Post Office closures: Death of the village
Life in Langton Green, Kent, is far from what it was. Its post office is the latest amenity to close – and it is a story repeated across the country. From the wilting Garden of England, Andrew Johnson reports
Sunday 23 March 2008
The daffodils are out in force in Langton Green. They are swaying in numbers along the main road, marking the diagonal path across the village green, and in clumps in the churchyard, like gold and yellow beacons of spring.
People are proud of their daffodils here. They are also proud of their small village three miles west of Tunbridge Wells now locked in a life-and-death struggle between the rampaging urban vortex and the gentle arms of the countryside.
It is a battle the Kent village is slowly losing. When its post office shut in January as part of the controversial national closure programme – MPs voted last week to continue the process which will see 2,500 shut – Langton Green lost another vital community hub and edged a little closer toward the suburban commuter sprawl.
Gone are three of the village's four pubs; gone are the two police houses; gone is the horticultural society; gone is one of the two grocery stores, one of the two butchers, the last dairy farm, the YMCA playing field, the doctor's surgery – all in recent memory – and now, gone is the post office. Gone too is the wildlife from the village pond, seen off by a new drainage system which draws in the oil and detritus from the road.
"One of our big fears is that we'll become a suburb of Tunbridge Wells," said Trevor Parker, chairman of the village's rural society. "It's perhaps a bit strong to say the village is dying on its feet. But it is contracting as far as village atmosphere is concerned. When the doctor retired a few years ago the health authority decided there was no need for one here, so now people have to go to Rusthall two miles away. But there is no bus to get you there. You need a car which is another car on the road."
Langton Green is not alone. Almost 50 rural pubs close down in Britain every month, according to the British Beer and Pub Association. The irresistible homogenising forces of supermarket giants, pub chains and cars are sucking the life out of Britain's – particularly England's – villages. George Orwell's cycling old maid would find herself in smog rather than morning mist today as she battled the Sunday traffic on her way to communion.
The A264 road through Langton Green is clogged with cars and lorries throughout the day. The slow strangulation of the village means that more people have to rely on cars – to get to the out-of-town supermarkets, to visit the doctor, or to take their children to school, because the school bus is often full and the highly regarded primary school is oversubscribed.
Margaret Dick-Cleland, 76, has lived in Langton Green for around 50 years, moving from Tunbridge Wells when she married. Her five children grew up in the village. In that time she has seen Langton Green expand as more and more land has disappeared under housing.
When, for example, the Grange pub was pulled down a few years ago it was replaced by nine houses. The dairy farm was sold to developers and the two police houses are being redeveloped. There is housing now on the YMCA playing field, and there is also a growing trend for some people to build houses in their back gardens.
"My children used to cross the road on their own when they were eight or nine," Mrs Dick-Cleland said. "When I was a child you'd see one car in an afternoon. Now it's the main road to East Grinstead. There used to be a horticultural society but that's gone by the board because we couldn't find anyone to run it. People haven't the time.
"It was much more of a village in 1950 because everybody shopped here. We had everything we needed. The post office was well used. Pat, the postmistress, is now holding coffee mornings once a fortnight and has had to open up her back room for it, which shows what a community hub it was."
The village dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon settlers, and probably much before as a settled area. The mother of Richard II is said to have lived there with her first husband. It is part of the parish of Speldhurst, a village mile or so down the road, and for centuries relied on its church.
In 1863, however, Langton Green built its own church, which turns out to be a bit of a gem. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, its stained-glass windows came from the William Morris Company, with one of Mary Magdalene designed by Morris himself, and another by Ford Maddox Brown. It did have a window by Rosetti, but the parish gave it away to a church in Cambridge.
There are other windows dedicated by the Baden-Powell family, the most famous member of whom, Robert, founded the Scout movement and spent much of his childhood in the village visiting his aunt. Subbuteo was invented in Langton Green by Peter Adolph and painting the figurines was a cottage industry.
Decline as a village, however, has been steady for at least 50 years: the Langton Green Rural Society was founded in 1959 after "local concern for the loss of rural amenities which would result from the development proposals for the village".
Gordon Eade, 71, lives next door to the house he grew up in. He met his wife, Janet, at primary school and he remembers local boys like himself roping off the crossroads to hold boxing matches.
"In my day every village had its own cricket team," he said, "and we used to play teams from other villages. A lot of that was social, so you could meet up in the pub afterwards. Now you have pot hunters. If anybody is any good they can join the best team and drive to games. We used to play football and cricket outside and scrump apples. Hundreds of houses have gone up since then. There's no local pubs at all now. In the old days you'd meet up to play darts or football. People are no longer occupied in the village. When I was a lad I'd do a milk round from the dairy. They'd fill the bottles there and I'd wash them out and put the tops on."
Doug Thorpe, 83, lives a few doors up from Gordon. He was born in Speldhurst but 56 years ago he married his friend's sister, Peggy, and moved to Langton Green.
The smart former fireman can remember there being a wheelwright in the village and a blacksmith's. "The villages used to be more separated. The road just stopped and it was surrounded by fields.
"We used to go out blackberry picking, mushrooming, catching rabbits. If you saw a policeman as a boy, even if you were doing nothing wrong, you'd stand to attention.
"I did use the post office up the road. I like cash so I took my pension book. When it closed they said we could use the one at Rusthall, but the bus stops across the common and you have to walk across it. You don't like to do that as a pensioner, you can get mugged."
Langton Green is not dead yet, however. The rural society will hold its annual fete on the village green this summer and has recently built a new village hall, which is quickly being booked up for local wedding receptions and children's parties. The ancient game of stoolball – a cross between cricket and rounders which predates both – is still played and there is a local league.
The former postmistress, Pat Wood, has been holding fortnightly coffee mornings to keep the community united, and these have proved very popular. It's just that, according to Mr Eade, "life used to be cosy and contained. We didn't have to go out of the village. We had everything we needed."
The Post Office says that each decision to close a rural post office is a difficult one, but it must act to stem its losses of £3.5m a week. It has lost four million customers in two years, it says, and the consultations are not about whether to close post offices, but how to create the best network.
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