Welcome to Whiteley: (The village where everyone's glad to be grey)

It was founded in 1908 as a haven for struggling pensioners. But now Whiteley needs money.
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The Independent Online

In a rural corner of Surrey, an elderly man in a dilapidated Renault is careering through snow drifts at a less than sensible speed for someone of his age. Mike Roycroft, the village warden, sighs and jumps out into the middle of the road to order the man to a halt – which he duly does with an impressive and juddering skid.

"You're going far too fast," Mr Roycroft berates the old man. "You know it was too fast because you skidded when you stopped."

The old man is nonplussed. "I only skidded because you told me to stop," he says before putting the car into gear and driving off.

Welcome to Whiteley Village, the only village in Britain where every resident is a pensioner. It is a charming cluster of picture-postcard houses with a village shop and pub, set on more than 200 acres of wooded Home Counties countryside.

The village is surrounded by some of the most exclusive and expensive properties in southern England.

To the west is St George's Hill, a stretch of nouveau mansions popular with celebrities and footballers, who hide behind high walls and CCTV cameras. To the east is Burwood Park, a similarly elite enclave of houses, dominated by industry magnates and City boys. But unlike their affluent neighbours, the residents of Whiteley have little income beyond their state pensions.

That's because the octagonal village is a charitable trust open only to those who have no money. Many of the more than 500 pensioners who are living out their twilight days in the comfort of one of the town's Grade II listed cottages arrived with nothing more than a suitcase. It is without irony that the appreciative residents fondly refer to Whiteley as their "Land of Milk and Honey".

The village was founded in 1908 as an extraordinary social experiment by William Whiteley, a benevolent retail magnate, to give "aged poor persons" a respectable and comfortable retirement. Elderly people with little income simply apply, and the trust that runs the village decides whether or not to admit them.

But now, looking to find £6m to save the village from falling foul of new building regulations, the trustees have embarked on their first-ever fundraising initiative.

Many of the pretty Arts and Craft cottages erected at the turn of the last century are not suitable for the modern pensioner. They lack ramps for wheelchair access, are incredibly small and have no double glazing. Some only just about pass muster with local housing inspectors.

Peter and Patty Cockburn, two of the village's newer arrivals, freely admit they would have been almost destitute had they not been offered housing here three years ago. They now live in a two-bedroom cottage, that has been modernised and furnished with donated furniture, benefiting from the first round of £32m of refurbishments being carried out at Whiteley. Three years ago, "all we had was a single suitcase between the two of us," said Mr Cockburn, 79, a former agricultural economist who spent more than 50 years in Zimbabwe.

"I'm not sure what we would have done had we not been taken in."

As British citizens living in Zimbabwe, the Cockburns saw the value of their pensions virtually disappear overnight, wiped out by spiralling inflation. With little chance of finding work at their age, they took the difficult decision to leave, and in 2005 booked a one-way flight to London. They couldn't even afford to ship their belongings over, Mr Cockburn recalled. "The only source of income we had was a small British state pension which, fortunately, I'd paid a small amount into over the years but otherwise that was it," recalls Mr Cockburn.

Looking out of her window at the deep snow outside, 80-year-old Patty Cockburn says she can't believe how fortunate they have been: "To be able to live in a house and feel secure is a wonderful feeling. We've now found a place where we're happy to live out the rest of our lives."

Further down the hill, past a parking lot with row upon row of mobility scooters, Hetti Hyndman has been living out the so-called "rest of her life" for more than four decades now.

She arrived at Whiteley Village in 1966 and greeted her 107th birthday last month with champagne.

Still insistent on getting up to greet her visitors, she remains an astonishingly active centenarian.

"I've had a wonderful time here," she says. "I've held all sorts of jobs round the village. My favourite was running the pub."

Mrs Hyndman is one of five current Whiteley residents who has a telegram from the Queen sitting on the mantelpiece. Another 81 residents are less than five years away from the big 100.

Two weeks ago the villagers put on their own Burns Night. "We had a whole troupe of 80-year-olds dancing along to bagpipes," says Mr Roycroft, adding with a hint of exhaustion: "It got incredibly raucous."

Mr Roycroft believes that being surrounded by people is the key to a longer and happier life, and says more needs to be done to make sure the elderly are not left on their own.

"It really is remarkable how many people I see who get a new lease of life when they come here: people who seemed on the verge of giving up, but who completely transformed themselves because they had people to talk to. I can honestly say that loneliness is the number-one killer for the elderly. People literally lose their will to live once they're on their own."

Mr Roycroft concedes that the timing of the village's fundraising is not ideal, but believes that even in the midst of recession the trust can raise the money needed to bring the cottages into line with modern standards. "The economic situation does concern me, but I think we'll make it," he says. "We're mainly asking for donations from corporate sponsors. While some are saying that times are tough, others recognise that it's exactly during these downturns that the elderly need our help more than ever."

William Whiteley: A capitalist with a conscience

The founder of Whiteley Village was born in Yorkshire to a prosperous corn dealer. William Whiteley travelled as a young man to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, an inspiration for him.

With a loan of £10 he began his entrepreneurial career, which led to the opening of Whiteley's of Bayswater, the country's first true department store where, Whiteley boasted, shoppers could buy anything,"from a pin to an elephant". But in January 1907 Whiteley was shot outside his office by a man who claimed to be his illegitimate son. His murder shocked society but led to the creation of Whiteley Village. To the surprise and irritation of his family, the businessman left a then astonishing £1m to be spent on a collection of cottages for "aged, poor persons" and the pensioner's paradise of Whiteley Village was born.

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