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About A Week: English Villages Dying

"Millions of UK 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,'' writes Peter Hinchliffe.

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.

Thousands of village post offices have closed in the last two decades. Now there are less than 40 per cent of that number. Email has now overtaken letters as a means of communication. And many UK 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.

In an article in The Independent newspaper a writer 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 micro-organism 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: almost anything that had the character of a solid rural institution seemed to be in precipitate decline.’’

Whitley, the village in which I grew up, serves as an example of decline.

The village 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. At that time only two people in the village owned cars.

When I was a boy 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 in the 1940s, taught by two ladies. My mother and father had attended that school before me. It was closed in the 1980s. Children now travel by bus to schools in neighbouring villages.

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 iron-work, 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.

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 labourers, 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 modernised 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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