PROPERTY / Farewell to the counter culture: Mary Wilson finds a slice of village life up for sale - with a century of memories in stock

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The Independent Culture
WHEN flicking through estate agents' particulars, it is rare to come across a slice of history up for sale. But a small firm in Suffolk has just been asked to sell three adjoining properties in Kersey owned by the Stiff family, who have been part of the medieval village for more than 150 years. These properties are the heart of the village - the general store, which was started in 1865, the farmhouse to one side and a restaurant on the other.

Kersey is in a little world of its own: modern life seems to have passed it by. In the yard behind the properties stands an old fuel pump from which the Stiffs still sell petrol. And in the one-acre grounds, also for sale, are a Victorian granary, a timber outbuilding, a sawdust store, and a smoke room and workshop with inspection pit.

Jack and Bill Stiff were born in the village, and although Jack has moved four times, it has never been further than 70 yards from where he started. He now lives in the pink, timbered house adjoining the properties to be sold. Bill lives in a newish bungalow nearby.

Although they are sad to be selling the family business, Jack Stiff is philosophical. 'Just because we followed our grandfather's and father's footsteps,' he says, 'there's no reason why my son should. And anyway, he can't run the whole business on his own and he can't afford to employ anyone.' Instead, Christopher will continue to run their farm on the outskirts of the village and take over the wholesale fuel business, delivering oil for central heating and diesel to the farmers.

'I've worked in the shop since 1945,' Jack says. 'I'm 63 years old, Bill is a year younger. One of the main problems is the rates. They have increased 97.3 per cent from 1987 to 1992 and turnover has dropped 32 per cent. People just don't support the shop any more.' The nearest market town, Hadleigh, is only two-and-a-half miles away.

'The village has changed so much over the years, it's different now. In the old days you knew everyone who lived here. Now about 90 per cent of the villagers are new, some I don't even know their surnames]' To Jack, a newcomer is someone who has lived in Kersey for less than 40 years. There are still a few old-timers whose families have lived there for generations; Gladdy on the corner, who used to run a sweet shop, and Lance Wyatt, who keeps a donkey in his back garden.

Ducks, mostly black-and-white Muscovy, can always be found waddling through the water splash - where the stream crosses the road - which runs through the centre of the village. It does flood, but the last serious one, Jack remembers, was in 1940. 'I had to borrow a halter rope from Don Lemon to pull someone out.' Don was the local vet, or 'horse doctor', as Bill corrects his brother. 'He hadn't got any veterinary qualifications'. You know which house he lived in because it still has a horse's tail hanging outside from the roof.

The buildings up for sale need a good deal of renovation. The three-bedroom timber-framed house has not been used since 1976. The floors are uneven, and the stairs are nearly vertical, with a landing only large enough to perch on. But the views from the bedroom windows are something else.

And the shop is a museum of memories. In the good old days, R Stiff & Sons sold everything: chaps (pigs' cheeks), ladies' and gentlemen's clothing, paraffin, televisions, general provisions could all be bought there. 'The only thing we didn't sell was wet fish, because we didn't have the refrigeration. Our cured ham was legendary, we used to sell up to 1,500 a year all over the country. And up to 31 October last year, when we closed, we were still making our sausages and curing bacon,' Jack remembers.

In the storeroom behind are the strangest paraphernalia, including huge jars of ginger, spares for old heaters, galvanised steel baths and green enamel saucepans - his father bought 2,000 of them. And in the office over the shop are all their papers and bills from years gone by. One book, on top of a pile, reads: 'Oil Deliveries Out - 1965'.

Quill's restaurant, which ran successfully for 15 years but petered out 18 months ago, used to be a butcher's. Upstairs there is a sitting-room, where Simon Frost of Frost and Partners, which is selling the properties, worked behind the bar as a teenager.

Mr Frost says properties rarely come on the market in Kersey. He could count on two hands the number sold in the past 10 years. What does he think will happen to the three properties? 'Babergh District Council, the local planning authority, is particularly keen to keep them as shop and restaurant, but it has given tentative permission for residential extensions to be built behind them. The feeling is, however, that they may have to grant residential use, as the commercial aspect is just uneconomic.'

St Mary's Church, at the top of the hill, dates from the 15th century and is mentioned in the Domesday survey. At the other end of the village are the ruins of a medieval priory. Along the main street are an assortment of 15th- and 16th-century timbered buildings in pink and mustard wash, some with pargeting (patterned plasterwork), and some thatched. In the Middle Ages the village centred on the wool trade and gave its name to a material called kersey. Nowadays its 300 inhabitants are farmers, business people or retired.

The only remaining commercial activity is at the two pubs - one used by the locals, the other by tourists - and a sub-post office. Most of the houses are well-maintained, so much so that the local people find it hard to afford them. 'That's the trouble,' grumbles Bill. 'People come in, intending to stay, do them up and then leave.'

As for Bill and Jack Stiff, they would just like to be shot of the lot and left alone to retire in peace.

The properties are being sold as one lot by Frost and Partners, 59 High Street, Hadleigh, Ipswich, Suffolk IP7 5DY (0473 823456). There is no asking price; the sellers are open to reasonable offers.