People want a blend of nostalgia and relaxed modern living, a place where one can belong.
After editing The Archers for 23 years, Vanessa Whitburn knows a thing or two about village life. But how much does it mirror her own experience?
Some of us are lucky. I live in a market town with an exciting arts portfolio and in a street that behaves like a village. Good neighbours, not nosy but helpful, especially in a crisis, we look after each other, water each other’s gardens if someone is away and even have an annual vegetable growing competition.
The vegetable contest can be a good excuse for a party as everyone brings a dish and a bottle or two. The prize is a sought-after gnome, which is displayed in the winner’s garden until the following year. The gnome is huge and rather ugly to be truthful but each year our neighbour, who is a potter, crafts a splendid version of the vegetable we are growing that the gnome carries. The winner keeps that forever.
Last year, the competition was for the longest runner bean and my partner and I almost won, only to be defeated at the last moment by a six-year-old with a bean three centimetres longer than ours. The measuring was meticulous.
Camaraderie, celebration, fun, community, security and something “organic”, an attachment to the land where we live, to nature and what goes on around us, these are qualities that people yearn for even if they live in the middle of the exact opposite, where neighbours simply don’t know each other.
“Good neighbours, not nosy but helpful, look after each other”
This explains why The Archers, the continuing drama I ran for BBC Radio 4 for 23 years, was and is so popular. The Archers is paced to the rhythm of the changing seasons. Optimism and new life in the spring as the land warms up, farmers get busy and the animals are turned out into the fields. Lynda Snell fusses over the Open Gardens, nets rev up and village cricket begins. In the summer Ambridge has the fete, “films in the fields” organised by Kathy Perks and this year the first pop festival at Lower Loxley. Autumn brings the ever popular Flower and Produce Show as the harvest has been gathered in. Inevitably, there is rivalry between retired farm hand Bert Fry and retired farmer Joe Grundy over their entries and Jill Archer usually does well with her marmalade. As winter sets in villagers enjoy quiz nights in The Bull, jumble sales and new ideas such as clothes swapping for charity in the village hall. Lynda Snell gets busy auditioning and twisting arms to make people participate in the panto. After Christmas there are bills to pay, farmers spend time mending and painting and there’s many a tale told and gossip shared by the warmth of a crackling fire at home and in the local pub until it all begins again in the spring. Births, marriages, deaths, infidelity, fidelity, gossip, kindness and cruelty, all life is in Ambridge at some time or another.
Of course, Ambridge often borrows from what goes on elsewhere. The first transition town was set up in Totnes in 2006 and the first transition village in Forest Row in East Sussex in 2007. The heart of the transition movement is an emphasis on sustainable community living. It favours local products and encourages local trading. Many places have a local currency that circulates inside the village or town and stimulates the local economy. Totnes has the Totnes pound and Ambridge uses TEAS, which stands for Transition Equivalent in Ambridge. If you visit the local shop in Ambridge, now run by a team of local volunteers who took over when the shop was threatened with closure, you can buy local products and hire local expertise at a stall in the corner of the shop with your TEAS. You can also visit the post office counter at one side of the shop, ably run on a part-time basis by Susan Carter. You might not want to share news so freely with Susan as you shop but on the other hand if you want a quick way to disseminate your business...
“Camaraderie, celebration, fun, community are qualities people yearn for”
The pub too has changed over the years as it has in many villages. I have two friends who took over a failing village pub in our area and within two months it was thriving once again. Why? They redecorated the place and revamped the food of course, but most of all they engaged with the community. Here was a pub where suddenly you were warmly welcomed by the hostess; where you could find out who would mend your car or sell you a bike. Here was a pub where you could find the best builder or carpenter or receive help with a village project. It was a hub for a network of local talent and skills and the girls who ran the place made sure that it was.
The Bull in Ambridge has changed over the years. You can still get a good pint of Shires and a game of darts, but there is much more emphasis on the restaurant and The Bull Upstairs provides a younger ambience with open mics and local bands at weekends. When the internet came to Ambridge, the pub set up a bank of computers and encouraged youngsters to give “silver surfer” lessons. Now of course The Bull has wi-fi and folk bring their own laptops as they settle down to a glass of wine or a pint. But standing at the bar and chatting after work is still encouraged by proprietors Jolene and Kenton and the traditional pub games like dominoes and table skittles have been dusted off and put in a big wooden box in the corner of the pub to be discovered anew by a younger generation. They are enjoying something of a revival. The Bull blends a rediscovery of the old with the comfort of the new.
“Even London is getting in on the act with suburban areas calling themselves ‘villages’ and encouraging urban versions of the village pub”
People really do want a chunk of this lifestyle. This blend of nostalgia and relaxed modern living, a place where one can belong. And the truth is you don’t only find it in a village these days or in the market towns. Even London is getting in on the act. It started with suburban areas such as Hampstead and Wimbledon calling themselves “villages” and encouraging urban versions of the village pub as well as smaller restaurants characterised by their homely welcome. Then came the bijou craft markets and independent shops around the green or near the park. These days the roll out goes on and on as property prices and demand push further out from the centre. The borough of Brixton in London is now a transition community.Looking on the calendar on its website, the borough celebrates Apple Day and it works with the borough of Lambeth on sustainable ideas, encouraging local crafts and skills and recycling.
There is no doubt that if you wander around Brixton market it is buzzing with art, crafts and great places to eat. And if you go to Streatham, Clapham or Wandsworth, you can enjoy something of the same, shops that resemble the village shop and pubs that feel they have stepped out of a village. You can feel a growing sense of local community settling under the great throbbing infrastructure. There is a chance to rest and to get to know and, even perhaps, get involved. You may, after all, wish to add to the community feel rather than simply consume it. And that can make all the difference.
Vanessa Whitburn was editor of The Archers for 23 years. She produces and directs for radio and television and lectures on scriptwriting and drama. In 2014, she received an OBE for services to radio drama.
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