Thatched roofs, church spire, Morris dancing, chocolate box cottages, cricket on the green, bunting, and of course, the pub. Picturesque villages – commonly defined as being larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town – are a quintessential part of our county, but is it more picture postcard fantasy than everyday reality?
Vibrant villages or communities in crisis?
Behind the rose-tinted spectacles, English – not to mention our Kentish – village life is under threat. The ongoing closures and cuts to pubs, village schools, community halls, rural transport, affordable housing, healthcare, libraries, post offices, internet services and small police stations risk destroying rural communities. Between 1995 and 2005 around 60,000 corner shops, grocers, banks, post offices and pubs were closed, while, according to CAMRA, pubs are closing at a staggering rate of close to 20 a week in England.
And with fewer community hubs, social isolation is becoming a growing issue – even poor internet connection in the countryside is to blame, affecting the rural property market as homes without superfast internet broadband connections become unsellable. The Plunkett Foundation (www.plunkett.co.uk), a charity that supports rural communities, warned in 2012 that 23% of rural households in England have no or limited broadband.
Buyers who move away from London in search of the flexibility of working from home are finding they simply can’t get online fast enough, forcing these so-called ‘digital refugees’ back to the city.
At the heart of the community
Village shops are an integral part of rural life, but it’s not just about stocking up on bread and milk. The Plunkett Foundation recently reported that at the end of 2016 there were 348 community shops trading in the UK providing essential services to 1,400 remote rural communities.
It’s an informal support network, a social hub, a lifeline even for the vulnerable – elderly people or mothers with young children. For those without transport, it can provide other essential services – a post office, a drop-off and collection point for parcels, prescriptions and dry cleaning.
Using local suppliers and contractors boosts the local economy and the environment, by reducing the number of journeys villagers and suppliers have to make by car, keeping the “food miles” low.
The Countryside Alliance Awards, nicknamed the ‘Rural Oscars’, are returning for their 13th year this month, and are expecting to receive thousands of nominations honouring the skills and produce, tradition, enterprise and the people who go the extra mile for their communities.
Last year saw The Heath Stores, in the Wealden village of Horsmonden, scoop British Champion in the Village Shop category. Owners Kate and Andrew Mills took over the shop, which overlooks the Heath, in 2011, after returning to the village following careers as research scientists (Andrew was brought up in the village) and despite trading for more than 50 years, it was in danger of closing down.
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner said: “Following a £100,000 re-fit and extensive research into what the village wanted, the shop was re-launched in November 2012 as a village shop and farm shop. Now with over 4,000 lines and 30 local suppliers, this shop offers both local artisan products alongside more budget ranges to suit all pockets.
“The aim of the shop was to create a convenience store with a farm shop, provide local employment, particularly for the young, a place for financial transactions, a meeting place for those isolated and to play a central role in the community…This is far more than just a village shop.”
For whom the bell tolls
The peal of church bells provides the quintessential soundtrack to country living and St George’s in Benenden is no exception, being the only church in Kent, other than Canterbury Cathedral, with 12 bells in its tower – a number usually found in cathedrals and great city churches, and very rare in a country parish.
Its thriving and dedicated band of bell ringers range in age from nine to 80-something and ensures that the bells are rung for Sunday services, weddings and special occasions.
Meanwhile, more than 3,500 people have signed a petition over fears that the bells of St Peter’s Church in Sandwich, which have chimed every quarter-hour for hundreds of years, could be silenced, following a complaint from a local homeowner.
Residents describe the church bells as “the beating heart of Sandwich” and are worried that this may mark “the erosion of centuries-old traditions in our beautiful medieval town”.
Modern-day designer villages
As the government works to create robust and lively rural communities, John Elliott, Managing Director of Tonbridge-based Millwood Designer Homes (www.millwooddesignerhomes.co.uk), also embraces village life and hopes to encourage more families to enjoy rural living: “Over the years, school catchment areas have enjoyed their own property price bubble, offering some security against the wider fluctuating property market.
“As a location to live it is not only excellent schooling that draws homebuyers to Kent, but also the attraction to live in a thriving village community, surrounded by open countryside with good transport links into central London.”
