Village of Little Englanders: The Broader Picture

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The Independent Culture
SOMEWHERE among the contraflows on the A40 from London to Oxford, a few miles north of the magnificently surreal facade of the Hoover building, there is one of those rosetted road signs which draw travellers' attention to non-highway destinations. Thousands of drivers must have been intrigued by its message, inviting them to take the next exit to the 'MODEL VILLAGE'.

Model village? A 'Best Kept Village' winner, possibly? A community of idealists? Or a community designed by idealistic planners, perhaps inspired by Prince Charles? There is only one way to find out. Venturing from the A40 into the byways of south-west Buckinghamshire, you soon find yourself in Beaconsfield, a sleepy, nondescript market town. More signs entice you further from the main road, past the church and down a leafy lane, until the words 'model village' are replaced by a name: 'Bekonscot'. And then you are there.

You can see at once that Bekonscot is, indeed, a village in the idealistic spirit of communities such as Port Sunlight and New Lanark, with no fewer than five churches and an air of 19th-century wholesomeness. There is a difference, though: Bekonscot is built on a scale of 1:20, and its inhabitants are frozen in the attitudes of a bygone age not because of enlightened or conservative community planning but because they are made of wood.

The village was built in the 1920s. Its founding fathers, two town planners called Roland Callingham and James Shilcock, came from Beaconsfield and Ascot respectively; hence the hybrid name. The design of the two-acre village reflects their original aim: to preserve what they saw as being best in British life. There are thus some curious juxtapositions: not just quaint cottages, but mock-Tudor bourgeois houses copied from real houses in Beaconsfield, a Scottish-style castle, a version of Eton College, a lighthouse, a steam railway, a racecourse. In this sense, anything less like the archetypal English village would be hard to imagine. Yet there are also all the standard touchstones of Englishness: the cricket pitch, the village school, the fairground, the local hunt, the upper-class picnic, the friendly milkman and policeman, the Morris dancers, the brass band. It is a strange brand of sentimental pastiche: not so much John Betjeman's England as Enid Blyton's.

In one respect, Callingham and Shilcock's vision was a modern one: they sought sponsorship for their village. Humbrol agreed to support the upkeep of the house-fronts; other organisations - Ovaltine, Marks & Spencer and others - helped pay for individual shop buildings, and, as a result, still have their names on the shop fronts.

But it is not, on balance, a very modern place. Since 1978 it has been managed by the Church Army, who, as visitors are repeatedly informed, give most of the proceeds to charity; and the atmosphere of God-fearing respectability seems almost as dated as the jokes (the milkman's van identifies him as M T Bottles). There is no hint of multi-culturalism, no sign of people engaging in ordinary, non-regimented communication, not even - apart from the hymns issuing from the churches' PA systems - any noise. It is clearly a successful village: people flock to see it, and its rate of royal visits - almost two per decade - compares favourably with many full-size cities. Yet somehow, like the nostalgic version of England of which it is a pastiche, it seems to lack real blood.