The lost villages of Britain: Can our rural communities survive in the 21st century?

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Two hundred years ago, visitors arriving at the village of Milfield in Northumberland would have found themselves in a thriving rural community nestled within the agriculturally rich landscape of the Milfield Plain. In 1800, this picturesque Saxon settlement, benefiting from the lush moorlands, forests and pasturage of the nearby Cheviot Hills, was a hub of local trade which included a shop, post office, saddler, blacksmith and joiner. By the 1860s, Milfield had erected its own school to serve the local children, and not long after that an extensive library, complete with 600 volumes, was added to the community's extensive list of amenities.

For a long time thereafter, the village continued to prosper as an impressive model of self-sufficient rural life. Fast-forward to a cool end-of-summer's day in 2009, however, and life in Milfield is almost unrecognisable from what it once was.

Today there is no post office in Milfield; it was one of 469 to be closed down in rural areas between 2008 and 2009, despite fierce opposition from the 250 or so permanent residents here. Barbara Brodie, the owner of the village shop which housed the post office until its closure, has admitted that she is "uncertain about the future" of her business too, when the winter months set in and she can no longer rely on the passing trade – and her concern is understandable, given that some 4,000 village stores in the UK have been forced to close in the past year alone. The reality is that – as with so many rural communities up and down the country – there just aren't enough full-time residents left in Milfield to sustain the local shop on their own.

If further evidence were needed that Milfield's permanent population is in serious decline, then it can be found by taking a quick look at the village school, where there are now only seven pupils left. As a consequence, at the end of the year, Milfield First Primary will be shut down permanently, adding this village school to a list of 27 others in Britain which have been closed since 2008. And things, it seems, are only going to get worse – according to a recent report by the National Housing Federation, up to 200 more village primary schools will shut down for good over the next five years.

And the problem is not simply that people are leaving the countryside. In fact, rural populations are growing at an impressive rate – as many as 800,000 people have migrated to the country in the past decade, with numbers set to soar in the next 20 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. But overwhelmingly, it is the older generations who are flocking to these areas, and as they do so they are pricing out young families who are the lifeblood of communities. Already, according to Dr Stuart Burgess, the Government's rural advocate, there are 400,000 fewer people between the ages of 15 and 29 living in rural communities than there were 20 years ago, while the average age of village residents is increasing by three months each year.

The influx of second-home owners has been a particular problem in certain areas, driving up property prices in picturesque parts of the countryside – where the average annual income is 20 per cent lower than in cities and larger towns – and leaving a gaping hole in communities when these weekenders retreat back to their city residences, with no one left to support local shops and pubs on a day-to-day basis. One thing is certain: if there is any chance of keeping hold of young families in the villages where they are so needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of these communities, the Government is going to have to make a huge effort to increase the number of affordable homes in rural parts.

But as the case studies on these pages show, there are other problems too: from the erosion of local services to the toll taken recently by the recession on jobs, there are any number of obstacles for the 9.7 million people living in rural Britain to overcome. Whoever said that country life was a simple affair, free from the stresses and strains of the modern world?

GUNNERSIDE, SWALEDALE: ‘SECOND-HOME OWNERS HAVE TAKEN OVER OUR VILLAGE’

The village of Gunnerside in Swaledale sits between the River Swale and one of its tributaries, deep in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. Until the late 19th century, this area was home to one of the most prosperous lead-mining industries in the country, and locals here have always prided themselves on their strong sense of community. But today – with a huge influx of second-home buyers to this small village – Gunnerside residents are having to rally together more than ever before to protect themselves from a number of threats to their traditional way of life.

Cath Calvert works for Rural Action Yorkshire (formerly the Yorkshire Rural Community Council) and has lived in Swaledale since she was 19 years old, while her husband's local roots go back several generations. Even in the 30 years she has been here, Calvert says she has seen a lot of changes in the area. Today in Gunnerside, 40 of the 60 properties in the village are second homes. While Calvert says that "there is also a high population of people who take early retirement in Gunnerside, who are a real asset to the community, involving themselves in local events and supporting local facilities," she explains that there are a number of properties in the area which stand empty for many weeks of the year. "We don't see much of the people who own these even in the short time that they are here," she says. "They don't benefit the community; in fact, they are a detriment as they push the prices of houses up.

