STANDS THE CLOCK still at ten to three?
Indeed it does. If there is one thing we inhibitants of rural England are good at, it is making sure that the clock stands still.
And is there honey still for tea?
Certainly, Mr. Brooke, sir: Australian, f1.75 p plus value added tax at 15 percent, that's with a pot of tea and toasted tea-cakes. And of course we use tea bags now. We move with the times, and take care to adjust our prices for inflation.
How stands the English village, then?
It stands where it has always stood, rooted in age and yet adapting as it must, and no more, to changing times.
It survived the black death and the enclosure of the common lands, and the rise and fall of feudalism, and now it looks as though it will survive the fall, as it survived the rise, of British industralism. It has been one of the most durable, because one of the most flexible, of our institutions, older than the towns, and the Navy, and Parliament, and even -- since we are now learning that many villages go back for past the Anglo-Saxon invasions to Celtic origins -- older than the English themselves.
There are two ways of looking at these fragile but resilient communities.
The tourist sweeps by, and observes the timeless aspect of stone walls, thatched roofs, the lavender and lilac of cottage gardens, the immemorial harmony of the church tower, the duck pond and the white-flanneled cricketeers on the village green. What the tourist sees is the unchanging quality of the village.
The historian and the sociologist peer behind the appearance of stability. They note the infinite differences from one village to the next, the constant social and economic change, the regionalvariety.
If I raise my head from the typewriter and look out over the stone slate roofs of the village where I live, in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, I can see a village street which has stood where it stands now for a thousand years: houses that were built when stone replaced wood and mud in the 16th century, barleyfields where there has been barley since Saxon times; and on the horizon the dark fringe of Wychwood, which was old royal forest when William of Normany took possession of it 900 years ago.
But I also know that the village has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, let alone in the past hundred. The fathers of the children I can hear playing in the street earn their living in Oxford and in London, as well as on the farm. Hedgerows have been grubbed up, water meadows ploughed. Combine harvesters have put a dozen men out of work, and the farmer now rears a thousand pigs the way you rear battery chickens. The village will adjust to the high food prices of the European Common Market, as it adjusted to the flood of cheap food a hundred years ago.
Village England is for the tourist in all of us. It is a book to curl up in bed with on winter evenings when the traffic or the people at the office are too much to take, and all you want to do is fantasize about a lazy week browsing in a little English country town. It might induce acute nostalgia in a British exile or intense excitement in an Anglophile.
It is not really about villages, except incidentally; each of its two dozen chapters is about a town: mostly little towns like Framlingham in Suffolk, or Chipping Norton, just over the hill from where I am sitting, or Penzance down in Cornwall or Penrith up on the edge of the Lake District, but also some big regional capitals like Lincoln or Norwich.
Each chapter is written by a literate native or frequenter: poet P.J. Kavanagh for Cirencester, painter Patrick Heron for Penzance, critic Geoffrey Grigson for Devizes, playwright Arthur Hopcraft for Bakewell, and so on. Some are essays in romantic love, some more prosaic guides. Novelist Susan Hill produced famine scenes in our town when she said the tea shop there had the best doughnuts in England.
The chapters are stunningly illustrated with color photography that evokes the mood, rather than simply illustrating the beauty spots. They are kitted out with sketch maps and notes to help you use each town as the base for expeditions and exploration. I only hope it doesn't bring too many tourists to my favorites; happily, there are half-a-hundred other little towns as delicious as these, which the tourists haven't found yet.
Richard Muir, author of The English Village, grew up in a Yorkshire village (Burstwith in Nidderdale, by a weird coincidence less than three miles from where I spent my childhood), then worked on a local newspaper before getting a Ph.D in geography. His book is a worthy addition to that rich new literature on the British countryside of which Ronald Blythe's Akenfield , Rowland Parker's The Common Stream and W.G. Hoskyn's The Making of the English Landscape are notable, and which undoubtedly reflectedly reflects contemporary disillusion with urban and industrial life.
Muir explains why villages in the different regions look different. He describes how houses were built in different parts of England, how the patterns of agriculture vary, and how farming was supplemented with other sources of income wherever possible. He traces the history of the village from Celtic times to the age of the tourist, the commuter and the coucil house estate. His book is sumptuously illustrated with medieval manuscripts, old prints and Victorian photography.
Muir is not sentimental about past or present. The village of the old days, he says, "was built of poverty and hard labor and the generations which shared the crowded fields were often reunited in the workhouse. The day of the village pump were also the days of diphtheria." Looking ahead, he forsees more commuting, more conservation and a partial return of industry to the village. "The village will survive," he concludes, "it will evolve as it has always evolved: and for the first time in a thousand years it has a population which is ready and able to stand up for itself."
This is book as sturdy and sensible as the English villager who it is hero.