How Changed is Our Village

Illustrated London News
02 November 1987

The graveyard of Boxford church is well planted with mute inglorious Miltons, their dust restored to this corner of England that bore them. They were not innovators; neither was it in them to challenge the order of things. They were born to do as they were told, each knowing his place; they were reared to duty. When they were called to arms, they went. They shed their youth and their blood, some of them, in foreign fields; and if at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we remember them, they would expect no more. Boxford never stole the limelight.

John Winthrop, from the adjoining parish of Groton, convinced that "evil times are come when the Church must fly to the wilderness" set sail in 1630 to found Boston and become first governor of Massachusetts. At nearby Polstead in 1828 wicked Squire William Corder murdered Maria Marten in the Red Barn; a foul deed which addicts of village hall melodramatics will never let us forget. Boxford's chief claim to fame, or infamy, is that Corder faced the magistrates in a panelled room at The Fleece Hotel before being hanged in front of 10,000 people at Bury St. Edmunds.

Corder apart, between the heart-stopping excitement of Domesday Book's compilation and the invention of the petrol engine, nothing much happened in Boxford. Mind you, it was not a totally insignificant place; in 1622 there were more weavers than in Lavenham. It was just that Boxford was comparatively innocent of certain progressive facts of life.

The seasons blend and blur in the snug valley enfolding the village; its lovely church of St. Mary grows lovelier, more mellow with the centuries. Population rose and fell, influenced by vicissitudes in the wool trade, and the Agricultural revolution; until all of a sudden it was 1966 and Peter Hardiman Scott, BBC political editor at Westminster, came to live in Butchers Lane, at a time when he was obliged to share the unpolluted Suffolk air with 500 other souls.
"Today," he says, "the population has almost tripled." Perhaps not the original of the new order of immigrants he was certainly among the first wave, settling into a house dating from 1490. "New blood was necessary because new blood was the life-blood, the beginning of a re-growth from medieval times. Newcomers restore the fabric of a village, not the locals who take it for granted - that's true of Boxford or Manhattan." As President of the Boxford Society he recalls that committee members of this, and other societies, include only 5 per cent indigenous Boxfordians. "It's an agricultural village, yet it's not an agricultural village… 30 men used to work a harvest field, today one man sits isolated above that field in an air-conditioned combiner. Old George, who kept a pig in the back yard and brewed his beer, declaring himself a happy man, is dead."
George is dead; long live George! Is this what the immigrants want in these changing times, an action-replay of Merrie England? Times which change so speedily that "immigrant", "newcomer" as generic labels have been made obsolete by "yuppie". The Reverend Dr Peter Toon is Boxford's rector: "Yuppies are passionately attracted by a myth, the television commercial representation of a village life of strawberries and cream, Hovis, ponies in the paddock for the children. It's part of 19th century romanticism extended, anti-city, poet-painters' country. So newcomers try to re-create the village in their own image."
If the rector sees the village in terms of an emotional mirage, his view of the living church is no more comforting. "Few come to church except for traditional festivals: marriage, baptism. They don't believe the baby is really alive until it's baptised. There's a genuine feeling for the building itself, the porch, the bells, but God Himself exists only in time of crisis and at Christmas, as part of a folk-religion. If God could comment, I think it would be a similar statement to when He looked down on the small towns of Judaea and Galilee at the times of King David and Solomon. He would probably say, 'Despite their prosperity and good living their hearts are far from me.'"
But are their hearts so divorced from Him when families like David and Coralie Brown and their 11-year-old daughter give much of their time to singing in the choir, to raising money to restore the bells which last sounded a full peal in 1924? They moved to Boxford eight years ago, living in a detached house currently worth about £70,000 on the Brook Hall estate, David commuting to his computer company in Colchester. David is chairman of the board of Boxford School governors, Coralie is secretary of the Community Council; she headed the committee organising the Boxford Fete, renamed the Boxford "Fayre" this summer. In past years it was held on the rectory lawn. Entrance was a few pence, there was a coconut shy, putting, you bought home-made cake, rolled up your sleeves and loosened your tie.
This year the fair was held in a marquee, a sort of mini Earls Court. There were craft stalls from all over the county, helicopter flights, a team of free-fall-parachutists came plummeting down. Entrance was £1. But somehow it didn't work, the anticipated crowds simply didn't materialise. Perhaps they felt you could watch people jumping out of flying machines just as well from your own garden without putting on a clean collar and paying £1 to attend the fayre. Not for nothing the saying, "If you want to find a fool in Suffolk, you'll have to bring him with you."
"We didn't get the turn-out," admits Coralie. "There's no animosity from the old village, but they don't help. The attitude is that they're content to let us take over. If there's any resentment it's from locals of our age, 40-ish, they resent our success, but they simply haven't got the go. We're from lower-middle-class backgrounds, David didn't go to public school, but we're ambitious. We're yuppies, I don't see it as a derogatory term. We wear Barbours, green wellies; it identifies us. I wear a string of pearls at point-to-points, so does my daughter. It's our crowd, like a club.
"We really feel for the village. If someone doesn't fight we'll lose it for ever. We;re not snobbish, we love the country and we love horses. This isn't an Old Etonian ghetto… I wonder if they'd revitalise the village as we do? They take their silver spoons for granted. Nothing we do is for show. If we want a bigger house, it's for the land for horses. I don't want to ride Lady Hilda's horses for ever."
They are good people, these Browns, and very caring. If Village England loses them, it will be Village England's loss. But what they have not yet realised is that traditionally Village England was controlled by the gentry, and villagers have always - even unconsciously - resisted their power. Now, though the gentry's power has declined, villagers have yet to interpret outside organising influences as anything but manipulative intrusion.

