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Best Kept Village judge attacks prissy 'Aga louts': Former townies and retired army officers accused of tainting contest by imposing suburban values on rural areas. Peter Dunn reports

THE Best Kept Village competition, with 3,000 entries in England and Wales this summer, has been criticised by one of its judges who believes the exercise has become tainted with suburban values.

Stephen Friar, the former headmaster of the school at Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire, and now a Liberal Democrat councillor in West Dorset, blames incoming 'townies' and retired army officers for the 'gentrification' of villages. Mr Friar, a reluctant appointee to the panel of Dorset judges, will be casting a baleful eye over the wrought-iron handiwork and ruthlessly trimmed verges beloved of rural England's new 'Aga louts'.

'I've always felt this was a silly competition,' he said. 'I call it the Nimby's Charter. One morning in Steeple Aston I was awakened by a peculiar noise and there's this huge Volvo in the road and a couple of ladies vacuuming the inside of the village phone kiosk. Then my school was severely criticised in the judges' report because of the nettles we'd left growing to attract butterflies.

'One of my council colleagues actually said she'd known people who put bowls of flowers in phone kiosks and she thought it was wonderful. It's these sort of value judgements which I think are totally inappropriate.

'We do seem to have a preponderance of retired people in the country these days, the great and good from Surbiton and pensioned generals, and one senses they've brought with them a tradition of painting coal. They put white- painted stones on verges so tractors don't drive on them.

'I lived in the Cotswolds for 10 years, wonderful villages now occupied by people who are not country people, who've no understanding of the country and complain about cow pats in the road and the dreadful smell. One feels these are faceless communities, no longer alive, and I don't want Dorset to go like that.

'Most of our villages remain genuinely rural, where incomers are actually welcomed by traditional Dorset families because they bring in new ideas and enthusiasm.

'I've no objections whatsoever to people taking pride in their properties but in so doing, with this competition, we're losing sight of the real values of the rural way of life.

'When I was chairman of the parish council at Bishop's Caundle in Dorset, some people moved in to a farmhouse from London. Next thing I had a distraught phone call from these people saying: 'Mr Friar, some deer have escaped from the zoo and they're wandering all over our fields. Do something.' '

David Conder, assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which helps to organise the Best Kept Village competition, said there was concern that some areas over-reacted.

'In fact we've issued a leaflet discouraging the gang- mowing of traditional wild flower verges,' he said.

'Over-zealous tidiness has no place in English villages in our view.'

(Photograph omitted)