Pop idyll: What’s so special about Britain’s most-wanted village?
Never mind urban cool – Cerne Abbas in Dorset has the countryside's hottest properties. City-dweller Rhodri Marsden peers over the fences to find out why
Wednesday 13 February 2008
The Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, picturesque and tranquil as it may be, isn't the best place for your car's engine to start misfiring. After experiencing a catastrophic loss of power on Piddle Lane and rolling down the hill into the village, my attempts to call the RAC are thwarted by a complete lack of mobile phone reception.
As I, the panicking boy from the city, desperately hold my phone aloft in an attempt to get a signal, a gentleman greets me as he saunters past. "You'll not be getting anything on that unless you're with T-Mobile," he says, smiling sympathetically.
As I lift the bonnet in a pointless attempt to diagnose the fault, a nearby front door opens, and I'm offered a cup of tea. The citizens of Cerne Abbas are giving me plenty of moral support.
According to a survey conducted by the estate agent Savills, village life is hot property. And this particular village is the ideal idyll. Despite our supposed desire for all things "urban", the survey found that 35 per cent of us would love to live in a village.
So Savills' number crunchers ran some complicated maths (the average price of property compared with broader county; the percentage of home sales that top the £500,000 mark). Then they took into account factors people seek (good schools, countryside, stonking great houses, good pubs, cute village greens). And the winner was Cerne Abbas. So, here I am, a city-dweller seeking the heart and soul of village life.
If you're thinking the survey may be a stunt designed to clear the agency's backlog of houses in this village, think again – Savills doesn't have a single house for sale here. In fact, you won't find many on the market. Ever. Once they've sampled the delights, Cerne Abassinians don't often move out. Local agencies reports huge numbers of buyers for each property that comes on the market.
"While much of Dorset was bombarded with ugly bungalows during the 1970s," says Savills' Antony Lumby, who was born and bred in the county, "Cerne Abbas has remained strikingly beautiful." It grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 10th century, and while little of the abbey remains, a full tour of the village reveals a rich diversity of historic architecture – and, of course, the village's most famous attraction, the Cerne Abbas giant. The origins of this 55-metre chalk figure on a nearby hillside are still shrouded in mystery, making it a much-gazed upon attraction – and establishing Cerne Abbas as the only British village that's associated with an image of a naked man boasting an enormous erect penis.
The only small grumble that you might hear from Cerne Abbas' 732 residents is about their particularly hard water; to that end, a water main is currently being replaced on Long Street. Is there a conspiracy to make these people happy? But in the short term, a couple of JCBs are noisily hacking at the tarmac, shattering the peace. "You've not really caught us on the best day," laughs Andrew Farrow, the owner of the village shop, Cerne Stores.
The work is set to continue for another four weeks, but the locals are taking the barriers that now line their main thoroughfare in their stride; I hear regular exchanges along the lines of "excuse me" – "no, excuse me!" – "after you" – "no, after you!" as people negotiate their way to and fro.
Wendy Charman, who is carrying a rather attractive pot plant past a workman with a pneumatic drill, moved here just two years ago, and counts herself very lucky to have snapped up a home. "I was just in the right place at the right time," she says. "People have been known to buy any property they can in Cerne Abbas while they wait for the right one to come along." I ask Antony Lumby what kind of price I might be looking at if Savills had a property in the village. "Well... £600,000 isn't going to get you an awful lot," he replies.
So, aside from an historic property and newly softened water in your pipes, what else awaits a first-time resident of Cerne Abbas? Along with Cerne Stores, Long Street offers a tea room, a craft shop, an antiques shop selling furnishings, fine art and footstools, and three pubs – one of which boasts "a traditional warm and friendly welcome, subject to availability". Compared with where I live, in south-west London, this represents an almost frighteningly limited range of services, but the villagers stress that they have all they need.
Indeed, Wendy Charman, describes the amenities as "substantial". The shop, which is open seven days a week, has a post office in one corner and sells fresh bread and locally produced meat. Charman also informs me that the village has a "fantastic" local doctor and regular bus service. I need only look at the flyers pinned up inside the village bus stop to discover thriving community activity: you can see the film Atonement in the village hall on Monday for a fiver; an all-weather wicket has just been installed at the village cricket club; the dramatic society is busy constructing evenings of entertainment, and an appeal for shrubs for a local garden is hitting its targets, thanks to, among others, "Ghislaine & Anthony", who have just donated a mulberry bush.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Savills survey revealed that, of all the delights a village can offer would-be residents, a close-knit community carries the least appeal, but Andrew Farrow believes that attitudes can change rapidly. "You quickly find that community is what you value in life – to live in a place where people look out for each other, and where your children are safe."
Farrow has felt the benefit of that support more than most; when his wife died shortly after they moved to Cerne Abbas in 1984, the village paid for him to take a much-needed holiday, and when Cerne Stores was nearly facing bankruptcy in 1992, £12,000 was raised by local residents – in two days – to help him out. "I paid everyone back in two years," he recalls, "and these days, although the hours are long, things are much better."
While having a top-notch roast beef sandwich for lunch at the New Inn, I have a perfect vantage point to observe the comings and goings at Farrow's shop. It's the hub of village life – dog walkers stopping off for a newspaper, writers taking a break for a chinwag and a cake, and – incredibly – a slouching teenager with a back-to-front baseball cap. "Keeping young people in our villages is a problem," admits Antony Lumby, "because even if they want to stay here, they can't get on the housing ladder."
The few dozen children of Cerne Abbas have a highly regarded primary school and active youth club to keep them busy and, while they're probably destined for a life outside the village, many will be lured back in the future.
Dave Fox, who can trace his Cerne Abbas antecedents back 400 years, found himself back in the village of his birth after several years away in first the RAF, and then the building trade. "I've worked on several properties here since I came back – one of them is even named after me," he says, proudly.
My visit is over, but my car is still being uncooperative, and the man from the RAC – whom I manage to contact on my mobile after staggering up a hill – doesn't have the right spare parts.
While I loiter, facing a long wait for a recovery truck, Andrew Farrow pops out of his shop. "Maybe this breakdown is fate," he grins. "I only meant to come here for a short time – and I ended up staying for 25 years." With the lights of the pubs illuminated, and a rubbish-strewn street awaiting me in Tooting, I have to admit that it's pretty tempting.
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