It’s always sad to discover that beautiful bucolic places suffer the same trials as the rest of the world. Unfortunately, thatched roofs and roses around the door aren’t a protection against deprivation, drug abuse or family collapse.
The latest rural woe to have come under the media spotlight is loneliness: the Prince of Wales’s countryside charity is producing a “village survival guide” after finding that many people in rural areas feel increasingly isolated and ignored.
Bad public transport; slow broadband speed; the cost of petrol; remoteness from public services, usually to be found in towns; and low wages, which make it difficult to socialise – all exacerbate the problems of an already isolated existence.
And then there’s the cold shoulder that locals are supposed to turn to newcomers, regarding them as blow-ins or DFL (Down From London) after long years of attempted integration.
In towns and cities, people value privacy; they have to, in order to survive the stress of living cheek by jowl with so many other members of the human race. Don’t expect to find it in a village. In Northamptonshire, where we had a cottage for some years, next to a medieval cross and the village pub, we might as well have lived on a stage.
But our memories are overwhelmingly of the warmth and kindness with which we were welcomed into the community. It wasn’t that we exactly fitted in, more that our peculiarities (we came from London, after all) came to be overlooked.
From this experience, I have distilled seven golden rules for people wanting to get the best out of village life.
1. Acquire some children
This won’t be possible for everyone, I accept, but the advice is not entirely facetious. Children provide grown-ups with an instant social network. Adult friendships blossom at the school gate, beside the sports pitch and through the need to organise play dates and sleep overs. While folk of retirement age often dream of moving to a pretty part of the country – even abroad – they’re apt to forget that it will be much more difficult for them to find a common interest with their neighbours than for a mum or dad. This underlines the importance of my second rule, which is:
2. Join in
During the daytime, the modern village can become eerily morgue-like, as the working age population pursues its careers elsewhere. In the evening, though, it sometimes buzzes with activity. Consult the village noticeboard. Yoga classes, theatrical productions, fireworks nights, cricket matches, tennis tournaments, bowls clubs... During the summer, not a weekend will go by without there being a village fete, scarecrow festival, flower show or steam rally somewhere within a few miles of where you live. Every event needs its willing helpers.
3. Go to the church
This may sound like an impossible injunction for non-believers, but notice the definite article. (I didn’t write ‘go to church’.) Congregations can often be counted on the fingers of one hand (we had 14 at the little church in Cumbria that I attended on Sunday – a bumper turn out.) But the building itself remains an inescapable focus, whatever the state of village faith. Rotas are what keep it going – for flowers, bell ringing, opening to visitors, tending the churchyard – not to mention the committee to raise money for the roof. You won’t be turned away.
4. Get an animal
Traditional country life revolves around animals. Dogs and horses have to be fed and trained, chickens protected from the fox. Animals make holidays difficult, but generate all manner of social interactions, including those of the local hunt. Your animal will not only provide companionship of itself but introduce you to other dog-, horse- or chicken-minded humans.
Towns have organised services; the countryside thrives on self-help. Villagers help each other out, giving lifts when needed, or picking up prescriptions for the old. Youth charities and wildlife trusts constantly need volunteers; so do parish councils that want to keep the village spick and span. Feel warm about yourself, while making friends.
6. Discover your green fingers
Gardening is Britain’s unofficial religion – an obsession to some devotees. Don’t be put off by the all-knowingness of certain enthusiasts. They’ll be only too pleased to answer the questions of the neophyte. Gardeners are lovely people, in the main.
7. Count your blessings
England, along with some other parts of the UK, is small and crowded. We’re lucky to have so many well-loved villages and such unspoilt countryside to delight us. But a centre of population (compared, say, to France, let alone the United States) is never very distant. Rejoice in what’s around you – remembering that escape is readily at hand, if needs be.
Villages of Britain by Clive Aslet is published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (£30). To order your copy for £25 call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk