The lost villages of a vanishing England

When Richard Askwith returned from a year in France to find village life had changed beyond recognition, he decided to go in search of traditional rural Britain.

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder.

While Richard Askwith was enjoying 12 months in France, he imagined what was happening back home, and images of the traditional English village he had left behind grew ever more idyllic.

Sadly, when he returned, his picturesque illusions were shattered. The local pub had called last orders some months earlier, the post office was under threat and the village had become home to unfamiliar faces who in between the commute to and from work had little time to pass the time of day.

"I had imagined rural England, and had blithely gone through life under the impression that it would always be there, like a great rock, with the past clinging to it like lichen," says the 47-year-old. "When I turned to look at it, it was gone.

"There was a sense that something had disappeared, something very valuable. Like an awful lot of people, I'm not a true villager, I don't live in the village my parents grew up in, I don't work on the land. But like millions of other people, I had this sense that there is a real countryside village experience out there.

"It's impossible not to be aware of all the changes taking place. Schools, post offices closing, farms closing down. Meanwhile, millions of people have moved into the countryside because they love the traditions and want to be part of that, but these market forces have changed things."

Unable to shake the idea that Britain's rural idyll was gradually being eroded, Richard set out from his East Midlands village on what would turn out to be a two- year road trip in an old Nissan Micra. Travelling from the rolling hills of the Cotswolds to the more dramatic scenery of Yorkshire and Cumbria and recording what he saw along the way, he hoped his fears for the future of the countryside would be proved wrong.

"The year in France with my family had given me a glimpse of how rural England used to be, when villagers were people who worked on the land, rather than commuted to large cities," he says. "One big difference in France was that we didn't have this great network of family and friends sucking us away from the village, so we rarely did any travelling. Everyone we knew was in our village.

"Everyone went to the same school and did everything together. Men worked in the fields around the village, with the EU subsidising them to produce wine. A lot of people had been to school together and were

still friends.

"Here people say, 'I hardly know anyone in the village'. Our jobs are so unstable, the average person lives 80 miles away from their parents and we live our lives on a global scale.

"The old-fashioned person has almost become extinct. I realised how few people there were who were the old villagers. Most were people like me, who were rootless. I thought that was sad really. People who have lived life on the local stage and are in touch with village traditions. I wanted to get a sense of what that world was like."

Initially filled with confidence, Richard hoped his journey would be comparable to great countryside adventures of literature, like that of Laurie Lee or the 1920s travel writer Henry Vollam Morton. The reality was sadly more mundane.

"When Morton arrived in villages, people came out to look at him in his car," he says.

"It would be like going to a foreign country.

"But I found that everywhere is just normal. We've all become the same place. The same shops, cars and street furniture. We watch the same TV. It's one big place.

"There were far fewer regional differences than I expected. If you were blindfolded and dumped somewhere and told to guess where you were, it would be very hard."

Despite this apparent homogenisation of the countryside, en-route Richard did meet people whose genuine passion for rural life made his own comfortable village existence look like a Disney version of the countryside.

"Sometimes I got a sense of people who had a completely different idea of what physical comfort was.," he says. "You'd go to their place and they're living in a tiny little damp-filled house. To a lot of people it would be unimaginable to live in such hard circumstances.

"There were people who have lived outside all their lives. There was one man who had just a dog for company. He'd be there in his old tattered sweater using tools much older than him. His hands looked like roots, they were so old and gnarled."

Inevitably, rural economics became a familiar topic of conversation. In Wensleydale he met Jonathan Sunter, a dairy farmer whose family have earned a living from the land for more than 600 years. Compared to many, Jonathan, who, with his wife, has diversified into upmarket jams, is not doing badly, but he was honest enough to admit that he may be the last in the long line of Sunter farmers.

"I'd be happy to see my children go off and learn to do something else," he tells Richard. "I'd urge them not to leap into this. The last few years have been soul destroying.

"Once on this farm you could support two or three families. Now it barely provides me and my dad with a living. The work's still there, but not the money. Sometimes I look at my friends who don't farm or those who used to farm, but have decided to call it a day and I think, 'Why am I doing this?' You kind of think that if you work hard, you get rewarded. But it's just not been like that for a while."

Travelling across to East Yorkshire to Market Drayton, the landscape changed, but when he met 75-year-old Ken Holmes it became clear the story was exactly the same. Ken, who had just competed in his last ever Kiplingcotes Derby – Britain's oldest horse-race – invited Richard into his motorhome for a chat.

"Look at the world today," says Ken. "Farming's gone down the nick. Villages aren't villages anymore: You can live three doors from someone and not know them because they commute to work. There's no work locally.

"It's very hard for people to go back to villages they grew up in. They could afford homes if property prices crash, but it doesn't matter what the property cost if you can't earn a living in the area. Meanwhile, people who move to the countryside don't want to forgo the urban comforts that they had. A lot of celebs move there and they want a

slice of rural England as much as anyone else does.

"A burst of city wealth has trickled out to the countryside and loads of people earn their living now in more innovative ways by providing services like grooming dogs or life coaching."

The facts seem to lend weight to his argument. At the time of the 2001 census, only 37.9 per cent of those living in the countryside had been living there 30 years earlier, but despite all evidence to the contrary

the image of the rural idyll is hard to shake.

"It's something that the English have always had since the wars," says Richard. "When people think of England, they think of village England rather than cities, but like many things, what's in our imagination is a much more charming view than what's there in real life."

Richard says his wife and two children were "very patient" during his travels, admitting that while he never quite found what he was looking for, he did gain a deeper appreciation for his own village.

"The irony was I spent all this time being away looking for real village life and was less in touch with my village than I'd ever been," he says. "I feel really attached to my village now and it's got some great people there. We're all doing our best and try to get involved in one way or another."

The Lost Village: In Search Of A Forgotten Rural England, published by Ebury Press, priced 18.99, is available to order through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 0800 0153232 or online at Postage and packing costs 2.75.