Architecture: The village that's just too good to be true: Castle Combe, voted Britain's best hamlet, is so pretty and so well preserved it looks like a Hollywood film set. But, asks Peter Dunn, what lies behind the facade?

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The Independent Culture
Adrian Bishop would be the first to concede that keeping up appearances in English village life can be a thankless task these days. Mr Bishop, a retired airline pilot with an alert RAF moustache, is chairman of the parish council of Castle Combe, an exquisite collection of 15th-century stone-tiled cottages decorating the By Brook river valley in deepest rural Wiltshire. Here the modern world has not just passed by, it has been forced back by a tide of conservatism and conservation.

The pretty buildings of Castle Combe represent English vernacular architecture at its supposedly most perfect, the type of village that William Morris would have drooled over when he set up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments a century ago and that Prince Charles would like to see built again today. But is the textbook vernacular that bit too perfect? Can chocolate-box architecture be less than perfect to live in? Is it, in fact, a millstone around its residents' necks?

Last month, Castle Combe was named Britain's Best Village in a new book, the Good Weekend Guide, produced by the publishers of the Good Pub Guide, 600 of whose readers had been polled to choose their favourite hamlet for the latest book. As a result, Castle Combe's 75 residents are bracing themselves for a fresh deluge of tourists, peering in through their mullioned windows (no DIY or patent double glazing here) and yanking the medieval bell-pull outside Mr Bishop's front door.

Past experience tells them that the blessings of celebrity are mixed. 'Americans]' Mr Bishop says. 'Don't get me wrong; a lot of them are very nice but they think it's all a facade, that people don't actually live here, rather like Williamsburg in the States.

'The people who cause you the trouble here, though, are the English. On any Sunday I can guarantee they'll pull the doorbell six times. There's a yobbo element that do it and when you go out and remonstrate they'll say, 'So what? We'll fill you in.' '

Mr Bishop and his wife have lived in Castle Combe for 30 years, running a small antiques shop in the picture-book high street. Decades of experience have fine-tuned Mr Bishop's conservationist's radar to detect an unauthorised television satellite dish at 100 paces. A consummate local politician (he is also a member of North Wiltshire District Council) he is aware of the dark commercial passions that seethe behind the listed facades of rural England: prettiness, it seems, is next to profitability.

Those villagers who think that the conservation lobby represented by Mr Bishop has gone too far and pickled the buildings and their lives in aspic tread carefully; Mr Bishop is clearly not a man they want to get on the wrong side of. 'Don't quote me,' says one resident, 'but they're all as time- warped as the village itself. Mr Bishop is Dr Who, head of the Time Warps.'

More than anyone else, Mr Bishop has seen his village through its final metamorphosis from estate workers' community to the kind of middle-class rural fantasy created by incomers who can afford pounds 85,000 for a two-up, two-down gabled cottage.

Old villagers have either died or retreated to the distant and less picturesque compound of the White Gate council estate; not for them the dreamy yeomen's cottages of olde England. One of Castle Combe's most distinguished rustics these days is an Arab sheikh; another is the United Nations ambassador for the Republic of San Marino ('He's got a false leg and one hardly ever sees him,' Mr Bishop says).

Maintaining a sense of reality is difficult in a village that first became the victim of its own publicity 30 years ago. In 1962 the British Travel Association (precursor of the British Tourist Authority) ran a national poll to select England's prettiest village. Castle Combe came top and was swamped with visitors, becoming instantly world famous. Mr Bishop knows now that the poll was dreamt up by a senior BTA official who had a friend in the village.

Castle Combe never recovered from its engineered fame. In 1966 it was occupied for three months by a film company making Dr Dolittle with Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar and Anthony Newley. Men with loud voices and earth-moving equipment built a harbour below Castle Combe's bridge and made everyone take down their television aerials and link their sets to a communal cable attached to a hidden mast during the filming.

The experience gave Mr Bishop, an airline pilot trying to get some sleep, a lifelong distaste for noisy people. He refused to remove his aerial, and watched with satisfaction as film technicians struggled to conceal it with a portable tree.

Mr Bishop's constant vigilance against developers exploiting the village's architectural heritage - it remains, at least externally, a visible time capsule of the medieval weaving town it once was - has put him in the front line of many parochial feuds. Prominent among his opponents today is a local landowner, Paul Lysley, whose ancestors owned the 2,800-acre Castle Combe estate (including the entire village) until it was auctioned, piecemeal, in 1947. Mr Lysley, 65, who has banned the Beaufort Hunt from his land, lives in a splendid old mill south of the village behind an electrified fence, huge padlocked gate and 'Beware of the Dog' signs.

