O, To Be In England

Between our halfway-up-a-hill house and the wide, flat landmass of the retail park is a small village. It’s just a thoroughfare with two back streets but it’s been there longer than almost everything else along the coast, founded by Flemish refugees in the 17th century. There’s a cauliflower field at one end and an animal sanctuary at the other. Miniature goats in hairy boots, and elderly beach donkeys with sunken spines look up in exasperation whenever a child lobs a carrot from the fence. At their age, the animals would probably prefer something easier to chew.

Of the fifty or so ‘olde’ buildings in the village, eighteen are listed. There are drystone walls, ancient trees and a small public green. It’s cute. Everyone who lives there knows this. So do the many tourists who park their 4x4s either side of the main street despite it being designed to allow the transit of one haycart at a time. They divert their eyes from the uPVC windows rammed into the quaint stone houses, and focus instead on the fabulous Shoreditch-quality coffee sold in what used to be the general store but which is now a holy grail for middle-class urbanites on a day out.

The only story of note in the place’s history is the 1920 honeymoon of eminent American actors Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Mary Pickford, spent in one of the farm cottages. They will not have had the luxury of an early morning Flat White served in eco-friendly paper cups but the privacy must have been nice. Today, the cottages are dwarfed by two new neighbours – a pair of showy mansions plonked like alien spacecraft between the trees. A council planner clearly forgave each applications’ lack of empathy with local vernacular and proportions, and ticked the box for No Significant Adverse Impact rather than Too Naff To Be Condoned.

The village has, for me, become more than the sum of its parts. Each time I cycle past its church, pub, store and post box, I realise the place could be a microcosm of England. The Cricket, Christianity and Cream Tea version. Particularly now, in these post-Brexit days of national pride and self-imposed seclusion, it is quite literally, a little England. If being ex-EU still makes 52% of UK voters happy, it is perhaps because they equate our new, solitary standing with a glorious past epitomised by our institutions and buildings. The old ones, that is. Of which the village has plenty.

What are English values if not the right to repress growth for newcomers in an area of loveliness (e.g. the quashing of planning for any small housing developments on the edge of the village) whilst blithely allowing the construction of a ten-bedroom eyesore? Not that I’ve turned socialista or anything. I too, would be sorry to see the caulis replaced by anodyne commuter homes - but I would have also fought against the two hulk houses down the road.

The village exhibits some of England’s worst characteristics: class inequality (only Squire-level connections can get a bulldozer into a conservation area), snobbery (you never know what type of person will move into an estate) and isolationism (residents regularly campaign to prevent changes which might encourage the arrival of outsiders). It also has a forgotten non-indigenous origin (Mate, the place was created by immigrants), a service industry for visitors, not neighbours (£3.50 for a hot cross bun?) and a truculent community that can manage very well on its own, thank you very much (As long as the Waitrose delivery van can get through we are undefeatable).

The thing that gives me hope, the thing that still makes being English quite fun, is evidence of a more engaging national trait - eccentricity. In the village, the post box is a special place because everyone uses it. So, it’s where calendar events are celebrated…in knitting. The Christmas elves got a bit damp but the current Easter display - a knitted hen with its chicks and eggs plus butterflies, ladybirds and bees - is enjoying the Spring sunshine. Someone sat and imagined this baby, made it and then shared it. It’s just one of the many post box artworks (mostly crocheted, which makes our local knitted spectaculars so unique) that have been appearing all over the country. And this, I admit, makes me proud.