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A Cotswold Query for Flanneruk

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I recall reading sometime back that the owner of one of the iconic Cotswold villages, oh, somewhere over near the Rissingtons and the Slaughters, decided to let it fall into rack and ruin.

As I recall, nothing could be done at the time under the law.

Does this sound at all familiar, even though perhaps twisted by time?

Thank you.

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    To the question as put: I know of no such example.

    But I think this is possibly a lesson in the fallacies of a particular kind of popular historical understanding.

    There are at least four examples near me of something similar. Great Tew was close to ruinous for much of the 20th century. So was Chastleton House. The famous Swinbrook-Widford-Burford walk runs across empty fields that clearly once had human habitation, and we know that included at one point a large house for the Fettiplaces, whose tombs are the main sight in Swinbrook Church. There's a similar phenomenon around Lidstone, a few miles north.

    Chastleton House, the National Trust guides claim, became ruinous till brought into the NT system because it was owned by a Catholic family, linked to the Guy Fawkes plot, whose fortunes were devastated by repeated fines throughout the 17th and 18th centuries for not attending Anglican services. Possibly: but lots of English Catholic land-owners survived the period, still wealthy. At least two within 5 miles of Chastleton.

    There are some references to the Boulton family deciding to let Great Tew fall into ruins. It's certainly true that there was little money spent on the village fabric between the famous Matthew Boulton's son rebuilding the houses in the early 19th century and the Johnston family acquiring them in the 1980s - but I've yet to find any evidence at all of "decisions" by any Boulton heirs.

    The problem is that most of the English countryside was devastated in the 19th century, unless it got urbanised or suburbanised, by a combination of falling agricultural prices (cheap foreign competition and free trade) and rising wages as the Industrial Revolution finally got round to trickling down two or three generations after it started. The Cotswolds have dreadful soil for growing crops, and free convict labour (plus the superior productivity of Australian merino sheep) made wool no longer profitable. With villagers moving off to jobs they could live on in cities (or emigrating completely), Boulton's successors just weren't getting much rental income, the 1820s rebuild didn't necessarily produce the most economical houses to maintain and by the 1950s the market value of agricultural land was in the old pennies per acre.

    Popular perception rarely appreciates this. The manor house at Great Tew was big, and had servants - so the owners "must have been able" to rebuild. But most big estates were ruinous by 1950, and death duties made the situation worse. I still hear tales in local bars about modern tyrannical and miserly big estate proprietors - when it's manifestly impossible for them to make money from their land, given the constraints on its use we ex-urban incomers so zealously police.

    It certainly seems to be true that some villages became unviable during the Black Death, and their abandonment might date from then - but this generally wasn't documented at the time. It's possible that enthusiastic and often brutal 18th century Enclosures destroyed more villages (though Oliver Goldsmith's example might just be villagers going where there was money to be made). Lidstone might have been abandoned in medieval times, as Widford probably was in the 18th century.

    But we simply don't know the sequence of events behind any of this. The delusion we can see into the minds of landowners, or that the descendants of Matthew Boulton had any business sense anyway, is just another recurring folly in the way people recount their local history.

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    Could this be something to do with Sherborne? It's in the part of Gloucestershire mentioned, and Lodge Park was restored by the National Trust after being found derelict. Sherborne House itself was a boarding school until the 70s, and subsequently needed much restoration to return it to a private house (apparently the boys rebelled and the story was captured in the film 'If' starring Malcolm MacDowell and actually filmed at Cheltenham College).

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    Thank you for a cogent and useful explanation, flanneruk, and to others for good suggestions.

    I believe I am indeed thinking of Great Tew under Major Robb, probably through Pevsner, which was "sometime back" for sure. You gave me the lead, and I found a summary in Wikipedia. In addition to the collapse in value of agricultural land between the wars, this property had the bad luck to sit in trusteeship for half a century or so.

    A generous friend sends us a subscription to Country Life, and it is interesting to see the promise and peril of rural and semi rural England and, to a greater extent, Scotland. Probably it was ever thus. Certainly it is eye-opening to see the price of property in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire in comparison to the days of my youth and of Major Robb's tenure. All the pictures show a very smart village today!

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    "All the pictures show a very smart village today!"

    ...ish. The church is a bit of a mess still.

    The interesting thing is why. The version of Pevsner on sale today still contains the early 1970s rabbiting about cottages that "will need to be rebuilt." Moral: mistrust forecasts from academics with a grudge - and guide books that haven't been updated in 40 years.

    Great Tew is largely in great structural nick because the economy's changed. Railway privatisation and motorway construction (both viciously opposed by self-deluding "conservationists") have revolutionised the village's access to the outside world: it's easyish for daily commutes into London - and easier still to freelance or run portfolio careers from. Privatised telecoms have brought high-speed web connections: deregulated airlines mean frequent, cheap global travel with at least four (and sometimes six) international airports within 90 minutes.

    Our tyrannical land-use legislation hasn't frozen development, as rich gits with a grudge forecast: if an area's attractive enough, buyers will fight each other to acquire a stake in it - and have to pretend they're delighted at non-negotiable rules on redevelopment, aesthetics and public access.

    EU membership has transferred huge proportions of city-dwellers' income into incomes for farmers, effectively subsidising marginal land like the Cotswolds and giving it morally unjustifiable competitive weapons against the products of truly poor countries. It also provides low-wage labourers from the EU fringe.

    Since Pevsner's 1974 observations, in other words, the better-favoured bits of dying countryside have turned into accessible parkland for affluent urbanites to base a global career in - while once unprofitable agricultural land now makes a tidy living without needing to pay bolshie British workers to till it.

    Under these circs, investing in Great Tew's become practically a no-brainer. Naked Thatcherism's provided an environment where no owner needs any encouragement to maintain and improve property, at least around here (Great Tew isn't technically in the Cotswolds: it's got the wrong geology) Meanwhile, our interfering government makes sure no-one destroys landscape, and provides free, accessible, healthcare and low-wage workers.

    Not necessarily the prescription for saving the village protesters had in mind during the 60s and 70s.

    But, in this case, it's worked.

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