"I have family members who would like to live in the villages where they were born – if they could afford to," Calvert continues. But sadly, for many locals this is just not an option. "There are lots of traditions that die out when established families move away," she says. "Things like New Year's shouting, when kids in the village used to run around knocking on doors in the village to bring in the New Year." And that isn't the only tradition being wiped out; local services have suffered significantly too.

Until a few years ago, there was a post office and shop in Gunnerside. Now there is neither. While the village still has a daily bus service which locals describe as a "lifeline", Calvert questions how long this will last; the village pub was threatened with closure earlier this year, and while locals are doing all they can to keep it alive, there is a lot of scepticism as to whether it will survive. The local primary school in Gunnerside, meanwhile, has merged with another school down the Dale, so pupils here have to travel between two sites each day – and there are further threats to its future sustainability. The closure of the school, Calvert says, "would be the last straw".

Thankfully, the Women's Institute in Gunnerside has established a communal shopping initiative. "Every week, we all meet in the village hall and put in a joint shopping order," one of its members explains. "The next week, we come back to collect our goods and have a cup of tea and a chat at the same time." In a further bid to improve prospects for young people in this area, Gunnerside's village hall now houses a video-link service to the doctor's surgery, Citizens Advice Bureau and district council, with plans to extend this free service to local banks and the Job Centre. There is also a communal computer and printer with broadband access.

"A lack of technology and communication is a real issue here," says Calvert. "The main employers are farming and tourism, but if we can bring in well-paid jobs through 'remote working' then we can offer something to attract the young families we so need to keep our community alive."

MACHYNLLETH, POWYS: ‘TESCO IS SPLITTING OUR POPULATION DOWN THE MIDDLE’

In 1404, Machynlleth was the seat of Prince Owain Glyndwr, who led the Welsh revolt against England during the reign of Henry IV. Today, this once close-knit community is again locked in battle – only this time, residents are fighting against each other, over proposals for a giant shopping centre on the town's doorstep.

The family of Kelvin Jenkins has lived in Machynlleth for some 200 years, and he believes that deep divisions within the local community over plans for a huge Tesco will be difficult to overcome. He says: "We're facing one of the biggest changes we've seen here for a very long time, and it's splitting our population right down the middle."

At the beginning of the summer, Tesco submitted a planning application for a 27,000 sq ft supermarket and car park on the edge of this traditional market town, on the combined sites of the old cattle market – which fell victim to the BSE and Foot & Mouth crises – and an abandoned builder's yard. Since then, the community has been in turmoil. On one side, supporters of the proposal are all for what they believe would mean cheap food and more jobs. On the other, detractors claim the traditional character of the town would come under threat, and this could have a serious impact on the local economy.

Since the decline of traditional industries in this area – forestry, slate-mining and farming – the biggest-grossing industry by far has been tourism. Visitors, Jenkins says, are drawn to the "unique character and strong sense of individuality" that distinguishes this town, and the opening of a huge complex, and the subsequent increase in traffic from delivery lorries and incoming shoppers, would detract from that. The job losses that could stem from a decline in tourism, Jenkins believes, would far outweigh those generated by Tesco.

While some local business owners are in favour of the supermarket, believing that it would attract visitors to the area who might then spend money on other services, a number of existing small shops and bakeries could crumble under competition from a new retail giant; one local bakery and delicatessen has already said that it would close if the planning application is accepted.

Jenkins, the proprietor of a local jewellers, thinks that starter businesses in particular would be hard to get off the ground. Yet he does not deny that some things need to change. Many of those in favour of the Tesco plan argue that the protesters are trying to hold on to a quaint "olde world" vision of Machynlleth, which they believe is unprogressive. Jenkins himself agrees that there is a shortfall in some goods and services which needs to be addressed but argues that this could be done without the opening of a superstore. "We don't need a 27,000 sq ft store to service a population of 3,000," he says. Instead, he suggests, there should be investment in local businesses.

But whatever the outcome of the proposal, a significant amount of damage has already been done to the community of Machynlleth. "The extent of the venom over this has shocked me," Jenkins says. "The rip in the community will take a long time to heal."

