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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 103

Stone provided me with a cup of coffee and one of the best ham salad rolls I’ve ever got from a sandwich shop. I needed the calories and I was going to need the caffeine. The road out of town was a pleasant one but it was steep and it was long. At first I followed the main road but, now being armed with a proper map, I was able to take a right fork and was transported into the sort of English countryside people travel the globe to experience. I pass between fields, through woods and spinneys, girded by hedgerows and serenaded by songbirds. I could tell I was getting higher as the thrushes gave way to skylarks, blackbirds to crows.

As often is the case, I have to show myself how fit and strong I am, on the first real hill of the day. I really enjoy chomping my way up the lane higher and higher. For once the lung infection that has slowed me down since the Sperrin Mountains of Northern Ireland is not having much effect. The fact that I’ll probably have to pay for these exertions later in the day is registered and ignored. The middle aged man refuses irrefutable empirical evidence of decline in the hope that, unacknowledged, the decline will have miraculously reversed itself. Towards the top the road narrows to pass between ancient banks. This must be an old drovers’ route or a pilgrims’ way. Whatever its original intention I feel the company of a couple of thousand years worth of travellers and all of them would know that they have climbed a hill.

At the top, and in the middle of farmland is a neat cricket ground. I’d happily be picked as non-bowling number eleven if it allowed me to be a boundary rider on a ground like this one. I don’t know how well Moddershall are doing in whatever league they find themselves but they come near the top of my league for ground location.

Cars are as few as the occasional farms and outlying houses that dot the route. The ones that pass are of the oversized variety that gridlock primary school gates morning and afternoon. You don’t usually get much courtesy from these but today they were showing  respect for the cyclist.

Just before Fulford is a cottage that I could easily aspire to. It has character and charm and a beautiful garden overlooking a thousand acres of loveliness. I imagine evening barbecues as the sun sets over the just visible mountains of Wales. The rest of the village is as neat and tidy as you could wish. They take noise abatement seriously up here. There isn’t a sight or sound of anybody. The Marie Celeste is like Studio 54 in comparison to this Staffordshire village. It’s the phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century. Villages came into existence as hubs of activity but as more and more families left the land, to find work in the towns and cities, the village declined. Well into the last century they were still rooted in farmlife and in providing for the needs of the community. And then the drift from rural to urban became more complicated and in many ways reversed.

Affluent town dwellers discovered the concept of lifestyle choice and began moving into cottages like the one I had just been coveting for exactly those reasons. A lot of the farm labourers and their families lived in tied cottages. If they left their work then they were obliged to leave their homes. When rural landowners realised that the tied cottages were a considerable capital asset they started putting them on the market. The tenants couldn’t afford to out bid the managers and head teachers. So more cottages went to people who only lived in the village between six in the evening and six in the morning but who earned their livings miles away. The advent of cars obviously accelerated this process.

Village life changed completely. Farming continued to play a major role but a smaller proportion of the village population were actively involved. Barn dances, bell ringing groups and young farmers associations that had dominated the social life now gave way to neighbourhood watch schemes, amateur dramatic groups and bigger and bigger lawns. Commuters shopped in towns so the village stores went though a number of stages. The supplier of everything to everybody. A place where you’d go in for carrots and a pound of bacon and come out with a watering can, a roll of flypaper and some millet for the budgie. They then continued to sell the same range but because they didn’t have as many customers the produce was often tired and not of the freshest. The advent of the sell-by date was a real problem to shops where a tin of corned beef could remain on the shelf for months. The next stage was either to close down or to specialise. The affluent neighbours might be bringing a car-boot-load of shopping from Sainsbury’s but they were a ready market for home produced honey, free range eggs and dry-cured gammon. The farm shop was born and villages suddenly became retail centres again.

In reality many villages simply lost the mill, the local primary school, the post office, shops and pubs. The local congregation dwindled except on Christmas Eve and Harvest Festival; and such trades as blacksmiths, saddlers and dry stone wallers completely disappeared. Even the local mechanic, with a workshop and a single petrol pump, found he couldn’t compete with supermarkets and Quick Fit Fitters. And so it is common to cycle through ghost villages like this one where the lawns are mown and the garden borders a glow of colours but not a single person is to be seen. In Ambridge (fictional setting of long running radio soap opera The Archers) people are always meeting down the village pub over a pint of Shires, or at the post office or the reception desk of the local hotel.The reality for many villages is empty houses during the day and couples watching television behind closed doors and curtains at night. Script writers might struggle to make much of a drama out of that.

It’s all very pleasant. The comfortably off have displaced the old farm workers and have turned the damp and decaying cottages and barns into comfortable and desirable residences. I don’t blame them. It isn’t their fault. The lot of the displaced families is rarely as rosy. They tend, ironically, to end up in the towns their evictors came from: but not in the same houses. Villages have become very attractive dormitories where people proudly lean on their substantial automatic gates and look out at the passing world and say; “Hello, we’re locals. Now go away!.”

Of course not all villages are like that. There are some that have young people in them. You can occasionally see them on their own aiming a solitary basketball at a hoop fastened to the side of the converted barn and looking rather sad. Staffordshire villages used to be famous for their tug of war teams, wakes week and well dressings. They used to be social high points and involved the whole community. The well dressings continue but they are as authentic as folk singers in coloured waistcoats. It’s progress in a way and, if they lack character and have severed the natural link with the land, at least the buildings are being well maintained.