Found: the best place to live in Britain

Kingham in Oxfordshire has been named village of the year, on the basis not just of its looks but also because of its dynamic local economy. Jonathan Brown discovers a very modern Cotswold idyll

There is an evening ritual in Kingham in Oxfordshire, named yesterday as
Country Life Village of the Year. Shortly before 6.30pm, a steady stream of upmarket vehicles - typically 4x4s - begin to arrive at the local railway station. Behind the wheels are almost exclusively women drivers and they are arriving just in time to meet their husbands off the train from Paddington.

There is an evening ritual in Kingham in Oxfordshire, named yesterday as Country Life Village of the Year. Shortly before 6.30pm, a steady stream of upmarket vehicles - typically 4x4s - begin to arrive at the local railway station. Behind the wheels are almost exclusively women drivers and they are arriving just in time to meet their husbands off the train from Paddington.

"They've even got the slippers in the car and the gin and tonics on the dashboard," said one bemused local yesterday. "This village is gentrified just like every other round here. It started when Prince Charles bought Highgrove and then when we got Jilly Cooper - that was it." He shrugged, only half joking.

Kingham, a 700-strong community in the Evenlode Valley, deep in the Cotswolds, has celebrities of its own. Alex James from Blur lives there but it is not a village split with tension between incomers and the locals. Far from it. Nor is it the chintzy chocolate -box idyll of popular imagination. The reason that Country Life's five judges, including author Sir Roy Strong, actor and novelist Julian Fellowes and the Duchess of Devonshire, chose to honour Kingham is because it combines a dynamic local economy with lashings of bucolic charm. It beat Cerne Abbas in Dorset, Ronaldkirk in County Durham, Albury in Hertfordshire and Irnham in Lincolnshire.

According to hotelier and interior designer Olga Polizzi, who nominated Kingham, "it is not the prettiest village in the South-east but its characteristics are exceptional and make it an ideal place to live. It is not built completely in the style of the clichéd Cotswold village and in my view is all the better for that''.

There is, of course, a village green complete with recently restored water pump which was in regular use until the 1950s. There are two pubs, a hotel, and a post office combined with a general store. To attract families, there is an acclaimed local primary school and an independent fee-paying secondary school. It is on the edge of 790 square miles of the Cotswolds in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is, however, unadulterated by the tourist paraphernalia normally associated with an area which attracts 7.3 million visitors each year.

It is the train service - only one and a half hours from London and less than 30 minutes from Oxford - that provides much of the life force. Kingham Station escaped the axe in 1965 when two reports by Dr Richard Beeching led to the closure of one-quarter of Britain's rail network. According to local folklore, it survived only because it was used by Sir Peter Parker, chairman of British Railways between 1976 and 1983.

But convenience and charm does not come cheap and a three-bedroomed family home close to the village green will cost upwards of £400,000. None were for sale yesterday and estate agents have yet to set up shop in the village but James Laing, head of the rural division of the property firm Strutt & Parker, said a central part of Kingham's appeal was its liveliness. "It is an excellent example of a modern community living in the glorious surroundings of a Cotswold village. Modern council housing blends with the Georgian Old Rectory, thanks to the similarity of building materials used over the past 300 years. It gives a pleasing mellow symmetry to many of the houses," he said.

Homes have tripled in value in the past five years but 13 new affordable houses have now been built. Also vital to the local economy are the two small industrial estates which thrive within the village confines and which have been tastefully blended into the surroundings. Built on the site of what was once the Cotswolds' largest cattle market at Threshers Yard, these provide light industrial workshops for a burgeoning community of artisan craftsmen, many of whom moved into the area during the 1970s.

Among them was metal founder Richard Henshaw who works alongside wood turner John Sparling and furniture restorer and conservator Clive Payne. The Cotswolds is the antique capital of Britain; in Stow, six miles down the road, there is reputed to be one antique shop for every 60 people.

Mr Henshaw and Mr Payne were yesterday collaborating on the restoration of a Georgian grandfather clock destined for a large country house nearby. "This is what this area is all about - people that can do things. I help him and he helps me. There are so many allied trades and skills around here, that's the beauty of it," said Mr Henshaw.

Mr Payne, who set up in Kingham four months ago, said 90 per cent of the work he does is with local businesses. He admits to hearing of conflict between incoming "townies'' and locals but nothing major. He recalled two incidents of people complaining to local farmers about the bleating of sheep. Is there a rift between town and country? "If you come into the country," he said, "you have to accept the country way of doing things.''

But according to its residents Kingham is, on the whole, a happy and homogenous place. It certainly feels it. On the village green beneath the giant lime and chestnut trees which so entranced the competition judges, author Fiona Mountain was playing with her four young children.

She has recently finished her fourth book, Bloodline, a genealogical mystery. She moved from London six years ago and believes the historic surroundings of her restored village house have helped fire her imagination and fuel her creativity. But she says that, at the same time, the village is an ideal place to bring up children. "Kingham has got the best of both worlds. Beautiful Cotswold architecture, a wonderful school and lovely countryside. It is great for families.''

Joan Cansfield moved there six years ago from Liverpool with her husband. Secretary of the local gardening club, which boasts 100 members and prominent in the thriving book club, she said: "You hear so much rubbish about incomers moving to the country but we have been welcomed here by everyone.''

Keith Hartley, chairman of Kingham Parish Council, was shocked but "totally thrilled" by the village's win. "I'm a bit surprised because it isn't a chocolate-box type of village," he said. "It's more of a working village than a tourist village. But it's got a great atmosphere. It basically caters for everyone within its community."

Clive Aslet, editor of Country Life, believes the appeal of the village idyll reaches "deep into the national psyche". Building the model village has become something of a holy grail for modern planners who seek to create sustainable communities in beautiful locations.

Alex Ely, policy adviser for the independent Commission for Architecture and Built Environment, said Kingham pressed all the right buttons. "There is a good mix of historic buildings, of rich architectural variety, landmark features and an effective sense of place." He said planners too often sought to "preserve villages in aspic" which could spell disaster for local communities, preventing organic growth and development.

Storm clouds may be gathering over Kingham. According to the village newsletter, the problem of molehills on the village green continues unchecked. Dog fouling nearly scuppered the bid for best-kept village and weeds have been seen growing through the surface of the children's play area. But it could, of course, all be a ruse to keep out the second-home owners.

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