of Yorkshire.
THORNTON HOUGH, CHESHIRE
William Lever, First Viscount Leverhulme, was not a fan of whitewashed walls and thatched roofs. "The more picturesque the exterior, the more impossible did the internal arrangements appear to be, " wrote his son.
Having made his fortune and having bought the estate of Thornton Hough in 1891, the benevolent soap magnate proceeded to acquire most of the village and decided he was going to improve his tenants' living conditions whether they wanted them to be improved or not.
In place of the existing village with medieval roots he built a model village complete with a blacksmith's forge beside a spreading chestnut tree.
If not exactly pretty, it reflects the vim of its builder and remains the less well-known manifestation of his belief that the profits of industry could build a better world.
Weobley's streets have made themselves into an essay in timber construction, some houses being supported by curved pairs of crucks, others having upper floors jettied out over the street.
The carpenters who assembled the frames used green oak so that the joints would lock together as the wood dried. Charles I stayed here after the Battle of Naseby and even then the buildings would have been bent and twisted.
Weobley is still a wooden village and one of the best surviving examples of a method of building that evokes instant nostalgia.