A nasty cottage industry: In Theme-Park Britain, replica villages subtly speed the death of real communities, says Nicholas Roe

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The Independent Online
DEEP in the heart of Kent a new and potentially damaging blow is about to be delivered to the sickly body of English rural life - although at first, no one will see it that way. On the face of it, the Cobtree- Museum of Kent Rural Life, an independent trust financially aided by Kent County Council, is getting on with a money-making venture that will pay tribute to ordinary country living.

It plans to construct a replica village - an eerie ghost-community with shop, pub, post office, garage, farmyards, barns, even little cottages where reasonably paid workers will ply their rural trades for the benefit of goggle-eyed visitors. All the things, in fact, that many of our real villages are so sadly lacking nowadays. Irony to one side, the idea sounds fine: preserve an idyll while we have a chance.

The truth is, however, that this eerie ghost-community with its wealth of fictional services, may one day return to haunt the consciences of all who go to see it. Because by its very presence it could end up adding subtly to the decline of everything it seeks to preserve.

This phoney village will begin to sprout on the museum's existing 26- acre site just north of Maidstone later this year. Real buildings will be taken from elsewhere in the county and re-erected on the site. When this is not possible (because good-looking buildings are hard to come by), new constructions in traditional style will be built, spanning a period of lost rural history that ends, disturbingly recently, in 1960.

The kindest thing to say about the project, which will take years to complete, is that village life is decaying, and maybe we do need to mark its passing by putting some of it in a glass case quickly.

Eager tourists will certainly flock there, just as they queue to visit 'real' farms, go down coal-mines or wander through environmental interpretation centres. It should be, at best, a jolly day out; at worst, another tacky but harmless monument to mindless leisure. We are getting used to those. Appearances, however, can be deceptive - as the project itself ironically underlines - and there is a less kind view of

the plan that deserves to be held

in mind; an idea founded not

in replicas but in the dangers that hover over ordinary, everyday reality.

England has about 9,000 rural parishes, some containing more than one community. So we probably have between 10,000 and 15,000 villages - which is not very many for a nation psychologically rooted in a rural idyll. Dr Malcolm Moseley, director of Acre (Action with Communities in Rural England), which co- ordinates the work of rural community councils, says people move to villages because they want to be valued as individuals: 'They value its sense of community.' But what community?

The past 30 years have seen a series of disasters take their toll on the near-myth of country living. Agriculture? A hundred farmers a week have been quitting the land; 10,000 farms have been dissolved in the past five years. Jobs have been flushed away with the slurry. Houses? Mind that other irony. The yearning for country community has led to a flood of newcomers to the countryside, pushing up house prices (recession to one side), and pricing locals out of the market. Many school teachers can no longer afford to live in the village they serve. In any case, many small schools have closed because the harsh wind of economic reality has blown the doors shut.

Also, with the onrush of hatch- backing - one-stop shopping newcomers with their eyes on distant hypermarkets - local services have tended to sink without trace: post offices, general stores, pubs - all are closing fast. The case of a Sussex store-keeper who asked customers for credit so he could keep his shelves stocked was recently highlighted in the press.

Times are hard and getting worse. Certainly some jobs have been created in the countryside by the trend for planting hi-tech industries on greenfield sites, but many of these demand skills way beyond the competence of redundant farm-workers. Too often it means that new staff are dragged into the area, pushing up house prices still further and giving another little twist to the endless, vicious cycle of social erosion.

The little sense of country community that remains is mainly the result of chance - isolation and bad roads for instance - or of the work of organisations like Acre, which strives to give some constructive power to angry locals. The future country village is therefore likely to be full of well-heeled families, isolated by broken social links and hidden by the fumes of commuting BMWs, each desperately searching for that sense of community they have helped destroy.

Now look at the Kent project again. Put to one side, if you can, the cruel fact that it typifies public attitudes to our surroundings: real village life decays while public money is invested in creating replicas. This is Theme-Park Britain, and we are its exhibits. From phoney craft fairs to imported souvenirs, nothing is real any more. It is even possible to suppress a shudder at the tackiness that will put at the centre of the new project an extended version of a The Darling Buds of May display, which has been dragging tourists to the museum since June last year.

This bizarre addition of real-fiction to the atmosphere of fake reality will at least give trippers something to puzzle over in the car going home. But there are two serious points. By creating a false image of conserved values we risk lulling ourselves into believing that village life has somehow been saved. It has not been. It is out there dying all the while, and it is this reality that matters, not the image - a point easily lost on the television generation.

The second danger is broader and weightier, with links to everything happening in leisured Britain today. It is that the creation of a replica village will add one more shred of credibility to the idea that a safe, stylised landscape is what we really need; a contained, controlled environment in which we no longer have to hunt out real, unexpurgated, everyday history because it is laid out for us on a plate, assuming we can pay. The trouble is that we pay in more ways than one.

Taking the accent off the villages and placing it on honeypot venues with brown noticeboards and bite- sized chunks of information risks distracting the public from real life. The Maidstone venture, when it finally limps from the drawing-board, will simply and dangerously confirm our complacent belief that history is, after all, just history. It doesn't have to be.

(Photograph omitted)