Kathy Sheridan: Welcome to this little England, this sedated isle
A courteous, predictable and genteel version of England exists in the dreams of many who voted for Brexit
A Cotswolds village nestling in an idyllic land of well-run medieval inns and converted mills. Photograph: iStock/Getty Images
This summer, instead of hurling ourselves at giddy speed towards the European mainland, we take the car to Holyhead. The plan is to meander through the B-roads of rural England. “Sedate” you might call it, and it is.
Balmy days roaming through honey-toned Cotswolds villages, lodging in rooms above well-run medieval inns and converted mills, before turning south to chug along startlingly narrow roads behind tractors and the odd foolhardy cyclist.
Pausing for a cornucopia of fresh food at a farm shop, descending into spectacular valleys set among fields of scorched gold and shady arches of ancient, intertwined trees and majestic, unheralded old manor houses. And on through small market towns and villages occasionally festooned with Union Jack bunting and the flag of St George (lest we forget).
And finally to a biggish seaside village on the English Channel shoreline where the only chain store is a small friendly Boots chemist. Children are performing cartwheels on the village green (seriously), where pets will be lovingly paraded at a dog show come the weekend.
Our home lies a few feet from a shingle strand looking across the Solent with its tricky tides towards the Isle of Wight. A host of tiny sailboats bob in the salt flats. A light sea breeze tempers the heat.
Whereas some Cotswolds villages can resemble gorgeous but lifeless film sets, our Hampshire village is as fully alive as its 5,000 residents want it to be. Most days I buy a paper at the newsagent and a good coffee in the cafe opposite the green, then take up position at a sunny outside table, where passing dogs pause to lap up the water left out by cafe staff.
The run of small shops on either side is a living ode to a vanishing world. It includes an excellent fishmonger, a traditional butcher, a well-stocked greengrocer’s, a wine bar, a good Co-Op supermarket, an estate agent and a quality fish-and-chipper with queues out the door at weekends.
Around the corner is the requisite charity shop for rescued cats, and a few hundred yards away a small hospital where the strains of Thank You for the Days waft over a tall hedge. Community notices at Boots include the timetable for a local shuttle bus, and the number of a befriending service for the lonely.
Further up the hill the beautiful little Norman church, with its sturdy old hand-embroidered kneelers and regular music recitals, announces that weekly services are preceded by tea and toast.
The elderly men and women who pass my perch on their daily outing to the shops seem to have landed in a kind of Nirvana. A spectrum of patrons liven up proceedings by pulling up in an assortment of convertibles, family saloons and quad bikes to rush in for a few steak fillets for the barbecue or some crab for a beach picnic.
No one has to hunt around for coins because in this little Camelot, there are no parking charges. There is not a lot of banter either as we know it. Civilities are exchanged with a smile and a certain traditional reserve.
At one stage, says a maverick local worker, ‘a petition was sent around to oppose a new children’s playground for f**k’s sake...’
So this is England. Or a version of England as it exists in the dreams of many who voted for Brexit. Calm, courteous, ordered, predictable, genteel. A place where a non-white face is vanishingly rare (94 per cent of its residents were born in the UK compared to 86 per cent of the general population), where three-quarters of the residents own their homes (compared to a third nationally), where education levels vary only slightly from the norm but the percentage on state benefit falls significantly below. Yet almost six in 10 in this electoral area voted to leave the EU.
It’s not hard to see why. They are older on average, and they want nothing, but nothing, to change. At one stage, says a maverick local worker, “a petition was sent around to oppose a new children’s playground for f**k’s sake...”
Imagine the shudder induced by that notorious pre-referendum Sunday Express headline “12 MILLION Turks say they’ll come to the UK once EU deal is signed”?
I ask an 82-year-old Co-Op regular about Brexit. For an answer he talks about how natural erosion of the seashore nearby has recently exposed the massive expanse of war defence lines emerging from the seabed; concrete pillboxes, metal poles and concrete posts entwined with rolls of barbed wire, urgently hammered into place when the threat of a German land invasion was at its zenith. A German bomb missed the school by yards, he adds.
My bafflement must be showing. He shakes his head mournfully then thumps his heart with alarming vigour: “Lest we forget.”
I return to the paper and that other England: the one where Nigel Farage is eyeing up a pro-Brexit seat in his eighth attempt to be an MP, where the leader of the opposition refuses to condemn anti-Semitism in the ranks, where a far-right idiot is portrayed as an English Mandela, and the trade secretary declares a no-deal Brexit is odds-on. And I wonder when “sedate” leads to actual sedation.