The large noticeboards which line either side of the high street in Mickleton, Gloucestershire, are crammed full. Black and white photocopies, rainbow coloured leaflets, handwritten notes and neatly-set flyers tout fundraising meetings, talks and country teas. Mickleton – a row of Cotswolds stone houses gleaming yellow under the sun, fairytale Shakespeare country cottages and a shock of red brick buildings – is far more down to earth and alive than most chocolate-box hamlets.
It has a Costcutter shop, a post office cum general store, a butcher who has been around for the last forty years, a local branch of the Women’s Institute, a primary school, the church and even a Methodist chapel. And more clubs, societies and unions than village streets.
Edward Gillespie, the Managing Director of Cheltenham racecourse, has just been here to give the lowdown on the racecourse to the Mickleton Society. Artist Kay Elliott is due to come soon and reveal all there is to know about floral paintings to members of the 25-year-old Gardeners’ Club. And the Wednesday Club prepares to learn about enamelling techniques at their next meeting.
‘You used to have people that had the cheek to say there was not much to do here. They can’t really say it now,’ says Marguerite Bell, a no-nonsense lady who used to run the Kings Arms – one of Mickleton’s two pubs – together with her husband, her late father-in-law, and her mother-in-law, Gwen.
Poised and ladylike, with a long skirt, high-necked shirt and hair tied in a neat little bun, eighty-nine-year-old Gwen Bell looks more like a kind public school headmistress than a retired publican. She has been living in Mickleton since 1948 and has seen it change from a small handful of houses to a thriving community of some 3,000 souls. ‘Most people worked in market gardening here. When we first opened the Kings Arms, we had people who came in at 10am from the fields, where they would have been working since 6 in the morning.’
Mickleton was a very different place at the time. A few houses clustered around the main street, which had orchards at either end. ‘There was no water in the [pub’s] kitchen and some people were still using oil lamps when we came to the village,’ recalls Mrs Bell senior.
Two milkmen delivered fresh milk door-to-door every morning. Families would bring out their jugs and get the milk straight from the churn. Then rules changed, pasteurisation came and the milkmen went. So did many long-time villagers, as the deepening crisis in the market garden sector pushed them to find new jobs in Birmingham and Coventry. Most of the former orchards turned into new developments, which in turn attracted retirees and commuters.
However, the Parish Council’s vigilant eye ensures that the new buildings are all in keeping with traditional architecture. ‘Most people who live here have pride in their family and where they live,’ says one of Mrs Bell’s sons, Michael. And perhaps, this shared pride in the village explains why there is no friction between newcomers and old-time residents.
‘Superficially, yes, there is differentiation between newcomers and old villagers, but it is good natured banter,’ says Mr Bell. ‘The newcomers bring new energy.’ And if sometimes commuters seem a bit aloof, Mr Bell says everyone understands they drive to work early in the morning for work, come back late in the evening and have little time for anything else until the weekend.
‘[Mickleton] has a good mix of people from all ages and backgrounds,’ says Mrs Bell senior. ‘There are some lovely, quite rough-spoken real country people.’ And although the community spirit may not be as not as strong as in the past, when the entire village often mobilised to help with snow-ins, Mrs Bell still reports that ‘it takes a while to walk down the road because you talk to everyone.’
‘It is a very welcoming community,’ agrees Jill Coombe, who runs the Three Ways House Hotel (01386 438429) with her husband Simon and their business partner Peter Henderson. ‘We moved here ten years ago, and they have been very supportive of everything we have done.’
Loyalty – to Mickleton, its people and its quiet lifestyle – is what keeps the village going. Residents shop at Costcutter, the post office store and the butcher, and they in turn source most of their produce locally. ‘We have loyal customers. Loyalty from people makes Mickleton more alive than most [villages],’ says Wendy Moore, the diminutive lady who runs the post office and the store that shares its premises (01386 438273).
Hidden behind a pair of huge glasses and a tidy brown bob barely marked by the odd white strand, Mrs Moore surveys her shop from behind the counter. It is long and spacious, with the post office neatly tucked at one end and the magazine rack at the other. In between are assorted bits and bobs, from biscuits and bread to OXO cubes. A steady stream of people comes in asking for stamps, cash, orange juice, the papers. ‘We are not a supermarket, but we have what people may run out of,’ she says.
Over at the butcher shop that bears his name (01386 438288), portly Clive Porter explains how he beats competition from big retailers. ‘Supermarkets are just rubbish. They don’t hang the meat properly,’ he says. ‘Small shops must offer better quality and try and give good service. Our lamb is local, we have free range chicken and in the winter months we have game.’
Mr Porter has been running the shop for 40 years, first as manager then as owner, and has shaped it into a top class meatfest. A sweetish, rich smell of properly hung beef fills the air, and every conceivable cut jostles for attention. White and pink bacon, prettily arrayed in a corner of the refrigerated counter. Black puddings of at least three shapes and types. Claret red venison cubes for stewing. And sausages, sausages, sausages. “He just has the best meat,” chips in a customer who is busy choosing among pale pork specials and rich red venison bangers.
Loyalty may well be what brings in people in the first place, but Mickleton shopkeepers definitely know how to nurture it. Mr Porter lives by his mantra of ‘quality, service, civility and that sort of thing.’ Mrs Moore has set up a fruit and vegetable shop in the converted garage next to the post office, where cream white parsnips, pale green cabbages and pristine potatoes – all locally grown – form inviting piles on light wooden shelves. ‘The fact that it is local is an attraction,’ says Mrs Moore. ‘The fruit and veg shop is one of the ways we have diversified. We always feel the pressure from shopping development, mostly supermarkets, so you have got to work harder if you want to keep customers. You can’t sit back and relax. You have got to be changing all the time.’
The entire village shares the same enterprising spirit. Recently, Mickletoners pulled off a massive renovation of the village hall which, among other things, allowed them to use it as a cinema. ‘The hall needed disabled access and someone suggested we may as well refurbish it,’ explains Mrs Bell junior. ‘We wrote letters to many charitable organisations and raised the money ourselves. Once the builders did the basics, the rest was done by volunteers who painted the walls and stained the wood.’
And when the village was suddenly cut off from public transport some years ago, locals managed to get a bus on loan from the County Council and started a volunteer service. ‘Although the Council lent us our first bus, they told us we could only have it for six months, until we raised money to buy another,’ says Mrs Bell senior. ‘”So we raised the money through events and bought it.’
Most of Mrs Bell’s family, like many other villagers, volunteered to drive it. ‘I used to keep the bus keys and the ticket money at the pub,’ she recalls. And although the service has now grown to link villages in a fifty miles radius and is subject to many more rules and regulations, the Hedgehog Community Bus is still manned by volunteers.
And this is the secret of Mickleton. Locals are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and face challenges. ‘If it needs doing, we do it,’ sums it up Mrs Bell. And after a last, civilised cup of tea, she is off to plan the next fundraising event. After all, the village hall still needs a committee room.