David Bouchier: The Peaceful Village
England is always a surprise, even to those of us who are intimately familiar with it. What always strikes me, as soon as I drive out of the airport, is the sheer amount of countryside that still survives, how many fields and trees and charming villages, even in the tightly packed southeastern counties. It is a crowded country – the most crowded in Europe with 420 people per square kilometer – yet outside the cities it doesn’t feel that way. The United States, by contrast, is almost empty with only 33 people per square kilometer, which is why you can always find a parking space here, unless you happen to live in Manhattan.
The English nostalgia for the countryside is intense. It goes all the way back to William Cobbett who, in 1830, denounced the decline of traditional agriculture and the malignant influence of the new industrial cities in a famous book called Rural Rides. This defense of the country and its traditions against the town has become a tradition in itself. Every child knows, or ought to know, the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse and its moral: country good, city bad.
I grew up in and around London, with no real sense of country life. When I was a child we had occasionally visited some elderly aunts who had a real thatched cottage in a remote village. I was fascinated and horrified by this glimpse into the past with no running water, electricity or flushing toilets, and chickens wandering into the living room. I couldn’t wait to get back to our conventional suburban house.
But the countryside grew on me with age, and I came to love villages – looking at them, reading about them, and living in them. My definition of a proper village is a place where you can walk around and meet people you know, and if you keep walking for five minutes in any direction you find yourself. A village is the perfect compromise between the madness of the city and the blank anonymity of the suburbs. Some of the villages I’ve been lucky enough to live in have been absolute gems – beautiful to look at, convenient, and above all friendly. There’s an urban myth that you won’t be accepted in a village until your family has lived there for three or four generations, but that’s a hundred years out of date.
When we left the airport last week, we were heading for a village in the exceptionally beautiful Dedham Vale area of eastern England. It was and is picture perfect, set in the gentle rolling countryside that Constable loved to paint. Some people find these English villages too perfect and wonder what dark secrets are hidden behind the lovely façade. They imagine every picturesque village is a war zone with a murder every week. This is an exaggeration, created by mystery writers like Agatha Christie and TV series like Midsomer Murders. The only village murder I was ever close to personally was that of a neighbor who was killed in mysterious circumstances that the whole village understood but failed to mention to the police. It was a very personal affair, and that's what keeps the casual visitor safe. Villagers are friendly to strangers. They only kill you once they get to know you.
Copyright: David Bouchier