Sunday Times, 6 April 2008

The Lost Village: In search of a forgotten rural England,
by Richard Askwith
(Ebury, £18.99)

Reviewed by Christopher Hart

Richard Askwith and his family went to live in Moreton Pinkney in rural Northamptonshire 15 years ago, when the village was still substantially inhabited by locals: those born there, who had worked on the land around the settlement all their lives. After a year abroad recently, Askwith returned, and with fresh eyes saw that something about the village had changed. The locals were all but gone: tempted into selling up by rising house prices. “There was something about the abruptness of the villagers’ vanishing that frightened me, like some medium-sized ecological catastrophe.”

He thought of Thomas Hardy’s magisterial poem, In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”, with its comforting portrait of immemorial rural England enduring even through world war. But Hardy was wrong. The “maid and her wight”, walking out on summer evenings down lovers’ lane, are gone, as is the old ploughman and his nodding horse. “Yet this will go onward the same though Dynasties pass,” wrote Hardy. For once he was being wildly optimistic.

So Askwith set off in his Nissan Micra on a modest and melancholy quest, to find if anything of true rural England survived at all, like some anthropologist hoping to record the voices of the last of a remote tribe before it vanishes forever. He succeeds handsomely, ferreting out a remarkable array of old-timers: thatchers, poachers, gamekeepers, hill farmers, their disappearing world captured so vividly that it only makes for still more melancholy reading.

The old voices recall when milk was drunk warm from the churn: “It never went through a cooler, it was beautiful.” They remember the whole village turning out to work at harvest time, the children picking wild oats or poppies, the men waiting for the rabbits to make their dash from the shrinking cover. There were hordes of grubby children everywhere in those days. “When I was little, there would have been about 30 or 40 children within five years’ distance of me.” There was no electricity, of course, outdoor privies, and “one well to feed 12 houses for water”. “We never had new clothes, and we certainly didn’t have toys.” On the other hand, the entire country round them was their playground, free of traffic and mysteriously free – or so memory would have it – of paedophiles, too.

There is Ada on Exmoor, who has only slept one night off the farm in her life, and never been to London. “I been to Exeter, though.” There is Bill, who wrote in sand tables at school. “You wrote in the sand with your finger. You didn’t waste paper, did you?” And people talked to each other. “You walk out in our village at 8pm on a summer evening [now], and there won’t be anybody. Just cars going past. No chat over the gate…All that stuff has gone.”

There are some extremely funny exchanges, too, for instance on what an unpleasant fish bream is. They eat it in London,though. “They’ll eat anything in London.” “It’s a foreign country, Chris.” “You been up there lately?” “No, but I seen it on the telly.” Askwith also touches on the coast – although our loss of connection with the sea is really a whole other book. One detail: the Polperrro Fisherman’s Choir (founded in 1923) still flourishes. It’s just that there are no fishermen in it now.

What do we have today instead of these close-knit, hard-working communities that knew nothing of toys, hot-water taps or what went on in the next county? An unreal world of golf clubs and “Dinosaur Parks”, discovers Askwith. Near Flatford Mill in Suffolk, he finds a Constable theme park and plans for a “new £320m indoor winter-sports centre”. In the Cotswolds, he discovers an organic farmshop – popular with such horny-handed locals as Kate Moss and Elizabeth Hurley – selling sun-dried-tomato pesto and “eight different flavours of salt”. It is owned by the Bamford family (of JCB fame) and also offers yoga classes. One cappuccino-drinker in the cafe is heard complaining contemptuously that the men doing up his house are “wurzels”, and that he can’t understand what they say.

Askwith’s feeling that he is already witnessing “the ruins of a collapsed civilisation” does not seem hyperbolic, although “culture” might be more accurate than “civilisation”. What is lost is almost inexpressible – “I think that people have forgotten something,” says one old voice – but beyond valuing. A way of life utterly different to the modern one of panicky consumerism and perpetual motion, where “everything is designed by and for humans”, and “lives are lived on a stage without boundaries”. The vanished world-view understood the fragility of things, that “the days of man are as grass”, and consequently the need for good husbandry. A world based on leisure parks and sun-dried-tomato pesto cannot survive for long.

You admire Askwith’s brave attempt to finish on an upbeat note. After spending the best part of a year working his way round England, from Northumberland to Cornwall, he returns home at last to realise that this kind of restless travelling, searching for answers and great truths, is really part of the problem. He should stop at home, like people used to, and be content. The village is still there: the rabbits in the fields, the sunset, the church bells, the “spattering of blood-red hawthorn berries”. “There was life in the old creature yet, and I could, if I chose, have a share in it.”

Yet this final epiphany of quiet hopefulness is not what stays with you. Rather it’s an earlier moment, a conversation with the last of Norfolk’s eel-catchers, when she suddenly mentions that eel numbers have dropped 99% in 40 years. Nobody knows why. PCBs, global warming, loss of habitat …and it’s not understanding that terrifies. As the statistic sinks in – 99% – Askwith writes, “We were just helpless human beings, bewildered and frightened in the darkness like our ancestors, wondering what on earth we had done to provoke such a catastrophe, and where it was all going to end.” For beyond the small sorrows of closing post offices and vanishing communities hangs a much larger, darker backcloth: that of nature itself closing down.

Published: 6 April 2008

© Times Newspapers Ltd 2008

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