AN ENGLISH VILLAGE
“In the city, no-one is quiet but many are lonely; in the country, people are quiet but few are lonely.”
(Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury 1945-61)
Some Londoners never quit their capital. “When a man tires of London, he tires of life.” My brother says that. I am astonished that a Physics teacher can quote Samuel Johnson but there you are, ever the polymath of the family is he. And he has put his money where his mouth is, literally so, because he has remained a committed Londoner all his life. I too was born and bred in London. I too learned to explore the bomb sites roundabout, to hop on and off buses when they were moving, to dodge and weave through the traffic in crossing a busy road, to find my way around the Underground network, to ignore the drunks and the beggars and to give the dodgy old men a wide berth. But I was anxious to get away as soon as I could. I dreamed of green fields, shady woods, clean air and village life.
It was not as if we lived in a deprived area. Our road was quiet and wound round back on itself. The garden was spacious enough to accommodate endless games of cricket and football and backed onto a railway line, the timetable of its goods and passenger trains known to both of us by rote. Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham it certainly was not. So why this hankering to shake the dust of the city off my boots? I always coveted peace and quiet. Though never lonely, I was ever content to be alone. There was a short pathway, no more than 50 yards long, slightly off the beaten track on the walk down to Streatham High Street. It was tree-lined and overgrown with bushes and shrubs, and quite a few weeds too, but I would always make a detour through it and lose myself ‘in the country’.
Finally, some 60 years later, I have obtained my wish. There were many reasons for the delay, none of them disastrous and all compelling, but here we are at last, in a village in sight of the Malvern Hills, with green fields and shady woods a mere 100 yards away. The cliché goes that to be viable a village must have a church, a pub, a primary school and a shop. Well, we have all four. There used to be a butcher and a baker but no candlestick maker as far as I am aware. There are actually two churches (one RC and the other the opposition) but attendance, as in all churches these days, is sparse and we await the day when, like failing prep schools, they are forced to merge. If so, I hope the one with the bells and the thriving bell-ringing team prevails. The school is full and the kids look cheerful and full of beans as they skip and gambol to lessons in their uniform past our house in the morning. The pub is flourishing and you have to book to get a table in the restaurant, always a good sign. If ever there was ample proof that the trend for rural pubs to lose custom and close down can be bucked, The Swan is it. All you need is decent décor, good chefs, friendly staff and tons of hard work.
The shop…. well, that’s something else. It is also a post office – for which we are hugely grateful – but it is too the nerve hub, command and control centre, GCHQ, of the village. Everything that happens in the neighbourhood is filtered through here, usually prefixed by the phrase, “Did you know…..” or, “You won’t believe this but….” It is womanned by three ladies of the most cheerful and helpful disposition you could possibly wish to meet. There is an old lady, Beryl, who makes a daily excursion there for her shopping (that is except on the days she’s ‘off games’, ie, had a fall, which is pretty frequent). She sits down in her pale blue coat, rain or shine, summer or winter, while the shop assistant fills her mobile trolley with her regular groceries.
“Hello,” she says to me, “Where’s Dilly?”
Dilly is our whippet. Never a word or enquiry after my well-being.
“Oh, I was ‘opin’ to see ‘er. Is she all right? She’s a lovely dog, she is. Give ‘er a stroke from me. I miss ‘er. Will she be here tomorrow?”
When Beryl is incapacitated, someone in the shop is deputed to drop off her groceries at her home. I have received the summons a couple of times. Her place is indescribably cluttered with hundreds of framed pictures of Lady Di, knick-knacks, frills, ornaments, baubles, mementoes, trinkets, trifles, so much so that there is only a narrow corridor through each room for her to manoeuvre. It is an obstacle course for her every time she hauls herself up from the sofa, that is, if she can find a sofa that isn’t piled high with magazines and old newspapers. But she seems happy with her lot. Will I be so forbearing when I am that old?
The majority of the inhabitants are old, it has to be said. Not long after I moved here, I learned the etiquette of the queue at the shop. It generally consists of old men discussing their ailments – cancer, arthritis, hips, heart, bowel, prostate and the like. You just have to wait your turn patiently and nod your head sympathetically. There’s no hurrying them. On this occasion, the daily subject was strokes. At last, the assistant turned to me.
“Hello, young man.” That just about said it all. “Doesn’t look as if you’ve had a stroke, then.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” – I just couldn’t resist it – “I was lucky enough to get a little one, just before breakfast.”
The shuffle of pensioners did not bat an eyelid; they paused, looked at me uncomprehendingly and resumed their griping. The shop assistant did have the grace to disappear behind the counter with a yelp of laughter.
As a retired teacher, I have to say I miss the sharp and ready repartee of the Common Room and the classroom. Stick – I refer to the verbal rather than the wooden kind – was the stock-in-trade of our profession; it kept us, and the kids, on our toes. Alas, village life has many attractions but here, you walk your dog, not your wits. I was behind one old gent in the queue for the post office. My word, he took in hand a lot of cash, the biggest wad of notes I have ever seen. As he turned to go, struggling to fit it into his jacket pocket, I asked him, in the spirit of good neighbourliness, “Do you need a body guard?” He looked at me, turned the suggestion around in his mind, then said, “No.”
It does worry me that these same old codgers – usually they are men – stagger out of the shop on their sticks, crutches or Zimmer frames to negotiate, stiffly and painfully, their entry into their car before slamming it into gear and roaring off, oblivious to traffic in either direction. I am torn here. Of course these old people are unfit to drive and can be a menace on the roads. On the other hand, if you take their car keys away from them, how are they going to get about? You are removing their independence and probably condemning them to a speedy decline. For the time being, for better or worse, they are about and it behoves the rest of us to keep an eagle eye out for them. Just in case you are not, you can rest assured that their brake lights will go on automatically if another vehicle approaches in the opposite direction at 200 yards. It is axiomatic that they drive at 40mph, whether through the village or on the open road. Their wives tend to drive much more slowly. I once followed an old biddy well out of town who was doing a steady 30. We came to a sign warning us to slow down to 40. Better put my foot down she thought and increased her speed to 36, which she steadfastly kept to, even when a few hundred yards further on, the speed limit dropped to 30. You can only laugh - good-naturedly I hope. On another occasion, a car stopped inexplicably slap bang in the middle of the crossroads. Traffic in all four directions came to a halt. There was no irate hooting, just a bemused curiosity. The old lady who was the driver – I was directly behind her, so I had a good view – suddenly disappeared from view. At length she straightened up, her glasses held triumphantly in her hand. Suitably accoutred, off she drove and life in the village resumed its gentle pace.
The signature feature of the village is the large, picturesque pond at the crossroads. It used not to be so charming, overgrown, polluted, murky, swampy and full of junk. A volunteer force was gathered and the whole place was cleaned up. It really is a delightful spot now, pretty and tranquil, and the same volunteers keep a watchful eye on the burgeoning flocks of geese, swan, heron and duck. Occasionally, you have to stop the car to allow a mother duck to waddle across the road followed by a dutiful line of ducklings. There was outrage in the community recently when a careless motorist ran over one of the ducks. Immediately a sign was put up:
I bet our village is the only place in England which has not had a sign like that altered – defaced, you might say – by some clever-dick. Which reminds me of a witty graffiti merchant in our area who had become fed up, as we all had, with the hated cones on a particular stretch of local road:
“This road will be closed between --- and---- due to essential highway maintenance.” Across it he had scrawled: Bring it on!