No bus, no shop, no pub, no school: The last remaining public amenity is a telephone box for the poorer folk. Cal McCrystal on the desocialising of village England
Sunday 03 April 1994
The village can be found on Hereford and Worcester's current Public Transport Map and Guide, issued by the county council. It is one of three busless villages on a triangular route to the north of the town of Bromyard. On the map, the route is coloured grey. This is supposed to mean there is a 'bus route operating less than five days a week', but in reality it means no bus at all.
Grey is the dominant colour on the map whose other routes are red (two-hourly or more frequent service) and green (five-day, but less than two- hourly). As managers of the nation's new privatised bus companies become more hardnosed and monopolistic, squeezing out local operators, the public-transport map presents the frustrated bus traveller with a rural compass almost as pointless as the Thornbury bus-stop.
The notice-board displays one further piece of information: that villagers may avail themselves of a voluntary car scheme organised by a local community association. 'There's a fairly heavily aged population in this area,' its chairman, Brian Bolton, said last week. 'The county council has been one of the most parsimonious in the country. Hereford became the first town to have its bus service deregulated. Throughout the county, a pattern of ungenerous support for amenities was established.'
What amenities do the villagers of Thornbury enjoy? Church House, suggesting the presence of clergy, was sold some years ago into private hands. The parish church remains open, served by an itinerant vicar. The school, closed 20 years ago, is also a private residence. There is no pub, post office, shop or village hall. There is no doctor, though there is a phone booth beside the bus- stop from which one may be called - from Bromyard - in an emergency.
'When I moved here from Worcester 14 years ago, the estate agent's blurb said 'Close to all the amenities', which was a bit of exaggeration,' said Geoffrey Mutton, who runs a market garden. 'One would like more of a social life - a pub would provide some focus.'
The lack of focus is partly due to the loose structure of many Hereford villages, which tend to straggle (unlike other English villages, with main streets, squares or commons). But in the past, the post office, village hall, pub - not infrequently the bus-stop - provided at least an illusion of communal cohesion and centrality in villages such as Thornbury. Now, even the illusion has gone.
Thornbury is pleasant to the eye, surrounded by rolling countryside typical of the region. But pedestrians are a rare sight; cyclists even rarer. Children are neither seen nor heard. Yet according to Mandy Neal, who has three herself, there are between 20 and 30 children of school age in the village - an unusually high proportion for a village of this size. A school bus calls for those going to schools in Bromyard or Bredenbury. Others, who go to school in Tenbury, are driven there by parents. 'Until two years ago, we had a bus service once a week to Leominster. When they took it off, some old people were affected. But people are friendly here and give lifts.'
Mandy's friend Lorna Checketts complained that married couples needed two cars. 'If your husband works in Leominster or Ledbury and has to commute in the one family car, where does that leave his wife, all day long with no means of transport?' The answer is the mobile greengrocer and the mobile librarian (both weekly), or weekend shopping in Bromyard. 'You do need two cars,' Mr Mutton agreed. 'But without a bus, it's a bit inhibiting for children. We have three, so you end up being a bit of a taxi service for them.' Another villager was more sanguine. 'You adapt to a new rhythm of living,' she said.
Because deregulation of bus services has failed to attract private operators into remoter rural communities, the rhythm can be painful. 'It's mostly people who are shaky on their pins who are in need of help,' Brian Bolton said. 'We proposed that we should organise a district bus service to plug the gaps in the existing network - the kind of service that would not only take Mrs Williams to the hospital for her chiropody, but would also provide a dial-a-ride link between hamlets and Bromyard.
'The county council said it was a good idea, but insisted on volunteer bus drivers. The idea foundered, so we were pressured - by sheer demand - into a voluntary car service to help some people get about. You'd never think, looking at the scenery around here, that the European Union has given this whole area - from here to the Powys border - Category Five status as being badly deprived. We may re-submit the district bus proposal later, but even if the council accepts the idea of paid drivers, it will still only be a sticking plaster to the no-bus problem.'
Mr Bolton thinks the deprivation is worse than may be generally realised. 'There are people who are effectively paralysed by the lack of facilities in their villages. They tend to be old ladies living alone. Many are too proud to let their predicament be known.'
On the other hand, some villages glory in their isolation. About 10 miles south of Bromyard, Coddington enjoys a painless rhythm. Unlisted on the Public Transport Map, its bus, which used to call at nearby Coddington Cross twice a week, disappeared even before the Church of England primary school closed in 1962. That school, nearly a century old, is now a private house. A second school, mostly for children of army officers of British India (Winston Churchill's daughter Sarah boarded briefly), faded with the Raj. Its present occupant, Graham Morris, is a semi- retired electrical engineer whose great-great-grandfather's cousin was William Morris, the designer, socialist and poet who shared the pre-Raphaelite painters' fascination with medieval settings.
What once was the post office is occupied by a retired Birmingham doctor, George Thorpe, and his wife. The two village pubs are no more, The Golden Cross having lost its licence in 1916 after complaints from local gentry about drunken farm labourers, and The Plough, converted into a family home, Plough Cottage. In its size and absence of amenities, Coddington is very like Thornbury: no village surgery or shop of any kind (the former post office doubled as village store). The rector is not residential. As in Thornbury, the only visible reminder of commerce in this village of 93 adults, 10 teenagers and 10children is a red phone booth.
Villagers do not complain. 'We don't need a bus,' said David West, a local farmer. 'I don't know who would use it. We had an old boy of 90 in the village until he died of cancer 18 months ago. He drove his car until the final months, when a home help delivered his shopping. I suppose it's not a typical village, in that it's affluent. The laundry man calls. The milk and newspapers are delivered.'
His wife, Jane, said: 'We get frozen-food vans coming around, but no one buys from them. We don't want the hassle of anyone coming to the door. We would miss not having the phone booth. There are some gypsies on the edge of the village who work on a hop farm. They use it.'
Mr Morris acknowledges that villagers do not often see each other. 'But in a case of emergency - if people are unwell - we do rally round.'
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