Down the village

Yesterday the weather cleared up a bit, meaning that it didn’t rain during the few hours of daylight, and I had a chance to enjoy another brisk walk up the Downs. On my way back, I bumped into an old friend – who also used to commute by ferry every day to the mainland, to work – and had a chat.

Howard Oakley, St Martin's Down (2015), watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5 cm, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.
Howard Oakley, St Martin’s Down (2015), watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5 cm, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.

He had been busy cutting down some of the weeds which were growing in front of what used to be the village’s main pub, The Worsley. In its latter years it had a fitful existence. One landlord decided that the best way to bring in more customers was topless barmaids, but after a brief rush of business, and a lot of trouble, sales collapsed and the pub changed hands again. For a while the food there was excellent value, but that dropped off too.

Eventually, just three years ago, the pub closed, and has since been gradually falling into dereliction. Proposals to demolish it and build much-needed housing have been given the cold shoulder by the local council, who somehow feel that the building has ‘intrinsic value’. Given the number of public libraries which that same council has closed, I suggested that it would be ideal as a new library.

The pub has not been the village’s only closure.

When we moved here, just over 32 years ago, the village had a butcher, a general store with a ‘home and garden’ section, a Post Office, a newsagent, a takeaway fish and chip shop, a ladies’ hairdresser, and two pubs. Now we are down to just one all-singing and all-dancing general store with newsagent and Post Office, and one pub.

Those full of doom, gloom, and rural rack and ruin may be surprised to learn that the combined store and Post Office is thriving: gone are the days when you couldn’t post a parcel in the afternoon, because the old Post Office was closed. The new one is open for the long hours that the surrounding store keeps: 0630 to 2200 daily.

Although much of the Isle of Wight caters for the tourist, the village has just one smaller attraction, Appuldurcombe House, and one of the best of the family camping and caravanning sites, both well out of its centre. It is, though, in the heart of some of the finest walking in the south of England, rolling chalk downland dotted with occasional cattle and sheep. But walkers are not enough to support any more than the single shop and pub.

The oldest locals still remember the days of the steam railway to Ventnor, a very Victorian seaside resort just to the south. Then there was a meat-processing factory making local sausages, and the timetabled frenzy brought by the trains. Curiously, the village then was smaller, the residents fewer in number, and the Jubilee (horse) drinking trough at its centre was full of water rather than geraniums. Its Jubilee was, of course, that of Queen Victoria.

Technology and modern communications haven’t exactly passed us by: high-speed Internet has recently arrived, but the fibre-optic cables do not offer us cable TV, as we are too far from a large enough town. Even the poorest seem to have Sky satellite TV services, and at least one more car than their house frontage can comfortably accommodate.

Just a few minutes walk from anywhere in the village and you are back out into those rolling fields, striding up the side of the valley to the ridge which almost surrounds it all. From there you can see most of this island, the English Channel half-way to France, both Eastern and Western Solent, and on a clear day the New Forest, and cities of Southampton and Portsmouth.

That ridge bears a lot of history too, from ancient burial grounds, to one of the earliest and most crucial radar stations in the Second World War. There are scars where the railway disappeared into a long tunnel to pass through to Ventnor, and from sporadic aircraft crashes. Now the most obvious landmarks are a series of high radio masts, to support point-to-point communications, and aircraft flight control.

The Worsley is no sign of any deeper sickness. The village is not the dormitory for a distant town, or a shell of second homes. And a few minutes away you are on top of the world.