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The best of culture in the countryside

One concern for Londoners moving to the country is that they will be greeted by an absence of culture. Misconceptions about what’s on offer abound and even the least culturally conscious will admit that the proximity of world-class galleries and theatres in towns and cities is oddly comforting, even if they rarely experience them first-hand.

Twenty years ago, it was probably true that art on a village level was a pretty homespun affair, but this is no longer the case. Many village halls boast a film night, you’ll be hard pushed to find a woman over 30 who doesn’t attend a book club and festivals of all varieties have mushroomed. Sarah Broughton of Prime Purchase observes: ‘Increasingly, farm buildings are being converted into art galleries and concert halls. Living in the country doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice cultural life. In many cases, events are more accessible and affordable, with a rich array of different experiences on offer.’

Londoner Sarah O’Rorke moved to Hampshire 10 years ago and admits the lack of cultural events worried her. ‘One of the reasons I was reluctant to move,’ she explains, ‘was that I didn’t want to lose all that I had on my doorstep. The reality is that I probably do more now.’ This might include a trip to a former-West End production at The Watermill Theatre outside Newbury or a concert at Upper Cranbourne Farm put on by a musical farmer who hosts world-class performers.

Mrs O’Rorke also holds exhibitions in a local barn, including the annual Hampshire Art Fair ( and book-related events (, attracting authors such as Edward Stourton, Sir Max Hastings, Helen Dunmore and the Countess of Carnarvon. Sometimes, an area’s association with a famous artist or composer makes it a magnet. Suffolk (particularly Southwold and Aldeburgh) has long been a draw for music lovers as the birthplace and home of Benjamin Britten. Many Londoners have bought second homes there and the Aldeburgh Festival of music and arts, concentrated on the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, attracts international interest.

Richard Humphreys and his wife, Joanna, who works at the V&A, spend their time between London and Lavenham, Suffolk. ‘Here, there is quite a high proportion of retired people from London with wide cultural horizons,’ comments Mr Humphreys. ‘The Lavenham Literary Festival is going from strength to strength, we have our own local sinfonia, high-quality orchestras, a film club and a number of book clubs. We’re also fairly close to Cambridge and Ipswich, which has its own theatre.’

The village of Broadway in Worcestershire was the retreat of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement’s founder William Morris. Other figures who drew inspiration from its beauty include John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, Oscar Wilde and Edward Elgar. Tom Cumberland, of the local office of Hamptons International, says: ‘You would be hard pushed to find a village with more culture on offer. It even goes as far as the pubs, with the Crown and Trumpet serving a beer called Artist Ale.’ This year, Broadway will host its third biennial Arts Festival with special emphasis on Sargent (who painted his masterpiece Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose here) and will feature an exhibition of his work, previously unseen by the general public, in the village’s own Ashmolean Museum Broadway.

Despite the laidback vibe of Chagford in Devon, a very motivated group of residents ensures that a string of cultural events happens throughout the year. Sam Wilkins has lived there for five years: ‘There are a lot of musicians in the town and Chagstock happens every summer with a mixture of local talent. There’s also Chagword, the literary festival-which, last year, welcomed authors including Kathy Lette and Jonathan Dimbleby-and Chagford Film Festival.’ Closer to London, in the villages of Wiltshire, Simon Powell of Chesterton Humberts observes: ‘There’s a lot more going on than duck-racing and cricket.’

The Chalke Valley History Festival, which takes place in Broad Chalke, less than half an hour from Salisbury, is in its fourth year and attracts names such as Boris Johnson, Sebastian Faulks, Sir Tom Stoppard, Antonia Fraser and COUNTRY LIFE’s own Clive Aslet.

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