When my dad was writing his column on 3rd November 1979, he voiced concern about the demise of the traditional English village.
The Association of County Councils (now the Local Government Association) had just published a report highlighting the problems of living in a rural area and, as my dad says, ‘the problems will increase in the near future, even to the extent of making village life as we know it a thing of the past.’
I never asked him whether he thought that prediction had come true, although it is fair to say that village life has changed dramatically over the last few decades. It may be that village life as he knew it became a thing of the past, but I would say that, like many things, it has evolved rather than been lost entirely.
I grew up in Ampleforth which was, and still is, a thriving community. In the 1970s we had a village ‘Spar’ shop, a post office that also sold sweets, groceries and homewares, a Co-op, a butcher, and a quirky footwear-cum-habadashery shop. They existed alongside the timber yard, coal merchants, two pubs and two garages.
Our friends’ dad, Oswald Thompson, known as Ossy, also ran a very traditional grocery shop, with a counter all the way round and all the products stacked on shelves behind it. You didn’t help yourself, but Ossy would pass you whatever you wanted to buy. He also provided a delivery service, and would shut every Wednesday afternoon to spend time delivering to his regular customers.
The shop was attached to his home, so when there were no customers, he would slip through to the living room and watch the telly. The shop door had a bell that tinkled every time someone walked in, so at the sound of the bell he would leap up to serve them.
I’m sure Ossy Thompson’s shop was dearly missed when it shut its doors for the final time sometime in the 1970s, but that kind of service was being superseded by the more modern supermarkets and convenience stores that allowed you to help yourself, touch the products and fill your own basket before paying.
But the value of Ossy Thompson’s store was so much more than the products it sold. It was a place where people would come and chat, and pass a few minutes of their day catching up on the local news and gossip while he handed the goods over. And no doubt on Wednesdays, he was a welcome sight to the elderly and less mobile village residents who could not walk down to buy their goods in person.
But time moves on, and along with that comes the inevitability of change. In the late 1970s, the first big supermarket, an Asda, opened not too far way from us in Huntington near, York, and like many other families, we began to frequent it, doing a ‘big shop’ once a month. Local shops just couldn’t compete on price and variety and over the years, many sadly closed down.
But there are those who have survived, and to do so, they have had to be very canny with what they offer with the focus very much on local produce. Today in Ampleforth, there is just one village shop which supplies almost everything you might need, including, grocery items, newspapers, stationery and booze. Having it is a real bonus for the community it serves, which these days stretches to those surrounding villages which no longer have their own shops.
I have noticed a trend away from the big supermarkets now though. Where I live, we have a few village shops where these days I do most of my shopping, preferring to make several trips there a week, rather than heading up to the huge Tesco just a couple of miles away. Although I pay more for individual products, and I have sacrificed the variety of choice, I buy less because I’m not tempted by things I don’t need and, more importantly to me, spend far less time actually doing the shopping.
Every time I do go into the big supermarket for some essential, I come out having spent far more money and time accumulating stuff I really don’t need. But with most of us becoming increasingly conscious about excess and waste, and more competition from budget shops like Lidl and Aldi, the large supermarkets cannot afford be complacent.
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