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About A Week: English Villages Are Dying

Shops, post offices, schools and pubs are closing. Peter Hinchliffe reports on the death of the English village.

Millions of U.K. citizens dream of escaping from the urban rat race to live in a village.

Yet villages are being strangled to death, denied the "oxygen" of local services.

For centuries village life has revolved around the pub, the church, the school, and local shops -- places where people could meet and talk to one another.

Now pubs, schools and shops are closing in record numbers.

And churches struggle to survive.

The government has ruled that another 2,500 post offices must close by next year. Many of these have been hubs of village life.

In the 1960s there were 25,000 post offices in the United Kingdom. Most villages had a shop that sold stamps and paid out weekly pensions to old folk.

The latest closures will reduce the number of post offices to 11,760. Email has now overtaken letters as a means of communication. And many U.K. senior citizens choose to have their state pensions paid monthly into their bank accounts, rather than hiking to the village post office to collect them in cash. The basic pension is now 90 pounds (US$180) a week.

However, many village post offices also serve as the local shop. Without payment for running the post office side of the business it is estimated that in the coming 12 months another 1,000 village shops will close.

In an article in The Independent this week Richard Askwith lamented the accelerating loss of centuries of rural heritage.

"All over England, the traditional structures of village life are falling away," he declared.

"A couple of years ago, I became mildly obsessed with the idea that rural England was vanishing. It started abruptly. I was standing in our village churchyard, contemplating an old gravestone whose lettering had been worn to illegibility by time. After trying and failing to decipher it, I began to wonder how and when, precisely, those missing numerals and letters had disappeared. Had they been dislodged by an especially violent gust of wind, or a series of particularly big raindrops? Had some ravenous microorganism taken too many bites? Presumably, in such cases, tiny bits keep dropping off until, one day, so much has gone that the rest can't be imagined, unless you remember what it originally said.

"There is never an identifiable moment at which the point of no return is reached -- just many moments afterwards, when you can say with certainty that the point of no return was passed long ago. And the thought struck me that something similar had happened to the traditional life of the countryside.

"I wasn't thinking particularly about the physical environment -- although there's no doubt that vast swathes of countryside have been irretrievably lost in my lifetime -- but, rather, about the cultural environment. It wasn't just pubs, shops and post offices that were disappearing (at a rate, then, of 26, 25 and 12 a month respectively -- all three have since accelerated); almost anything that had the character of a solid rural institution seemed to be in precipitate decline."

Whitley, a small Yorkshire village in the Pennine hills -- the place where I grew up -- serves as an example of decline.

It is set either side of Scopsley Lane, a lane which leads to nowhere, becoming a dirt track, then a footpath. Boys used the lane as a football pitch in days when few people owned cars.

During my boyhood a coal mine in a valley near the village school employed 30 men. That pit closed years ago.

There were fewer than 30 of us at the school, taught by two ladies, in the 1940s. My mother and father had attended that school before me. It was closed in the 1980s. Children now travel by bus to schools in neighboring villages.

The school premises are now used as a community center.

Fifty years ago there were five shops in the village. They have ceased to trade.

I went to school each morning with the sound of a hammer striking metal ringing in my ears, and the smell of burning hooves in my nostrils. The village blacksmith's shop adjoined our garden.

Blacksmith Harry Asquith once won the title of Best British Blacksmith. He regularly shoed carthorses used for heavy work on local farms, as well as making farm equipment and producing other ironwork, such as gates.

Generations of Asquiths were pillars of the village church, St Michael and All Angels. His son Reggie was the church organist.

The blacksmith's is closed. The church, once called "the cathedral in the country," no longer has a full-time vicar.

The village pub, The Woolpack, used to be the place where locals gathered to relax and gossip. With increasing wealth, the pub opened a restaurant that became famous for its food. Internationally famed singer Tom Jones ate there while appearing at a local variety club. Now, like many another rural pub, it struggles to survive.

There's a reservoir in Whitley. Water gathered in the local Pennine hills is piped into it, then distributed to the nearest urban area. My grandfather was the reservoir keeper. My dad was born in the keeper's house.

Irish laborers, known as navvies, dug out the reservoir in the nineteenth century. They were housed a quarter of a mile away, in a modest row of stone cottages. Not surprisingly, villagers called their homes Navvy Row.

Those cottages have now been modernized into a handsome country residence.

Houses in Whitley and the area around the village are still very much in demand. Families are eager to live in rural surroundings.

But they are very much mistaken if they think they are buying into true village life.


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