Country Matters: The village with the mostest

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The Independent Culture
Once again the best-kept village competition is upon us, and once again I have had the invidious task of judging the finalists in Gloucestershire. On a higher level the contest is nationwide, and one outstanding entrant from each county goes forward to compete for the title of Village of the Year; but I suspect that the problems which our own Bledisloe Cup entries bring to light are common throughout the land.

The school, the shop and the pub close down; local jobs are scarce or non- existent; bus services are withdrawn; commuter traffic roars along narrow lanes; and ugly new houses are built - all developments which threaten traditional rural life.

This year, as always, villages were divided into three categories: small (less than 300 inhabitants), medium (300-1,000) and large (1,000-3,000). In two preliminary rounds other volunteer judges did the donkey work of whittling our 46 entrants down to two in each category. As before, the instructions were to ignore natural assets such as fine scenery or buildings, and look instead for evidence of community effort.

The finalists receive advance warning of the period in which judging will take place. This enables them to mow the grass twice a day, if they wish, and hold continual purges of litter; but it also means that they can post vigilantes to waylay the judge and bend his ear. To avoid such confrontations, I make my inspections on a mountain bike, which not only affords a degree of camouflage, but also enables me to get around much faster than on foot.

Even with these advantages, I found this year's task hard going. How am I to compare, and choose between, two utterly different places? In the Small category, for instance, the finalists were Awre, a rustic hamlet between the river Severn and the Forest of Dean, and Cherington, a rather glossy settlement near Tetbury.

Awre is gloriously agricultural: cattle graze in lush water-meadows, the lanes are spattered with dung, and in the churchyard an awe-inspiring, 1,000- year-old yew stands guard over the weathered tombstones of sailors who drowned in the river long ago. My instinctive liking for the place was increased when, finding I had no money on me, I asked the landlord of the Red Hart if I could pay for a pint of beer with a credit card, and his immediate response was, "Certainly!"

And yet I had to admit that the village could have been tidier. There were tubs of flowers beside the war memorial, and a small conservation area of trees and shrubs had been established. But hedges and verges were distinctly hirsute, and several private gardens were perfunctory. The rules do say "best-kept village".

Cherington is utterly different: neat as a pin, swept, mown, clipped, immaculate, with a cricket field like a bowling-green and dry-stone walls of a precision not easily imagined. Obviously, people live here, but what do they do? There is something almost artificial about the perfection. It is clearly not the fault of the present inhabitants that pub, school and shop have all gone under and been converted into private dwellings: nevertheless, the absence of the activities which those establishments once fostered gives the village the air of a museum exhibit.

Awre is more natural, Cherington neater. But best-kept? Regretting that anyone had to lose, I made Cherington the winner.

The same disparity of character was evident in the Large category. Painswick, styling itself "Queen of the Cotswolds", has bags of class: its elegantly facaded stone houses cluster on a hillside with spectacular views. Its rival, Upton St Leonards, is far less favoured: terrain flat, buildings largely nondescript, houses scattered, the whole bounded on one side by the M5.

These disadvantages predisposed me in Upton's favour - and I found evidence of much community effort: the grounds of the new school had been finely landscaped, footpaths had been opened up, and the sports field was in admirable order, with cheerful new equipment in the playground. Yet similar work had gone on in Painswick also, and after much agonising I felt obliged to find in favour of the more glamorous contender.

By chance the two middle-weight finalists, Down Ampney and Meysey Hampton, are neighbours. Just as less than two miles of farmland separate them, so there was practically nothing between them in the community effort stakes.

In Down Ampney, when the local store closed down, a group of volunteers struck back by opening a shop of their own in a Portakabin, Another admirable initiative is the village's Design Statement, which aims at keeping any new houses that are built in tune with existing architectural styles.

The only blot was the fact that several householders appear to practise a kind of horticultural laissez-faire, so that the many glorious gardens are let down by patches of jungle in between.

No such blemishes mar Meysey Hampton, whose appearance struck me as extraordinarily harmonious. Maintenance of sports field, pond, verges, hedges and private gardens is exemplary; yet the place does not seem over-manicured.

On the contrary, everything looks the epitome of an English village, and the Mason's Arms, standing above the triangular green, smothered with hanging flower baskets, is surely the epitome of the English country pub.

I felt that the village should not only win its class, but also go forward as our nominee in the national competition.

At every stop I did my best to be fair and constructive, to praise rather than criticise. Now that my decisions are made and my report written, I only hope I have not given offence. I shall know the worst next Saturday, when, in the company of executives of the CPRE and Calor Gas, who sponsor the competition, I tour the winners to present plaques.

If our whole party is pelted with eggs or rotten tomatoes, I know whose fault it will be.