The new village tribes


The new village tribes

Wendy Holden is the author of the Laura Lake series. The latest instalment, Last of the Summer Moët, is out this Thursday. This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times on 4th March.

Time was, the words “smart country village” meant a picturesque church, a thatched pub, cottages on the green and a summer fete with teas and tombola. No longer. The days when all a well-heeled hamlet needed was ducks on the pond, a red phone box, old maids cycling to communion and sun-dappled fields all around have gone. The pastoral paradise has altered. The goalposts of rural gorgeousness have moved.

The posh country village has had a luxe 21st-century makeover. The boozer has become a gastropub. The red-faced mine host, with his warm beer and stale crisps, is now the bearded mine hipster, with his Hebridean gin and Welsh chorizo. The cottages on the green are painted 50 shades of heritage grey and owned by the weekending barristers who bought them from the old maids.

The tombolatastic fete has upgraded to a festival and the glass-fronted noticeboard, with its coffee mornings and flower rotas, is now a whizzy village website with hot yoga. The phone box, once the community’s sole connection to the world, has been replaced by superfast broadband. Well, of course it has. These days, people expect 4G on top of Ben Nevis.

Conversely, the Old Forge really is a forge again. Jake from Shoreditch has taken it over and offers training courses as birthday presents and stag weekends with a difference. Similarly, in the fields above the village, Old Etonian Jasper instructs jaded city types in the ancient art of scything. Entire pastures of ex-Google executives swish away with their blades like the Grim Reaper. In other words, today’s happening hamlet resembles the old about as closely as a Maserati resembles a Massey Ferguson.

I’ve just written a comic novel, Last of the Summer Moët, about the new rural paradise. The idea for it came when, en route to Cornwall, we stayed in the village where my husband grew up in the 1970s. He could not believe what had happened to it. The once rough pub, where the local Joe Grundy had sold sacks of cow’s liver for dog food, was now a sage and beige gastropalace run by a senior sexpot in Sweaty Betty track pants. The once ordinary houses were now CCTV-studded des reses. The leafy lanes were empty, apart from the Ocado van in search of the oligarch’s new-build mansion.

I have to say, I spotted an opportunity. The idea of the modern posh village, what it looked like and who lived there, started to grow in my mind. Beginning my research, I turned up exclusive settlements — places where every other person was a film director, a famous writer, the chef of the moment or a billionaire artist.

The action of Last of the Summer Moët takes place in the fictional Great Hording, aka Britain’s Poshest Village. Its residents arrive by helicopter on Friday and its annual panto stars Oscar winners. Its watering hole, gathering the competitive A-list locals together, holds the world’s most upmarket pub quiz, though disaster strikes when the local cabinet minister cheats and a Profumo-style scandal ensues.

While Great Hording might be a tad exaggerated, its real-life counterparts definitely exist. They might not quite go to the lengths of my fictional community, who arrange an internet veil of secrecy so no one “outside” can find anything about it. But the idea of Penelope “Village of the Year” Keith arriving with her Channel 4 colleagues would still fill these places with well-heeled horror.

So where are they and what are they like? Today’s posh villages fall into loose categories. There’s the gastro village, with more (Michelin) stars than the Milky Way. There’s the arty village, with its upmarket festival(s). Finally, there’s the social village, where weekending PMs brush shoulders with film stars; the seat of more soft power than a cushion stuffed with gelignite. Here’s a rough (I use the word advisedly, obvs) guide.

The gastro village

To get a table at a gastro-village gastropub, it’s best to put your name down at birth. If you haven’t, never fear: there are one or two food shops. Artisan establishments sell chilli-flake sourdough and butter churned by hand to the strains of Stormzy. Nigel Forage, the “wild greengrocer”, is the go-to guy for dawn-gathered fat hen. The organic farm shop run by the pesticide billionaire’s wife does a roaring trade in cheese washed in Krug.

The gastro-villager lives in a converted abattoir or by the sea, in an erstwhile herring-gutting shed. The vehicle of choice is an Isuzu pick-up — perfect for throwing roadkill in the back for turning into homemade wind-dried sausage. The look is stockpot-besplattered cooking apron or, if hunting for wild food, mushroom knife and hipster fungi basket (wraps round your hip).

Real-life gastro villages? The poshest of them all is probably Thornham, Norfolk. It’s a mere 20 minutes from Anmer Hall and the Duchess of Cambridge has been spotted cruising the counters of its super-high-end farm shop. Malton is the splendidly Georgian gourmet capital of North Yorkshire. It has two food festivals a year and traditional northern fare such as artisan ice cream and hand-rolled pasta is produced in a former wagon yard. Down in Cornwall, Padstow is the ultimate seaside gastro village, home of the empire of the Stein and the Michelin-starred Paul Ainsworth at Number 6.

The arty village

So concentrated is talent here, you’ll meet 20 potters, actors or writers before you encounter a single sheep farmer. Few downstairs loos lack a Bafta or Grammy, and competition for parts in the annual panto is cutthroat. At the super-eclectic yearly arts festival, Parsifal-humming culture vultures converge with tiny-shorted teen hedonists. You can hardly move for Grayson Perry, and top of the bill is the pop-up one-minute disco, with Benedict Cumberbatch on the decks.

The arty villager lives in a barn converted into a private chamber-music venue, and while the post office and school are long since gone, the main street can sustain three bookshops. One, Dom Knigi (House of Books), is owned by the local oligarch and does a brisk trade in Tolstoy. The local look (male) is either Ted Hughes volcanic or Dylan Thomas bibulous. Ladies twist up their chignons with pencils. Smocks and stripes abound.

Real-life arty villages? Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, is a constant Festival of Britten, famous for its connections with the composer. Locals are so musical, they can down tools, rush into the church and put on Noye’s Fludde at a moment’s notice. Staying in Suffolk, Walberswick has one of the greatest concentrations of luvvies around; the annual panto rivals the RSC for stars and the music director one year was the bloke who wrote the Black Beauty theme. North of the border, near Inverness, Beauly is the heart of the Highlands social scene and host of the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival.

The social village

Picture-postcard doesn’t come into it — the village green here is on steroids. Red trousers are issued as you pass the entrance sign, but people with yellow cars are banned. The streets are quiet, apart from gangs of security guards or the roar of trucks bringing mature trees for privacy barriers. By the 60ft pool, the famous and powerful learn lines, read briefs and examine dispatch boxes. If hunting with media magnates doesn’t appeal, play (cashmere) jumpers-for-goalposts five-a-side with pop stars at the hipster farmhouse members’ club. Most women are/were models, so the no-make-up, skinny jeans and Converse look is the one (a challenge if you’re over 60).

Real-life social villages? Sonning is the riverside Berkshire retreat where AmalGeorge meets TheresaPhil, cold callers are banned by law and houses change hands for £10m-plus. In Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight (and in its deadly rival, Seaview), you can’t move in summer for yahs and yachts down for the regattas (well, that’s the excuse). Donhead St Mary and Donhead St Andrew, on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, are wildly posh and handy for the Rothermeres’ Ferne Park. As an oyster contains a pearl, any village around Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, contains a member of its Set. And in Blakeney, Norfolk, every second person is a famous literary agent. Don’t go without your novel.

Last of the Summer Moët is published in hardback and as an ebook on Thursday