Duff Hart-Davis column

A ticklish job: judging the finals of the Best Kept Village in Gloucestershire
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Best-Kept Village competition is upon us again, and once more your correspondent has the ticklish job of judging the Gloucestershire final. For our county this is a year of special significance: similar contests are now held all over England, but it was here that they originated in 1937, when the first Lord Bledisloe presented a cup bearing his name for the village that had done most to improve its environment. Next month the 60th anniversary will be celebrated by a festive lunch, at which the present Lord Bledisloe - grandson of the founder - will preside.

The finals' judge feels a certain responsibility. Certainly there is an obligation not to offend: one must seek to be constructive. Another key rule is that natural advantages such as fine buildings and glorious scenery should be left out of account: it is evidence of effort that matters.

As usual, most of the hard work has been done before my arrival. Other judges have winnowed 40-odd entrants down to six. I merely have to decide between two in each category: "small" (up to 300 inhabitants), "middle" (300 to 1,000) and "large" (1,000 to 3,000).

In the hope that small would be beautiful, I started my tour with Shipton Moyne (population 275), near Malmesbury. Villagers know the bracket within which judges are required to perform, and judges, in turn, may either declare themselves or arrive incognito. Preferring anonymity, I rolled up on a bicycle and was entranced by the horticultural perfection: gardens glowed with flowers and velvet lawns, verges were beautifully mown.

My hackles rose when I came on something white lying in the road. Litter, by George! But no - it was a crisp, new envelope, evidently containing an invitation card, which someone must have dropped on a delivery round.

As I approached the churchyard, I descried a man loitering - with, I immediately suspected, intent to spot and beard the Bledisloe Cup adjudicator. When the fellow stepped up and asked if I were lost, my suspicion was intensified, so I airily said, "No, thanks, I'm fine. Just going to look at the church."

The graveyard was delightful, giving on to open grass fields. But the jewel of the hamlet was Post Office Corner, with its immaculately mown green, its riot of flowers, and its good red telephone box, polished inside and out, and cool in the shade of a chestnut tree.

How to compare such a paragon with its only rival, Staunton (pop 297), way off to the west in the Forest of Dean? Where Shipton Moyne is flat, Staunton perches on steep slopes, and has wonderful views of wooded hills all round. It also has more natural curiosities: an ancient animal pound, areas of rough common ground, and a huge rock which in profile shows exactly why it is known as the Frog's Mouth.

These God-given advantages should be disregarded, I know. Yet it is clear that the villagers make exceptional efforts to look after their heritage. How to weigh their achievement against that of their rival 50 miles to the east?

In the "middle" category, the two finalists are curiously similar. Bledington (pop 440), near Chipping Norton, and Willersey (pop 650), close to Broadway. Both have a pleasantly relaxed air, with broad open spaces and no sense of crowding. Again, I found it hard to decide between two communities which obviously strive to keep standards high.

As for the big boys - Lechlade (2,500) and Bourton-on-the-Water (3,000) - both have been heavily infiltrated by the demon tourist. In each, water is a leading attraction - the stripling Thames and its marina at Lechlade, the infant Windrush running straight through the green at Bourton. The first place is still afloat, the second all but swamped by the weight of visitors.

In both, litter is a pernicious problem: the faster you pick it up, the faster they drop it. The judge has to raise his gaze above burger boxes and exploded bags of fish and chips, concentrating instead on features such as the fine new village hall at Lechlade, and the tremendous blaze of flowers all through Bourton's centre. But again, it is invidious to pronounce one better than the other.

It is easy enough for me to write "watch this space". But before I put anything more into it, I have to sort out the multiple impressions of excellence churning around in my head.