It was written 25 years ago and published last year. Apart from the town hall clock, not much has changed:
BROADHAMPTON sat like a broken egg at the bottom of a glass bowl. It nestled in a remote Dorset valley, surrounded by rounded hills and ancient forts and about a mile from the sea. The natives had for generations tolerated its isolated location and inconveniences. But for the second-home owners, Broadhampton was a get-away-from-it-all paradise. Londoners with nothing better to do than annoy people would dream of down-sizing to the countryside, snapping up homes the natives could never afford, turning them into places that would go on to grace the front covers of Country Living. Locals looked at the magazines in awe as they sat for hours in the waiting room of the town’s only dentist.
‘Wasn’t that Auntie Mary’s old house?’ a child would say to her mother, pointing to a picture of a three-storey ‘cottage’ at the edge of a village.
‘Yes, love, back in the day,’ the young mother would reply, thinking of the two-up, two-down hovel from her childhood. At the front of the house, where the photograph now showed pink, red and white bizzy lizzies, there were once rows of vegetables.
And how the newcomers loved Broadhampton, their special place, unspoilt by mass transport links, with no motorways, no railway station and an intermittent bus service.
‘It’s so quaint,’ guests said when they visited the holiday cottages where water had to be taken from a well. ‘And the candles, it’s like going back in time. Super!’ So super, in fact, they could put up with it only at weekends. And on Sunday nights, the villages turned ghostly as the estate cars and flashy convertibles returned to the capital. A solitary cider drinker sat in the thatched bar of a country pub with no-one to talk to but an imported landlord who was doing his best to turn the inn into a food ‘destination’. The old drinker would bristle at the memory of being introduced as ‘Archie, he’s a real character’ to a man and a woman with a long nose and a hairband and their two Aryan children, Arabella and Sebastian.
Oh how the incomers laughed at using the outside lavatory in their holiday homes. It was only temporary, after all.
‘This is coming out,’ they’d tell their guests. ‘Our London plumber’s installing a roll-top bath in the middle of the bedroom. We’re having an en-suite, don’t you know, as well as a clutch of guest bathrooms.’
Where the incomers had lovers seats at the bottom of their gardens, real Broadhamptonians sat side by side in the dark, in freezing temperatures, on ancient, two-seater lavatories. The interest in Broadhampton and its environs by the London Set led to house prices shooting up and local youngsters were priced out of the market. They stayed at home until they were approaching middle age, slept on the floors of friends or on the banks of the old canal.
The town, beneath the veneer of picture postcard prettiness, was slowly falling apart.
The government sale of council houses was accompanied by a ban on district councils using the money to build new ones, meaning the supply of homes for local people dwindled to a new low. And while luxury apartments went up for the affluent elderly from the home counties who, in years to come, would complain about noise in the town centre and prove a drain on the social services budget, young people were making do with cardboard boxes and midnight raids on the recycling centre for newspapers to sleep under and old rags to wear.
And still the four faces of the guildhall clock told different times after grinding to a halt on three separate occasions. From the south it read five past three, from the north twenty to six and from the east and west, which were connected, a quarter past four.
‘It’ll cost too much to fix it,’ the mayor had declared, chomping on an egg and cress roll while entertaining the local hunt on Boxing Day 1985. So it had stayed that way ever since.