The modern village is defined as a small group of houses, none of which can get pizza delivered. Many urban dwellers have a secret dream of living in a beautiful collection of rose-covered cottages nestled around a wide village green and overlooked by the church spire and village pub. Many people who live in real villages also have this dream.
There are four kinds of villager. The first, and rarest, are people who’ve always lived in the village. These people have been in the same house since the Black Death and are, to all intents and purposes, trapped there, as they can’t afford to move out. They have the same names as the ones on the village war memorial and regard anyone in the village they don’t recognise from school as an asylum seeker with whom assimilation is extremely unlikely. You can tell these people because they are the ones permanently standing between you and the bar in the local pub.
The second kind of inhabitant is the retired couple. This couple bred early in their 20s, saw the children leave home in their late 40s and retired in their mid-50s. They are still physically and mentally on top form, and probably have one more house move before death (bungalow in a small country town near doctor). In the meantime, they are the backbone of the 101 village societies. You know where these people live because their front gardens look as though they’ve been tended with nail scissors and toothcomb.
The third kind of inhabitant is the commuter. The commuter has left the city for the fresh air, the countryside and the bigger house. Sadly, they don’t see any of these because they have to commute vast distances, leaving before dawn and returning after dark. At weekends, they travel vast distances to see friends from the city who live in villages on the other side of the city. You can recognise these people in the village because they’re the ones you don’t recognise.
The fourth kind of inhabitant is the tele-worker. These are people who, instead of working in an office, watch TV at home. Much of the time, watching TV is waiting for the computer to download an email thanks to your telephone connection being one of the originals put in by Alexander Graham Bell himself. In the country, the closest you get to a high-speed broadband connection is a sophisticated morris dancing move.
Modern villages are graded not by how picturesque they are but by how many things they have in them that aren’t houses. These are ranked in strict order. Top of the list is having a shop and/or post office. If you can get your milk, paper and pension in your own village, then you are in village heaven. Failing these, the next best things to have are a pub and school, the first vital for normal adult development and the second vital for normal child development. Without any of these, a petrol station is good, preferably one with a shop, pub and post office attached. (Petrol stations used to be no use for villages, as the most you could do there was to inflate your bicycle inner tubes to the size of tractor tyres – but that’s all changed.)
Village shops are a modern-day Tardis. They actually sell everything supermarkets sell, but only one of each and usually in brands you’ve never heard of, such as Freshdawn Cornflakes. Internet nerds have a game in which they see if they can come up with a search term that the internet can’t help them with. Village nerds have a similar game: they try to think of an item the village shop doesn’t have. It’s best to be a little careful when buying things in the village shop, because it is the staging post for most of the village gossip. For example, it’s impossible to hide the kind of life you’re living when you go in for your regular Pedigree Chum, tube of Uhu and pack of Durex Elite.
In the absence of shop, pub, school or post office, a well-maintained bus stop is a good thing to have. Having buses that actually stop there on their way to Tesco is the icing on the cake. Even bus stops without buses can be the focus of village life, especially for the youths, because they are, in effect, a miniature village hall. Without a bus stop, the focus of village life will be the phone box and, failing that, the letter box. If neither of these is present, then the only public amenity the village will have is a main drain and a noticeboard.
The village noticeboard
The noticeboard is the village equivalent of the information superhighway. Generally, you’ll see a number of small ads on postcards. One will say: “Cleaner needed for light duties. Hours to suit.” The next one will say: “Cleaner available. Flexible hours.” There’s something about the nature of the modern village that makes it tragically certain that these two people will never meet and the dust will go on mounting up in one house and the bills in the other.
When you spend a lot of time staring at the village noticeboard – it’s the equivalent of staying online for hours – you notice the little pencilled mark in the corner of the postcards that says when they have to be removed. These often say, “Out 6/2008” because the going rate for postcard advertising is 10p a year and people sometimes don’t have that kind of change.
