Celebs wage class war in Chilterns: Luminaries from the left and right have taken sides in a fierce village row over holidays for East End children

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALISTAIR HORNE, military historian, biographer of Harold Macmillan and the relatively new owner of an pounds 800,000 home, has taken no chances. Four rows of young trees, 20 yards apart, have been planted in the extensive grounds of his Old Vicarage in the Chiltern village of Turville. They shut off his garden from what was once the village school.

The shield is needed because, if the energetic vicar who lives next door has his way, poor children from the EastEnd of London will come for summer holidays to the school. Mr Horne does not want to see them. Indeed, he and some of his fellow villagers are going to great lengths to make sure the children never get to Turville.

First there was a genteel demonstration, in which placards were waved in front of the Bishop of Oxford. Then, Mr Horne wrote an article for the Daily Mail in which the vicar, the Rev Paul Nicolson, appeared as a 'fervent Marxist clergyman', who was largely responsible for the 'malaise in idyllic Turville' by disturbing its 'boring peace' with his plan to extend the school and create a 'possible eyesore in a corner of such rare and serene beauty'.

Then, the sewer that served the school, and which crossed what was once the playing field and is now Mr Horne's land, was dug up. It was 'unsafe and unsightly', Mr Horne wrote to the vicar.

Turville lies just off the M40 in the Chiltern hills. It is everythinga tourist thinks an English village should be. A windmill stands on a hill overlooking the Saxon church, the pub has horse brasses and there are three streets of brick and flint houses. It was once the home of bodgers - rural workmen who made chair legs from wood cut in the Chilterns. The school was built on church land in 1873 for the education of poor children.

The bodgers are long gone, as are the poor. Turville is now part of that most desirable slice of the Home Counties: the triangle between Henley-on- Thames, High Wycombe and Aylesbury. Even former council houses sell for pounds 120,000. Lord Quinton, the philosopher, and chairman of the British Library, lives opposite the vicar. John and Penny Mortimer, and Jeremy Paxman, live within two miles. Jeremy Irons is close at hand.

All are now involved in the argument about whether the children of inner London should be allowed to visit.

By last week the protaginists had lined up thus: the Press Complaints Commission had decided to review a complaint from the vicar about Mr Horne's Daily Mail article for the third time; Mr Paxman had published an elegant attack on Mr Horne in the Spectator; Lord Quinton had sided with Mr Horne; Mr and Mrs Mortimer had backed the vicar and helped him raise funds for the school by organising a recital starring Jeremy Irons. There is talk of going to the courts.

With all the fuss it is easy to forget how modest the vicar's proposals are. The red-brick school was closed in the early 1980s, despite protests from the villagers. There were plans to turn it into a field centre or nursery, but they came to nothing.

Mr Nicolson's 'Marxist' plot is to use the building as a private Montessori school for the children of local commuters and charge their parents pounds 10,000 a year. Profits would be used to bring children from London for holidays in the six- week summer break.

'It's the Robin Hood principle, which I thoroughly approve of,' he said last week. 'That's what the Church is here for. We're knee deep in millionaires round here. If you can't present the gospel as helping the poor to them, what's the point of carrying on?'

The summer residents would not be juvenile delinquents, crack addicts or joyriders. They would be chosen by the Children's Country Holiday Fund, a London-based charity, which has never seen anything like the outrage in Turville in its history.

'We send 3,000 children from Penrith to Penzance every year,' said Bob McKeown, the fund's director, 'and we've never had a complaint. They're all under 12 and many are from the East End. There's always one supervisor for every four children because we have a great responsibility to their parents as much as anyone. The children are all from unfriendly neighbourhoods where there is nowhere safe to play.

'We don't take criminals or even children with emotional or behavioural problems. They're just kids who've never had a holiday. Most of them are blissfully happy. It's very rewarding to see.'

But the reward is one many, if not a majority, of the villagers do not want to see. Suspicion of a radical vicar and his leftish supporters provides the backdrop for Nimbyism. Conservative villagers mutter that the vicar is a little too keen on helping refugees, alcoholics, drug addicts and poor children.

Eric Thurman, who owns the local stables, said: 'We don't mind children coming for the day but there is not enough for them to do in the village and you know the saying about idle hands. 'The big supporters of this idea live outside. They live a capitalist lifestyle but preach left-wing views.'

The vicar has done nothing to pacify right-wingers. Earlier this month, the opening prayer at one of his services began: 'Let us pray for all parents dependent on Income Support and other benefits, who go without food or limit their diet so their children may eat better; for all university research departments and other organisations who have proved time and again that families receiving social benefits in this country are not bad managers any more than most people - a healthy diet is beyond their means.'

The service continued with prayers for asylum seekers in prison, for the Home Office officials who lock up refugees, and for 'those wealthy people who have rushed to pre-pay their gas and electricity bills in order to avoid paying VAT - without any thought or concern for the way in which their tax avoidance increases the fiscal burdens on the poor.'

The effect of such services on conservative historians and philosophers is easy to imagine. When the trustees of a charity - the Community of the Glorious Ascension - came to the village to offer money to rebuild the school, they were told by Mr Horne and Lord Quinton not to give a penny. The trustees backed away and the school appeal is still pounds 120,000 short of its pounds 150,000 target.

The vicar is proud of his uncompromising message. 'I act both practically and politically from a Christian point of view in the interests of the poor and against injustice,' he said. 'I say to the parishoners that the Chilterns should not be the exclusive property of the wealthy.'

He accepts that some may not like this, but cannot understand why the opposition to the school visits is so strong. 'It's such a small thing,' he keeps repeating.

Many of his parishoners agree. Mr Paxman said yesterday that as a trial run the vicar had brought a party of London children to stay in his home. 'They had such a wonderful time,' he said. 'When you saw the pleasure they had in getting away for two weeks you could not want to deny them holidays people like us take for granted.'

Older villagers are also right behind the vicar. Peggy Bird, 80, and Peggy Wanless, 83, were dinner ladies at the school before it closed. Their bungalows overlook the deserted building. 'We think it's a great idea,' said Mrs Bird. 'Yes,' added Mrs Wanless, 'it would be lovely to hear children's voices again.'

Mr Horne and Lord Quinton were unavailable for comment last week.

(Photograph omitted)

Wallace Arnold, page 18

Comments