Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Quintessentially English

Celebrating English Rural Culture

by Scott Ullah

Published in European Socialist Action No 30, September/October 2010
(above right, Penshurst Place)

To find a village in the South East of England that epitomises the perfect example of English social life, in terms of rank and quality, was always going to be a time consuming challenge for me so it was an idea that I immediately put to bed. I decided to focus on searching for the best preserved country pubs.

Picture this, a cosy and inviting pub with its dark wooden-beamed interior, open fireplace and friendly staff who only serve well kept, local real ale. This was an image that was conjured up in my mind when I first decided to search for the ‘holy grail’ of the English village pub, the unmistakable centre of traditional village social life.

Over the next few issues I would like to share with you some of my best and worst experiences in pursuit of that mission, of finding the most quintessentially English hostelry and maybe reveal to you some of the many hidden gems that I have found along the way.
I decided to start my search by visiting a village nestled in the ‘weald’* of the Kent countryside, not far from Royal Tunbridge Wells. Penshurst is a village rich with history. Previously occupied by the Saxons until the Norman invasion of 1066, Penshurst stands beside the vast and well kept grounds of Penshurst Place manor.

The manor, which is home to one of the finest examples of Fourteenth Century domestic architecture, is well worth a visit if you have the time, before tasting the liquid delights that the local pubs have to offer. After leaving the long and repetitive road of the A21, I was left to navigate my car through the narrow, winding, secluded roads of The Weald. It’s funny but this kind of road always reminds me of those typical American horror movies where the guy breaks down in the middle of ‘Deliverance’ country, only to be hunted down by a pack of inbred, deformed scavengers.

This, of course, did not happen to me and the only sign of human life that passed by me was an old man sitting on a fence staring at a flock of sheep that were grazing lazily in a field. Much more civilised! But all is not well despite the idyllic stillness.

The English countryside is under threat from development with Government proposals to meet fresh housing targets initiated under a Labour government. The new Coalition government intends to relax planning rules further. All these beautiful villages I love so much, where the weary traveller will find hospitality and refreshment, are to be engulfed by vast new housing developments, changing forever the landscape and the character of historic areas like the Weald.

One of my favourite causes is the Weald of Kent Protection Society whose fiftieth anniversary falls this year. Its events calendar reads like a rustic community’s traditional fare from a Wealden Ploughman's Lunch, an annual Summer Party, to volunteers for making log piles in Cole Wood (a 12 acre semi-ancient wood dominated by sycamore with ash, oak and beech supporting a mixed vegetative community left to the Society). Inviolable and so precious.

The Weald of Kent Protection Society exists for one of the noblest causes you will find in this England of ours to resist the urbanisation of the Weald and to preserve the green belt for posterity. In their own words: “The society’s aim is now, and always has been, to protect and enhance the rural character of our Wealden villages and countryside”.

As I sat out the back of The Spotted Dog in Penshurst sipping their finest ale, I viewed the Weald as far as the eye could see. It is wondrous as you feel its ancient presence, a legacy handed down for all to enjoy and, most of all, to respect.

I am a great believer in rural communities maintaining a certain continuity, forever close to the land from generation to generation. They are the custodians of the land in the same way as the old established peasant families were on the continent of Europe before the Second World War, now sadly replaced by an industrialisation of agriculture. It began elsewhere with Stalinist brutality and the elimination of the Kulaks in Russia.

I fear the encroachment of urban sprawl, the lifting of planning regulation, opening up to the very great dangers of the spoiling of traditional English beauty and it will be devastating.
Even for the outsider, the ‘townie’, our rural areas are a source of escape from the greyness of our concrete towns, from the modernism of new office blocks and the asphalt of roads and supermarket car parks. Go into the countryside, as I do, for the very clear purpose of enjoying it for what it is and what it should always be a contrast to our urban life and not an extension of it.

Ah, yes. I come back to my traditional village pub as a centre of local life. In early evening there is a buzz as it fills with the residents of the area, all of them knowing each other, greeting and smiling to those so familiar to them. These pubs have not been ‘themed’.
I am an outsider, a visitor, and I must extend the same friendly gestures because it is the most natural thing to do. This familiarity is a characteristic of rural life that is very noticeably disappearing in our towns and cities where community has been so eroded over the years. It is called society and being social, sadly gone completely in some places.

The Weald of Kent Preservation Society is exactly that in spirit and in practice. Preservation societies are motivated by the best reasons whatever their interests. We must consider everything that is beneficial to the well-being of the nation and look after it as a shepherd minds his flock. Such a rural metaphor is more than appropriate it should be an everlasting symbol of what is undoubtedly a great responsibility.                                     Scott Ullah

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