23. A village changed

If you read the previous post you will know that I lived in a remote Devon village for almost 30 years. It changed a lot during that time, but it only became obvious in looking back. Let me set the scene.

The village is set in North Devon between Dartmoor and the Bristol Channel. When I arrived in 1972 about 400 people lived in-and-around the village, with as many again within the parish boundary, mainly farmers. There were four or five small shops: two general stores, a dairy/butcher’s, a sweetshop, knitting-supplies (and bookie’s runner) and a post office. Outlying farms and even the village itself were served by a mobile greengrocer, butcher and the bread-man. There were two garages, a cobbler/barber, a café, a pub, a primary school, the doctor’s surgery, the church and two chapels. On the outskirts was a Methodist boarding school which provided employment for the residents and trade for the businesses. The primary headmaster lived in the schoolhouse and the doctor in the surgery.

The nearest towns, worth the name, were between, 9 and 22 miles away, each initially served by a bus service, once a week. Each of these towns had a hospital, but only the furthest had A & E.

There is a large village hall with its own playing field and children’s playground. It serves many functions, but becomes the main attraction for the annual Flower and Vegetable Show at the end of July. It has its own skittle alley: at its height and perhaps even still, there were 4 ladies’ and 4 men’s skittle teams competing at the highest levels of the district leagues.

The village is spread out on both sides of a winding road and the village square (which is a triangle really) is at the lower end surrounded by the church, the pub and the war-memorial. Fame, if such it be called, reaches the village ‘square’ each November 5th. On the tiny ‘green’, below an old oak tree, perhaps a survivor of an ancient oak-wood, lies ‘THE DEVIL STONE’. The stone has no real reason for being there as it is not characteristic of the geology of the area, and so the legend takes root. The stone is turned ‘To keep the devil away for another year’. The ‘turning’ is traditionally carried out by the bellringers, including myself back then, who ring the bells especially noisily before carrying out the deed using crowbars and a lot of grunting and groaning. Although the stone weighs something approaching a tonne, it would be quite easily turned if it were not for the fact that it usually rains in advance, which makes the ground slippery and the use of crowbars probably makes matters worse, but hey it’s showbiz! Although the ceremony has been highjacked by the church, it probably dates back to a time when the site was pagan, which is often the case where churches called St. Michael and All Angels were built. The legend still persists and when the men were away at war and the stone wasn’t turned, all manner of nasty things were said to happen. I recall that in my time there some lads, who had drunk more than they should, turned the stone by hand. They were made to re-turn it promptly by the locals!

It was into this that I arrived to be greeted on my first day with the words “Hello! You must be Mr. Scott – how’s your back?” There are no secrets in a village and I had ‘done my back in’ driving there! The postmaster always knew wives were pregnant before the husbands did!

In communities like this, intermarrying between families was common and probably still is, but I remember being in a party of friends where my wife and I were the only two out of the twelve who were not related to someone else.

The isolation of the village was a two-edged sword. It was a safe place to live: houses and cars could be left unlocked; children could walk to school, unaccompanied, and play in local woods undisturbed. The doctor always was his own dispensary and before the surgery was built, he used to leave your medications in a cupboard on the back of his house and you just helped yourself. Once the longed-for transport links like the M5 were in place then ‘visitors’ could arrive and leave the area before anyone knew they had been.

A car had always been essential along with the associated expense; prices in the shops were always more than a distant super-market and the choice was limited. Gradually for one reason or another, one by one the shops closed, one chapel closed, one garage closed and the bus services became fewer and fewer. Long before we left, there was only one shop/post office, the headmaster no longer lived in the village school and the pub has been close to closing.

Over the years houses have been sold to retired folk and to ‘weekenders’. This in turn made house prices so dear that the locals could not afford them. Indeed if it wasn’t for this I might still be there. Young families with children were in short supply when I left and from time to time school numbers became critical. At one time the sons of farmers expected to have a job-for-life, but what with mechanization and cost, this became less and less true so they had to ‘seek their fortune’ somewhere beyond the village.

When I was on the Parish Council, we arranged to allow some building specifically for local families. However there was no restriction who the purchasers might be after that. I know a lot of building has taken place, in the village both private and social.

Perhaps I write this through rose-tinted spectacles of a time when days were warmer and maidens tied ribbons in their hair, but I doubt it. I do hope that the picture is not as bleak as I feared it might be when I left, but I still have wonderful memories of my time there.

Perhaps you dear reader will tell me how wrong I am. I do hope so


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