One thing you have to beware of is professional services advertised on the noticeboard. For example, if you see a dentist advertising on the local noticeboard, he’s probably been struck off every dental register and now practises mainly on sheep. Similarly, lawyers advertising are usually the bottom-of-the-barrel ex-jailbirds. They usually stick close to the dentist, hoping to pick up some professional negligence cases.
It’s not true that you can’t get anything delivered in the country. You can get four tonnes of silage for your roses very cheaply. You can also get it without asking, if the local farmer takes your corner a little too quickly.
Very lucky villages have things like mobile libraries. These are vans chock-full of books. The only trouble is, if you live in a really remote village, by the time the van gets to you there are only three books left, one of which is the driver manual for the van. These vans don’t come around very often, so you’ll have approximately six months to study the driver manual. The bad news is that, if you miss the van second time around, the late fines can run into thousands of pounds.
You get all sorts of bizarre mobile traders in the country. Sometimes you get fresh fish from Grimsby, which is pretty awesome when you live in Somerset. It makes you wonder why they’ve singled out your village from all the thousands of villages between Grimsby and Somerset. But then, he probably sells fresh Somerset fudge to villages in the Grimsby area.
The most fundamental difference between urban and rural life is that you can’t get pizza delivered to your door. Instead, you drive to within five miles of a pizza parlour, then order on your mobile phone. While you’re waiting for the pizza to be delivered to your lay-by, you turn up the car heating so that the interior temperature is roughly the equivalent of a farmhouse Aga. This just about keeps the pizza warm on your 50-mile journey back home.
This is based around an incredible number of clubs and societies. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is at least one club per adult in a village – generally because every club has, on average, one member, especially the Friendship Club, which is perennially unpopular. Often, in order to do anything constructive, clubs have to amalgamate. So, for example, you get joint meetings of the gardening society and judo club, providing a programme of defensive gardening.
What villagers, especially retired ones, enjoy most are coach parties. You can just about get enough people to fill a coach and, because seats are laid out in pairs, there is no necessity of meeting other villagers, especially from the Friendship Club. With a hired coach, you can decide exactly where you want to go. Most popular destinations are Tesco, pizza parlours and chasing the mobile library.
Most villages have village halls for the villagers to meet up and do things. The hall often has a little stage for use in amateur productions of Starlight Express, Les Misérables and 42nd Street, all played with real enthusiasm by a cast of two.
Like everyone else, country people like to play football on a Saturday, except instead of the traditional ball they use the severed head of a goat (only joking). Sometimes, the football is a friendly five-a-side or, if things are desperate, two-a-side with rush goalies.
On the whole, country people avoid fishing because they know what goes into rivers. Hunting also happens in the country, but it’s about as typical of country life as the Notting Hill carnival is of urban life. Most country people are too busy watching Coronation Street and EastEnders, and thanking their lucky stars that they’ve missed out on that kind of continual urban nightmare.
Politics, like hard drugs, are a blight on the rural community. The parish council is where local worthies shoot up on a nasty mix of ego, bitterness and party politics. Even the smallest local issue is doggedly fought on party lines. The provision of a speed bump will be suggested by the Labour councillor as an integrated transport policy; the Conservative will oppose it as an assault on individual liberties and a heinous waste of money; the Liberal Democrat will suggest raising taxes to put in speed bumps; and the Green will try to declare the village a car-free zone.
During the actual meetings, councillors will select their favourite TV role model, then act out Kavanagh, Rumpole, Lloyd George or Compo. When it comes to sheer entertainment value, many meetings are a real alternative to the drama society’s production of 12 Angry Men (or One Angry Man And An Irritated Woman as it was actually staged).
Everyone in the country likes buses, and these can be seen at the regular Traction Engine And Classic Vehicle rallies. For most old people, their best chance of public transport in the village is a hearse. Unless you want to eat mud and die young, you can’t really live in the country without a car.
