Dying Village

Dying Village by David White published in New Society, 20 January 1972

The archetypal village of Auburn, subject of Goldsmith’s lament, The Deserted Village, had certain vital organs. Once they were removed, the village perished and became a scattered, skeletal settlement. Goldsmith identified these vitals as: the village pub, “where village statesmen talked with looks profound; and news much older than their ale went around”; the village school, where “in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule; the village master taught his little school”; and the rectory, “the village preacher’s modest mansion.”

Thornbury, a village and civil parish four miles east of Holsworthy in north Devon, has also lost its vitals. It lost its pub over 40 years ago, and its school and rectory over 20 years ago. It has also lost its squire, its village shop, its smith and smithy, and, more recently, its Mothers’ Union.

In 150 years, Thornbury’s population has halved, from 517 persons in 1821, to just over 200 last year. And yet to deduce that Thornbury is in a gentle but irreversible decline from this evidence is like running to market before your horse. Village populations are smaller partly because families are smaller. Houses do not stand empty, no matter whether they are occupied by child-bearing couples or not. As the steering group which examined Devon’s rural public transport discovered, Thornbury’s ration of one bus a week out of the village is no great hardship if almost every villager runs a car. And the loss of a resident rector may not matter in a relatively godless age.

The decline of Thornbury, and villages like it, in the inland rural districts of north Devon, is something subtler than, though related to, the loss of its “vitals.” It derives from an inevitable fragmentation of the social and working life of the village. Thornbury lends itself easily to fragmentation, for it is more a coalition of hamlets than a village-Brendon, in the south west, East, West and South Wonford in the north, Woodacott in the centre, and Thornbury in the east. The road linking Thornbury Brendon, Thornbury Woodacott and Thornbury itself may be seen as the main artery of the village. But its blood supply is limited. The main roads from Holsworthy to Bideford and Hatherleigh lie well to the parish’s west and south, and there is therefore no passing trade or traffic. “No one comes to Thornbury without a reason,” an ex-farmer says.

It is a farming parish, and the scatter of farmhouses further fragments the village. Yet in spite of its physical structure, Thornbury was once nearer to what we understand as a village than it is now.

George Sanders is 85, and a descendant of one of Thornbury’s “antique” families- families like the Daniels, the Priests, the Routleys, the Wonnacotts, the Hutchings, and the Jollows -who have lived in the parish for 100 years or more. George Sanders is one of the few surviving members of a family of 18. In his time, he has been a farm worker, postman, bell-ringer at St Peter’s, the Thornbury parish church, and a bearer at the funeral of the squire, Sir Arthur Graham.

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He now lives in the thatched Manor Inn, Thornbury’s one-time pub, which he rented 43 years ago and bought in 1958. “We had choir suppers, social evenings, concerts in the village,” he remembers, “Nothing like that done today. And the pub was leading people to all these things. Or the children might go from school to the rectory for a free tea at harvest time.”

Frank Jollow, 81, who lives up at South Wonford, was a rabbit-catcher for “35 winters” in the parish, and remembers the Manor Inn when it was an inn: “I was never a serious drinker, but had a few there.” And Frank’s brother, Henry, a 76 year old former wheelwright and carpenter at Thornbury Brendon, remembers other pub clientele. “I was at Thornbury school then, and I remember the schoolmaster used to get what we’d call ‘very warm’ at the pub at lunchtime.”

Fred Hutchings, a long-serving Thornbury parish councillor, believes that trade fell off so badly that it had to be closed. But in the last 30 years, there has been a noticeable swing to Methodism in the district, a district under the influence of Shebbear, the home of the Bible Christian Movement across the river Torridge. The rector, the Rev Ronald Baker, believes that this may partly explain, if not why the pub closed, perhaps why it was never re-opened: “What the village needs most of all is a pub for a community centre” says Baker, a Londoner, who came to Thornbury 15 years ago as a lay preacher. “The trouble is, Methodists think its evil to drink in public.”

A few months ago, the older men of the parish lost their only meeting place when Les Daniel, son of the former Thornbury blacksmith, replaced the old smithy with a modern workshop. The only candidate for a community centre, the present parish hall at Thornbury, was originally the parish school, built by the parish for £70, and paid for by money raised at local dances. Before the First World War, the senior and junior classes totalled between 50 and 60 children. By the time it closed, after -the Second War, there was one class of about eight pupils.

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The opening of the Holsworthy secondary school had cancelled the need for the senior, l l-plus class, and the Jollows remember numbers gradually declining after this. The village’s last schoolmistress now teaches in Holsworthy, and the Thornbury children go by school bus, either to the neighbouring Bradford primary school, or to Holsworthy.

The coming of the secondary school at Holsworthy helped shorten the life of the parish school. An added factor must have been the drop in the number of children in the village. The Jollows remember when there were between 30 and 40 children at Thornbury Wonford. Now there are none.

The older men remember the old physical fabric of the village; the school, the pub, the grocery shops, the shoemakers. They also remember, and are part of, the older human fabric. For example, the Grahams, the squires of Thornbury Manor, who gradually relinquished considerable property ownership in Thornbury, and who are still remembered today for an annual gift, originally to the poor, now to the elderly of the parish. (Administering the Graham fund is now one of the very few remaining duties of the parish council.) They remember the rectors, when they still lived in Thornbury rectory. The rectory is now renamed the Priory, smartened up a good deal inside, and the home of “foreigners” (that is, people from outside Devon). Henry Jollow’s wife, Edith, recalls the stories of the short-sighted parson, Smith-Heriz, who travelled round his parish by pony and trap; and was thought, in a nice way, “comical.” “He was supposed to have gone on holiday at a hotel with his wife. When he arrives he kisses the porter, closes the door and tips his wife sixpence.”