WESTBURY-SUB-MENDIP, SOMERSET: ‘THERE ARE NO JOBS FOR THE YOUNG’

Westbury-sub-Mendip is a picturesque enclave on the southern slope of the Mendip hills. In late spring, local children gather on the village green for Club Day with its fancy-dress competition and parade through the village led by a brass band. But over the past few years, the number of entrants in this longstanding tradition has dropped considerably, with the number of young people living in the village falling away at an alarming rate. And the local school has definitely felt the impact of this shift. "Normally, at the start of September, we have a number of new families enrolling for the new term," says Clare Blackmore, headmistress at St Laurence's. "This year, that just hasn't happened. In fact, the school roll has fallen from 93 children to just 55 in the past few years." The situation now at St Laurence's, Mrs Blackmore says, "is really bad", and reflects a wider decline in Westbury.

In recent years, the biggest employers for people in this village were three nearby factories. But with the recent recession, these have all closed down. As a result, a number of residents have found themselves jobless and been forced to move away from the community. "The village is struggling to hold on to its young people," Blackmore confirms – they are being driven away to nearby towns and cities in a desperate bid to find work. And it is very difficult to convince them to stay when the few services that still exist here are under serious threat.

"Our village shop was facing closure earlier this year," Blackmore explains. "Only after a local bought up the shop at the last minute was it saved – but people in Westbury have to be diligent in supporting the business if it is to survive in the future." Meanwhile, the village pub, which several years ago was relatively busy in the evenings and on weekends, was closed for a year and only re-opened two weeks ago. Now it is owned by a conglomerate, as "no one wants to take on a pub in these uncertain times".

Even the local church is feeling the force of mass exodus. The vicar of the parish has gone, and was initially replaced by a part-time vicar who covered three parishes in the area. But now he has left too, so all three villages are without a vicar, with no apparent sign of a replacement.

"People here don't complain," Blackmore adds with a small shrug. "After all, this is a beautiful part of the country and we're very lucky to live here in many respects." But however one tries to keep morale high, it is hard to deny that something is awry in Westbury. Locals say they only hope that when the market perks up, local industry will pick up again too. Until then, it is hard to see how this once-idyllic village will be able to lure back its lost children.

CHALE, ISLE OF WIGHT: ‘OUR SCHOOL IS CLOSING DOWN

The village of Chale rests at the foot of St Catherine's Down, two miles from the Isle of Wight's southernmost tip. Here, beyond the old military road, is a glorious stretch of coastline. To the naked eye, it looks like a picture-postcard vision of Britain, far removed from the stresses and strains of contemporary life. Yet, in reality, this community is in turmoil as it struggles in the grasp of a thoroughly modern crisis.

Today, Chale Church of England Primary School is one of the latest victims of a recent trend. With just 34 pupils left – nine of whom belong to the self-financed nursery – it is the smallest of the 46 schools remaining on the Isle of Wight, and has now been deemed financially unsustainable by the local authorities.

"We've been told that we have to find another school in the area to merge with in order to survive," explains head-teacher Trish Wray. "But that's proving very difficult; others on the island have moved together, but we can't find a partner and have been left out on a limb."

While Wray says she understands the difficulties in continuing to fund her school, she believes its closure could be the final nail in the coffin for this already ravaged community: "Not so long ago, this was a vibrant place with a thriving school of 100 pupils, and a number of successful dairy-farming businesses," Wray explains. But in recent years, the erosion of local services has forced a number of residents to move away.

While the village is a stunning place to live, it seems that beautiful scenery isn't enough to hold a community together. "People need things to do and access to services, otherwise they will be forced to move elsewhere," Wray says. But Chale isn't receiving the funding it needs to keep hold of its residents. "Two weeks ago, our post office closed down. There is no library here, no GP surgery, and little for our kids to do." At the moment, the village school also operates as a youth centre in the evenings. It hosts public events which bring people together, young and old. Without this, local morale is likely to take a heavy blow.

"Community isn't just about knowing your neighbour's name or saying hello over the garden fence," Wray explains. "It's based on something much deeper than that: a sense of belonging and an understanding that people will be there for each other when someone's in trouble, or when they have something to celebrate." And at the moment, Chale C of E is at the heart of that precious sense of community. "At the end of the day," Wray asks, "if the school goes, what is there left to belong to?"

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