A case of gross decency

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The Independent Online
Herefordshire is the graveyard of ambition. So said one of the brighter sparks of this place the other day. The ex-vicar used to say that it was impossible to think in Herefordshire - impossible and largely unnecessary, goes the argument. The county is so lovely that one loses touch with all the hurrying and scurrying with which people who live in uglier places try to distract their days. Schoolmasters, magistrates and policemen say that people here are nicer and slower than elsewhere.

True, a policeman recently had a shotgun fired at him. But is this a sign of singular modern depravity or of the occasional violence that has pock- marked every age? A policeman seconded to drug-abuse work in local schools remarked the other night that the county's drug users account for only about a 10th of burglaries. This is apparently a low figure, and attributable to the fact that even bad Herefordians still feel they ought to pay for their sins. A beak told me that Herefordian felons were remarkable for the willingness with which they paid their fines and did their time.

It seems fair to see the county as maintaining what we think of as rural virtues. Of course, that doesn't mean that it is paradise, or ever has been. I met a chap who remembered talking to a Ledbury policeman in the middle of the night 30 years ago. The policeman bemoaned the absence of incident in his life. The next weekend, by coincidence, the youth of the town - then, as now, prone to light mayhem when bored - handcuffed the poor bobby to one of the pillars of the Market Hall.

Over the years, the people of Hereford have shared the pace of their divine cattle, whose amiability is their hallmark. But was it the docility of the cattle that helped Herefordians slow down, or vice versa? I think it was the latter, and am a little inclined to blame the near-absence of an aristocracy hereabouts for the gentleness of our human pace. Aristocrats alone can be expected to set crucial bad examples to the less privileged who watch them from a distance. Would-be hell-raisers among the middle classes badly need them. Few of us have the nous to be creative unless sparks of inspiration are set among us.

Beyond example, we middle-England, middle-income, middling types need the grit of resentment around which to build our pearl of creativity. Without it, we muddle along. Ambition, rebellion and sedition, the ingredients of a lively society, are all best spawned by seeing and envying the easeful extravagance of undeserved privilege.

But there are no serious aristos in Herefordshire. We have the odd lord and lady, but we hear little of them except when they give nationally lauded charitable car-boot sales. There is no glittering set to whose parties and tables we can fight for access. Most adulteries and malfeasances in this county have to be rustled up by untutored rustics. It is for the ordinarily moneyed people to fall out about paltry inheritances, without the spur of seeing millions squandered. We marry locally for love or affection here, without the challenge of young sprigs going abroad in search of foreign glamour allied with diamonds.

We do, however, have a class of landowner - squires, really - whose sturdiness and longevity would impress a Trollope, though their behaviour has seldom frightened the horses. I like the idea of them enormously, but they are not exactly motivating. If I read him right, Trollope had a special snobbery about the upper classes. One could not be truly, romantically, grand in England if one had a title: the aristocrats cut disgraceful, energising capers, but it was the squirearchy that provided the basis of society.

Wasn't this the sort of thing that Evelyn Waugh also beautifully captured, though he larded his snobbery with a penchant for recusancy? Waugh and Trollope were both profoundly romantic. They enjoyed the ultimate snobbery of discovering a class that had been ignored by everyone else and then making a cult of it. They wrote about a stratum in society of patent, obscure and preferably slighted decency.

This was a squirearchy living in houses it could not afford, occasionally stirring for public service at Westminster or, more likely, Shire Hall, and periodically sending golden young men off to die in wars. William Cobbett had a chunk of this dream under his nail; Edith Wharton's writing, especially her last, lovely book, The Buccaneers, is full of it.

These romantic figures could have been modelled out of a slightly romanticised view of several Herefordshire landowners who are not (or, in the case of one family, only latterly) formally noble. Their estates and often the tenure of a single family are sometimes a thousand years old.

Their existence has been flushed out in an exciting exhibition which is being held in Hereford's public library and gallery. It is the account of how the Picturesque movement influenced the landscaping of several great Hereford parks. The miracle is that the estates seem to be more or less intact. Most are still in private hands.

Opening the exhibition, Sir Roy Strong, who has lived here for 20 years, remarked that some of the estates would be better known if they had been in public ownership - such as Croft, one of the best of them. Yes, but it is part of the pleasure of living here that the place has such unsung, obscure delights nurtured by rather private people.