Matthew Routley, whose brother Edwin is a farmer at Brendon, and now a member of the “meritocracy” of major farmers, remembers the older “aristocracy” of the village. “You had someone to look up to then, what with the parson, the squire and the schoolmaster,” he says. What remains today of this fairly centralised village life and pyramidal community structure? The physical shell appears to be almost intact. And though villagers remember a dozen or so labourers’ cottages that have collapsed or have burned down, the manor, the mill, the inn, the schoolhouse, the church and the farms still stand. That some of them do is a tribute to the “foreigners” who now live in them. Thornbury rectory was in poor shape when the Bradford and Thornbury livings were combined. Now, in the words of a villager, it’s a “real treat” to see inside. The manor and the mill, too, are in “foreign” hands, and no property stands empty for long. John Prescott saw and made an offer for the Mill Leat the day it was advertised in the newspapers.

The husks of the village are cared for, but they are only husks. All that remains of the village’s “vitals” are the churches and the chapels: there are eight within a circumference of three miles. Once two chapels solicited custom within yards of each other, and were nicknamed Spite and Envy.

And there is a post office. The postmistress, Mrs Brenda Francis, and her husband William, moved to Thornbury eleven years ago from Addlestone, near Weybridge in Surrey. She opened up a room in her cottage at Woodacott to accommodate a counter three years ago. Her Lilliputian post office, and Les Daniel’s workshop, are now probably the only places in the village where two or three people may be found gathered together in the daytime during the week.

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The fragmentation of village life and resulting isolation of individuals rather worries the rector, Ronald Baker. “Some of the newer people take part in village activities,” he admits, “but others, perhaps because they want to truly retire, don’t want to get involved at all. Now this is all right as long as they’re healthy and can use their car. But what if they fall ill?” Though his congregations are small, he makes a point of visiting every parishioner once a month.

Mrs Amy Pett, Fred Hutchings’ sister, agrees with the rector. She is an active member of the village Women’s Institute, and reckons that only the really local people give it any support. “They’re nice people, very nice people indeed,” says her husband, Philip, “but they’d rather not get involved, you see.” “It’s the old story,” comments Fred Hutchings, “town and country don’t mix. They don’t understand country ways. They may call themselves churchgoers, but you’ll only see them once a month at 8 o’clock communion. And when the church fete’s on, they’ll be mowing the lawn, but it’s a difference of ways, and they’re perfectly friendly.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Peter Bakel is a retired army officer, married, with three children. He moved to Paddock Farm, Brendon, 20 years ago and still thinks of himself as a “foreigner.” Yet he is clerk to the parish council, and his family make up one of the teams that started up the ringing of the five bells of St Peter’s, silent for many years. “I’ve always lived in rural communities,” he says, “It’s a way of life that’s not new to me.” Ronald Baker is immensely” cheered by this kind of involvement, this refusal to live partitioned lives. “For one thing, I’ve got twelve young people in my congregation, whatever the reason.”

Nevertheless, one thing becomes clear when talking to Thornbury people. However overtly friendly and helpful villagers are to each other, there is a discernible split between locals and foreigners, and it is this split of “different ways” that fragments village life as surely as the topography of Thornbury fragments farming life.

This is no one’s fault, certainly not the foreigners’. The locals could be accused of an exclusiveness that inhibits “involvement,” and therefore any re-building of the old social cohesion. Fred Hutchings tells of one incident, “some years ago,” when it was the practice of the parish council members to re-elect each other annually. Hutchings wanted to put up a new candidate. It was a risky action, but Hutchings had enlisted the support of many of the village’s young people through his promotion of the monthly “socials” (now held annually). In the end, 98 per cent of the village turned” out to vote, and Hutchings and the new candidate were elected. And the system today? “Much as before,” chuckles Hutchings. Other divisions, like church and chapel, seem less important. Church and chapel pull together “when there’s trouble,” and families divide their allegiances.

Fragmentation of the village’s working life is another threat to its “integrity.” Farms have generally grown larger, swallowing up smaller ones. There are now fewer individual farmers. Mechanisation has also cut out the need for a resident labour force. Edwin Routley and his son John run a farm that once had a labour force of eight.

Raymond Hutchings, who farms the Barton, will hire a “foreign” contract hedge-trimmer with his machinery, rather than engage a “local” labourer. It saves time and money-and the contract man will do a neater job. The farm-associated craftsmen, wheelwrights and smiths, are not needed in an age of tractors. Farms are now, therefore, run only by farmers and their families. The real isolation of the farm as a family unit, rather than a settlement of associated workers, adds to the fragmentation. And curiously, Thornbury farmers seem unsympathetic to the efforts of “foreigners” to work farms. This is not the continuity they want. They will tell of the pig farm that failed, the rabbit farm that failed: “They sold up and walked back to London.” Probably sympathy would not be enough. Farming is tough in north Devon. Peter Bakel tried his hand, but sold up eventually, and got a job with the Ministry of Agriculture: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he says wryly.

The continuity which farmers want is that of father to son. Yet many sons are not interested. Thornbury farmers relate the sad tale of one of the biggest farmers in Sutcombe, north of Thornbury, selling his farm after two generations had run it badly. Continuity is not guaranteed.

The county development plan has no plans for Thornbury. Little development other than in-filling will be allowed. The gap will widen enormously between the future key settlements such as Shebbear, and Thornbury. The county planners prefer to think of Thornbury as “static” rather than “dying.” But something is dying: the “integrity” of a farming village. But perhaps this integrity, this inter-dependence of a small community, is as outmoded as the parson’s pony and trap.

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