Villagers' tales are a surprise bestseller

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An erudite history of a tiny village hardly anyone has ever heard of is selling more copies than a new book about Britain's most popular gangsters, doing better than the country's favourite cookery writer and even outselling the most popular dictionary.

An erudite history of a tiny village hardly anyone has ever heard of is selling more copies than a new book about Britain's most popular gangsters, doing better than the country's favourite cookery writer and even outselling the most popular dictionary.

Last week Grafton Regis, the History of a Northamptonshire Village, a tale of the Home Guard, the Civil War and mid-Saxon pottery, sold more hardback copies than the story of the East End Kray brothers, the Collins concise dictionary and the first volume of Delia Smith's lessons in how to cook.

The book, which costs £15, is one village's response to the millennium. Conceived two years ago by Charles Reece, a Grafton native, it has brought together local historians and children to tell the story from ancient times to the present day.

As a cat may stare at the king, the story of Grafton Regis gives equal measure to the life of Percy Morton, who ran the village shop in the 1930s (when it still had one), and Edward IV, the 15th century monarch who spurned a proposed political alliance with a French princess to wed the woman he loved. Elizabeth Woodville was a Grafton lass. (Their two princes were later held in the Tower, their daughter married Henry VII and began the Tudor dynasty.)

It is a true tale of commoners and kings. In one chapter, villager Maurice Allen reminisces about peering at his teacher's knickers as she hung up the Christmas decorations in the early years of this century. In another, Henry VIII bequeaths the epithet "regis" ("of the king") in honour of the fine hunting he enjoyed there.

The book's mix has proved an extraordinary success. With only 89 villagers, sales of 300 had been the ambitious target. But boosted by advance subscriptions, the total for the first week has passed the 1,000 mark. Copies are en route to France, Canada, the States, Mexico and Australia.

Charles Reece said it had totally taken them by surprise. "There are only about 40 families in the village and we've sold about 60 books. The majority have gone outside."

The book has been edited by villagers Charles FitzRoy, who is himself descended from Edward IV's controversial marriage, and Dr Keith Harry, who moved to the village in 1980 and is otherwise researching the history of the Open University. Backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund with a £9,900 grant and Les Drake, an enthusiastic supporter since he became landlord of the village's White Hart pub three years ago, the project embraced young and old.

Sarah Castle, now 15, was co-opted two years ago as the voice of youth. "Grafton's a really interesting place to live. It's nice for the children to get involved in this, not just the adults," she said. "It's a lovely thing to have the village recorded and written down."

And the success has been a boon for the Heritage Lottery Fund. Anne Jenkins, the fund's East Midlands officer, said: "The application demonstrated that it was something that it had real community support and involvement," she said. "We're delighted that the book has gone so well. It's exceeded expectations."

The project has even healed a village rift. Ten years ago, local opinion was divided when a head injuries unit was established in Grafton Regis. "It split the village," Mr Reece said. "It has taken this project to bring us back together again. It has united the village."

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