Sykes and Flo Tricker are what you'd call local. At least Sykes is; Flo's one of your immigrants really, having suffered the folly of being born at Groton, almost a mile away. Sykes, 77 years old, was a bricklayer, knowing everyone in the village. "I still know a few," he says. "Archie, the bus driver. Mrs Sore, she's 91; she does a little, rests a little. The others have gone away… or died," he adds gleefully. "The new people have taken over, which is all right, but they think we know nothing. You see, it's always been the fete to us, not a 'fair'." Flo joins in: "We didn't go this year, it was £1. Never heard of such a thing. We'd like to hear the bells again, I remember them before 1924. But £1 a ticket!"

As the Browns are good sorts, so, too, are the Trickers; it's just that they're older and old people tend to slow down, to view change with caution. There is a story of a village ancient being interviewed by a slick young reporter. "You must have seen a lot of changes in your 96 years," said the newshound, licking his pencil. "Ay," replied the old boy, "and I've opposed every one of them." But the Trickers and their kin did their whack in their salad days of long ago, when they, too, were yuppies by another name, dancing to different melodies. After all, there's been a bowls club behind The Fleece for ages and ages; so too a playing field and darts team. If you turn to page 31 of Boxford From Old Photographs, you'll see the Girl Guides Troop. There is nothing new when you come to think of it, except perhaps newness itself.
"Yes," agrees Lady Hilda Swan of Boxford House, a turreted affair erected in 1820 by the family of Kingsbury who - together with Whymark (Whymark's Garage today) and Rice (still butchering in Swan Street) - first appeared in the Parish Register in 1557. "Yes," says Lady Hilda, "there have always been blood-transfusions. In the last war several girls from the Women's Land Army married local men." Her husband, Dr. Conrad Swan, who, as York Herald of Arms, has been in attendance upon the Queen on many state occasions, runs a summer language school for foreign students at the house. There are massive iron gates, a lawn marginally smaller than Salisbury Plain, and about as esoteric a variety of household pets as you'd meet at Whipsnade.
"This is the house of Boxford," says Dr Swan, "so a few might regard me as a squire figure. Old villagers occasionally drop in for a chat and a gossip. Newcomers are executive nomads, their companies move them on after three or four years. Those who stay become feudally-minded. Classless and unsnobbish, but they want to hunt, to own land. They're 20th century Tudor types, from humber roots but longing for tradition, the revival of a heritage, although I don't imagine they'd vocalise about it like that.
What have we got so far? A village which in 20 years or so has increased in population from approximately 500 to 1,400, yet without defacing its visual identity. Apart from the clutter of wires, a Boxfordian from 1887 would know precisely where he was. A stream, the Box, still flows through Broad Street, rich as ever in medieval buildings of the vernacular style, some bearing intricate scrolls of the pargeter's tool. There is an inscrutable sense of continuity, the football team still advancing stalwartly into battle, as indeed it did in John Winthrop's time, according to an entry in his diary on March 4, 1617: 'Brand break his leg at football'. Gerald Rice, descended from a long line of Butchers, tells me that despite the inestimable miracle of micro-waves, Boxford is still a Sunday beef joint village: "Hot on Sunday, cold on Monday, mince on Tuesday."
True, there is a council estate as well as three "executive-type" estates of ascending socio-economic status. True, you can buy works of art from Laurimore Gallery and Victoriana from The Old Bakery antique shop. At Riddelsdell Garage you could become a proud owner of an Isuzu or Subaru motor car from Japan but not, apparently, a British-made vehicle; and , while you can purchase a pate de foie gras and allied necessities from Boxford Stores, you are still obliged to make the safari to Ipswich or Colchester for the weekly shopping.