Paul Lysley, like his mother, the late Katherine Thomas (founder of the Castle Combe car-racing circuit on an old airfield above the village), is a rural entrepreneur. He owns two weight-lifting gymnasiums, in Swindon and Chippenham, and - much to Castle Combe's annoyance - received planning permission for a golf course on his land near the village in 1987.

Developers of the course, which was opened last year by Prince Andrew, face legal action by the district council for breaches of planning undertakings affecting wild life and fauna in the area.

Mr Lysley has been less successful with a more recent application to build an animal sanctuary at Upper Combe, a residential satellite of Castle Combe. The council turned him down after complaints from locals that it would be noisy and intrusive.

'He's not speaking to me because of what happened to his animal shelter,' says Mr Bishop. 'He felt, quite wrongly, that I was the guiding light behind the objectors. After he lost he put the word around about having motorbike scrambling up there. I can't believe he could do that, frankly, but that's the thing with him, you see.

'During the filming of Dr Dolittle he and his mother were very much in favour, where I was a thorn in the side of the film company because they took my shop sign down when I was away. They rode roughshod over the entire village and when some other villagers opened their mouths to object they stuffed them full of dollars.

'Whatever people say, the parish council is very democratic. It's got seven members, including a local farmer, someone from the White Gate estate and a farm labourer who works for Mr Lysley and is Mr Lysley's spy, though there's nothing secret about what we do. Paul is more at home in his gymnasiums with a younger, more working-class sort of person than with 'sophisticated' people.'

Down at the mill, where he has developed a water meadow with ponds for protected wildlife, Mr Lysley hangs on to the lead of an savage-looking alsatian. 'I'm a tiny Richard Branson, or Sir John Harvey-Jones, both of whom I admire immensely,' he says.

'None of my family likes being landlords because we're all very left wing, you see. I don't mix with the village much because I don't like cocktail parties and things like that. I've got friends outside. Down at my gymnasiums we've got real working people, friends of every colour, size, both sexes, which is absolutely lovely.

'The village has no working people any more. They're almost all retired, or business people. Preservation's what they're after, not true conservation. They preserve it as they imagine it was. I like to walk through the village when it's dark, then I can feel things from the past, like when I used to have my hair cut by Fred Preedy, who was also the estate carpenter. But one mustn't be too nostalgic.'

Mr Lysley is not without supporters in the village his family used to own. One of them is Martin Clubbe, manager of the luxury Manor House hotel. The place was acquired, four years ago, by the reclusive Guiseppe Pecorelli, who used to be Charles Forte's managing director and ran the Aga Khan's Ciga Hotels group.

Before and since then, Mr Bishop has waged a campaign against the hotel, accusing successive managements of buying up village cottages to house guests and staff.

'We used to joke,' says Mr Bishop, 'about not wanting a black person to move in next door, but when the hotel started putting staff in one of their cottages, we had Mauritians, Indians, people of a foreign nature, so you couldn't get out in the garden for the smell of cooking curry. I'm not knocking any of them because some of them were friendly, but they knew they were only here a short time.'

Mr Clubbe says: 'Mr Bishop's just a busybody. I'm sure he loves our customers going to his little antiques shop, and the post office would have closed down long ago without us.

'Paul Lysley's got all these ideas to make Castle Combe a real community again and the village just goes against everything he tries to do because it's dead; it's just pretty buildings with no real community spirit. It looks like a Hollywood film set.

'You never see any of the residents out and about chatting, and there are no children playing in the streets. The village school draws from elsewhere - the council estate or farmers' families. Nothing's been done by the parish council to encourage families in the community, because the council wants to put the damper on

everything.'

'The parish council has a very difficult job,' says Mr Bishop. 'We don't want to be a Gestapo, but there's a desire here for most residents to maintain the status quo, to conform with what they see.

'I think there's a misconception about what constitutes an English village these days. I've six of them in my district council ward and none of them is a 'working' village any longer. Castle Combe may not have changed its fabric, but the people that live here are very modern, very well-informed people. They're certainly not living in any kind of time warp.'

Which is not what the Good Weekend Guide thinks, or what the thousands of visitors about to descend on Castle Combe will see. Beautiful buildings without new life and villages without lively communities are like stuffed animals or, perhaps, best kept for Hollywood film crews.

(Photographs omitted)

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