Judging a best-kept village contest is a tricky business

It is easy to mock best-kept village contests - to describe people frantically whitewashing coal, vacuum-cleaning the gutters, or launching midnight raids to dump refuse in the streets of bitter rivals.

Reality is different. Competition is keen, of course, but essentially good natured, and the effects are strikingly beneficial. Standards of upkeep are now so high that judges have a daunting task.

The trophy for Gloucestershire villages is the Bledisloe Cup, named after that great agriculturalist, the first Viscount Bledisloe; it was established in 1937, and is now organised by the local branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), with the help of a small sponsorship from Calor Gas. Entrants are divided into three categories: "small" means up to 300 inhabitants, "medium" between 300 and 1,000, and "large" from 1,000 to 3,000. The prize in each class is pounds 100.

This year there were 49 entrants, and the initial task of sorting corn from chaff fell on 24 volunteer judges, who were asked to write reports on the villages they visited. In its excellent notes on how to judge, the CPRE makes the fundamental point that the aim of the competition is "not to find the most beautiful village, nor the most ancient, nor the most picturesque, just the one that is best cared for".

Architectural merit and a beautiful setting should therefore not be taken into account: what matters is evidence of community effort. Judges are told that they should give no warning of their arrival, but that once they are on site, it is up to them whether they remain incognito or start asking questions.

All this naturally applies also to the person - this year, myself - called upon to judge the final. By the time I joined the fray, entrants had been whittled down to two finalists in each category, and I was furnished with the villages' own submissions and with the reports of earlier adjudicators. All I had to do, therefore, was to inspect six villages.

The finalists knew the period during which they would be visited (17- 25 August), but they did not know my identity. The chances of anyone rumbling me were thus minimal; but to reduce them to zero I decided to look as unofficial as possible by making my tours on a mountain bike.

Last Sunday afternoon saw me park outside the boundary of Oddington, a community of 340 souls just east of Stow-on-the-Wold, and a finalist in the medium category. Having extracted my bike from the back of the car, I coasted down the slope into the village between neatly mown verges.

The place was immaculate: not a scrap of litter anywhere, not a blade of grass uncut. Flowers blazed in every garden, set off by the soft limestone of the houses and walls. There was - thank heaven - no tourist activity: in fact, no traffic at all.

I already knew, from the sketch map which the entrants had provided, that the village is strung out for nearly a mile, and almost cut in half by a wasp waist. I soon saw that the village hall is a rather nondescript modern brick building, looking out of place among the mellow stone.

But how was I to balance such minor disadvantages against the evidence of hard work and pride that I saw everywhere? How was I to discount the tremendous impression made by the Church of St Nicholas, an astonishing 11th-century building, leaning all ways, yet still in use, and set in a lovely graveyard, with roses planted along the path?

How, above all, was I to judge Oddington against its rival Longborough (pop. 420), no more than five miles away to the north-west? Longborough has a more enviable position, as it nestles on a hillside, with wonderful views far out over the plain. It is also more compact, which gives a stronger community feeling.

Yet I knew from the rules that I must ignore these natural advantages and look for evidence of human effort. No shortage of that. The very large churchyard was quite beautifully mown (I am a connoisseur of such places, as I mow our own), the village hall and school in admirable order, the post office window cheerful. Altogether, the place had a flourishing air.

Over this weekend I must decide between the two - as I must between the butter-yellow hamlet of Batsford (pop. 50) near Moreton-in-Marsh and the larger, paler Cherington (pop. 100) near Tetbury. The two giants - Hardwicke (3,000, with its splendidly named Sticky Lane) and Highnam (2,000), on either side of Gloucester also need to be ranked.

I feel sad, almost guilty, that after such efforts three communities are bound to be disappointed.