In other words, there are no revelations; and I believe that if you are in search of revelation you may end up in a sociological cul-de-sac. Really, there is nothing new under the sun, only variations on an age-old theme; the same rule of thumb applying to Village England. Of course there is change; progress, whether we like it or not, is irresistible. Those of us who lament the good old days fail to recognise that those good old days were very often putrid.
Quaint old cottages were quaintly rat-infested and damp, their inhabitants crippled by rickets and tuberculosis. Changes in these respects were blessings but, and this may come as a shock to successions of immigrants, they have not unrecognisably altered the profile of country character which, basically, is immutable. As newcomers would learn if they were patient, if they did their homework more thoroughly; if, in the words of Ernie Chick, landlord of The Swan and chairman of the village hall, "they counted up to 10 before diving in'. As the family up at Peyton Hall are counting. The Peytons, who owned the hall from the Middle Ages until the 1850s, have gone the way of all flesh. The Youngs - Ron, his Swedish wife Britt-Marie and their three children - have lived there for five years. Being ex-directory, at the end of a 3/4 mile drive, enclosed within farmland and 16 acres of garden-woods, they give the impression of treasuring their privacy. Ron at 41, epitomises a rags-to-riches story: working class boy from Dagenham who started his own computer-software company, a workaholic who confesses that "it's one thing to own, another to enjoy" the house they loved at first sight. "It was part of the myth," he recalls, "the ambition to own the manor house, the ego-trip. I was brought up street-wise, wanting to become country-wise, so I joined one of the Boxford committees, but I couldn't sustain it and it didn't feel right. I felt let down because the village was groaning with people like me, so I gently pulled out.
"I don't need to be a pseudo folk-hero or a yuppie with the trappings. We could survive without Boxford. We didn't survey Boxford, but Boxford surveys us - it's been said that we keep to ourselves. It doesn't hurt, my pace of life is too fast, commuting to Liverpool Street, travelling abroad - but slowly I'm beginning to feel the rhythm of the country, the seasons. This is my second childhood.
"I'll become active in village affairs, but not yet. I'll still say no, for the right reasons. I'll do it fully, properly, or not at all. I sold my horse for the same reasons but when there's time to feed it, groom it myself, exercise it as it should be exercised, I'll buy another horse. That's what I feel about my responsibility to the village." He is quite unsentimental about the Urban England he left behind. In the country you have to prove yourself just as much as in the city, and in Suffolk you can do this with toughness. At depth there is a certain barbarity, an it would be unrealistic to expect more; there is not one law for the factory another for the field, as is often romantically held. Rural jungles and asphalt jungles share a common law, as innocents discover to their cost. Only the by-laws are different, arguably more indulgent in country areas.
The facile conclusion is that the fabric, the plumbing, of Boxford has never been in better shape. It has become fashionable to reside in olde worlde style, restoring beams, treating rising damp, vanquishing death-watch beetle. Whether this makes the New Boxfordians a nobler breed is another matter. The rector has suggested that they are re-creating the village in their own image; if this is true, then it is the very opposite of disinterest. There is also the question of expansion: where will it end?
The melancholy truth may be that we shan't have much to say in the matter. We cannot go back, and the future may not be entirely of our own making; for the villagers of Boxford themselves are pawns in a grand and unfathomable strategy conducted in Whitehall, passed down the line to County Hall. The game drags on, but when it ends, the wheel will have turned full circle and New Boxfordians, like those who came before them, will be reminded that nothing has changed, that they, too, were born to do as they were told.