Deck the halls
There are almost 9,000 village halls across England and most places with more than 100 inhabitants will have one. For these communities, often situated in remote rural areas, a well-maintained hall can alleviate social isolation, improve healthy living, provide support for families and the elderly and foster community spirit.
The hall can be a real lifeline, providing an important resource when other social hubs such as post offices and pubs are closing down.
Every community hall in Kent – around 400 of them – is unique and each has its own character, policy or practice, rules and uses. Some are converted schools, providing an interesting social history, others are purpose built, using National Lottery funding. Action with Communities in Rural Kent’s (ACRK, previously known as Kent Rural Community Council) Chief Executive, Keith Harrison, says: “Village halls are an essential part of community life and here in Kent they support more than 2,500 jobs. Basically they help keep rural life possible. All manner of things happen in village halls – business breakfasts, after-school clubs, outreach health services and online training to name but a few. They are very much a hidden part of the rural economy.”
The internet The village of Bethersden (home to Pop Larkin’s original Darling Buds Farm) is just six miles south west of Ashford and boasts a thriving website, designed to bring its small community of young and old together. Managed by local resident Nerys Carter – no stranger to rural life, having moved to the village from the Brecon Beacons – the website (www.bethersden.org.uk) acts as the local noticeboard, providing news on events, clubs, societies, a history of the area and useful information on local services. Nerys’ advice to anyone considering moving to a village is: “You have to make an effort, so whether it’s the pub quiz, the fete or the parish council, get involved!”
Women’s Institutes Bringing women of all ages and backgrounds together for more than 100 years, the WI has 6,300 local groups that are just as likely to be found wine tasting, life drawing or belly dancing as flower arranging and cake baking. Visit www.thewi.org.uk
Young Farmers is a membership-based network for young people (not just for those from agricultural backgrounds). Local clubs are run by members for members and offer (usually) weekly opportunities to socialise, volunteer and learn new skills. Visit
Community Radio For many rural communities, local radio remains a lifeline, providing relevant, informative and entertaining content. Community Radio – that is, small, micro-local, non-profit radio stations – can trace its roots back as early as the 1960s with the BBC’s original concept for local radio. Broadcasting to a local audience, they are generally owned and operated by the communities they serve, giving them an opportunity to have their voices heard.
Best village The Victorian poet Coventry Patmore dubbed Mayfield in East Sussex the “sweetest village”, so it comes as no surprise that it also came top in the Times ‘20 best villages in Britain’ earlier this year. The 1,000-year-old High Weald settlement, just nine miles south of Tunbridge Wells, boasts a pretty high street with a picturesque pub, independent shops, butcher and deli among its 40-odd listed buildings.
The village is also home to Mayfield Gin, the creation of local resident James Rackham. The dramatic label depicts the story of St Dunstan & The Devil, an epic event, which apparently took place in Mayfield village in the 10th century. Local wild hops found growing in hedgerows (now cultivated in nearby Salehurst) give a distinct citrus and hop flavour to the gin. Visit www.mayfieldgin.com
Oldest village Chiddingstone is one of Kent’s oldest and most beautiful villages, a shining example of Tudor living. It is even mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Legend has it that the name is derived from the Chiding Stone where offenders were punished. It was recorded as Cidingstane in the 12th century and was given to Bishop Odo after the Norman invasion in 1072 as part of his Earldom of Kent.
Odo was so unpopular throughout the county because of his greedy and tyrannical behaviour that there has never been another Earl of Kent since then.
With its well-preserved Tudor buildings, narrow main street and cobbled pavements, Chiddingstone
has been featured in many postcards
Most haunted village The picturesque rural community of Pluckley in Kent holds the dubious title of Britain’s most haunted village. With a population of just over 1,000, Pluckley is supposedly home to at least 15 ghosts – making it a top destination for paranormal investigators.
Its ghostly portfolio includes a screaming man who may have worked at the village brickworks and fallen to his death, and a highwayman said to have been run through with a sword and pinned to a tree, where he appears as a shadowy figure at the aptly named ‘Fright Corner’.
Other ghosts said to haunt the area include that of a schoolmaster found hanging by children and of an old woman who used to sit on a bridge, smoking her pipe, drinking gin and selling the watercress she had gathered from the stream.