There are three kinds of cars in the country. The first are the four-wheel drive Land Rovers and Range Rovers. These are driven by city folk who now live in the country, and are useful when the gravel on their drives gets particularly thick. The second type are fifth-hand cars, which is what everyone else drives on the principle that if it gets stuck in a field you can leave it there. The third type is the burnt-out car, which is a kind of one-way country taxi for the youths after their big cider-fuelled night out in the local market town.
Nobody walks in the country. There are no footpaths and no pavements, and as you are already in the country, there’s no point walking to another part of the country. What you do have in the country is a lot of signs saying “Footpath”, which point you helpfully in the direction of impenetrable brambles, disused quarries or coils of razor wire. Once a decade, a pack of mad ramblers will attempt to hack their way through these paths and will never be heard of again.
Bridleways are the motorways of the countryside in that so many people use them, you don’t actually get anywhere. Bridleways are so called because pedestrians bridle at using them. That’s because they’ve been churned into a strip of impassable mud by 10-tonne tractors and huge women on horses.
The only walk possible in the average village is from your house to the noticeboard/bus stop/shop. The other possible walk is the return journey from the noticeboard/bus stop/shop. This may not seem much of a walk but, as you’re likely to know everyone you pass, it’s likely to take you hours to complete.
There is one figure in village life who is welcomed by all and is there to mark all the major occasions of life, such as births, marriages and deaths. This man is the postman. The postman is revered because he is the one person on earth, apart from yourself, who knows where your house is. Friends and relatives have long since given up trying to find you and insist on meeting you in the Little Chef on the nearest A-road.
Country posties are a village guide, orienteer and sleuth all in one small red van. They have to be because rhyme and reason are in short supply in village layouts. City addresses make sense: you can’t go wrong with 5 Norville Road. In the country, you won’t find more than five houses in a row, so numbering never really got started. Instead, you have Lower Botvyle, Risington Cambourne – which, quite frankly, could be anywhere. It’s not surprising, then, that when a postman retires, many remote homes are cut off from civilisation for years.
The central feature of most villages is the church. More often than not this is a very ancient and very beautiful building. If you look carefully at the names in the graveyard, you’ll see that they are often the same as the person who lives next door to you. Generally, that’s the first you’ll know of their death.
These lovely country churches are the ideal places to get married, and every Saturday you’ll see smiling couples getting hitched; then they and their guests roar back to the towns from where they came. Country people prefer to get married in register offices in towns, because it gives them a chance to go to Tesco.
The vicar is also a key part of village life. Vicars generally look after 17 churches in the country, and the possibility of having a Sunday service at a sensible time in your local church is roughly the equivalent of a meteorite hitting your shed. Country vicars, like country policemen, are rarely seen on foot. Instead, they’re likely to do drive-by blessings and, also like country policemen, are likely to turn up at your house only if there has been a death.
The village doctor is a pillar of the community. Sadly, she lives and works in the local town. Rural practices get fewer time-wasters because it takes a phenomenal amount of time to get to the doctor. In extreme cases, you can always put up a postcard on the noticeboard saying, “Doctor required for medical emergency. Hours to suit. Out 5/2005.”
Growing up in the country is no laughing matter. Many country youths have only one bar on their mobile phone signal. Young love is particularly painful. Cider With Rosie scenarios are still enacted, but what happens is that you buy a bottle of industrial strength cider, meet your beloved at the phone box, drink the cider, then smash up the phone box. This is actually rather sensible, because if you tried to cavort in rippling fields of corn, you’d inhale more chemicals than Marie Curie, find yourself staring into the business end of a combine harvester and, if you didn’t move quickly, end up on a ministry of agriculture pyre.
Romance is actually quite difficult because, given the number of people in a village, there’ll probably be a maximum of one suitable person of the appropriate age and sex. Even if you don’t fancy this person, you will be obliged to get off with them through sheer force of circumstance. That’s why the cider is so vital.
Getting out of the village is a top priority for village youth. Many are inexorably drawn by the bright lights, fast food and fast living of the local market town. Which is how they end up delivering pizza.