News, Culture & Society

Rural idyll lost post office, butchers, hairdresser and GP blow by blow

Had I been on this bench outside the Crown, enjoying the August sun and a golden-brown pint of Harvey’s 20 years ago, then I would have been sitting in a very different place indeed.

There, across the village green, I can see a queue outside the butcher. In the window above it, women are having their hair dressed, while through the frontage of the wine shop I see a couple of chaps tasting some claret.

A teenage boy runs down the road towards the post office, clutching a parcel. He hurtles past a garage, where I see a mechanic giving a car owner what is clearly some bad news about his creaky old Renault.

The rural idyll of Horsted Keynes, West Sussex, has lost its post office, butchers, hairdresser and GP surgery blow by blow. The post office was pictured thriving here in 1970

Out of sight, up the street to my right, I know there to be another shop, and it is from that direction that I am startled to see a red-and-white milk float emerge, carrying elderly women to a coffee morning. This, I will learn, is the quirky local taxi service.

And, just to complete the vision of the perfect British village, I see the vicar and the local bobby having a jocular conversation.

What I am seeing of course, is ghosts. For today, like so many other villages and towns, Horsted Keynes no longer has almost any of those things. The butcher, the garage, the hairdresser, the wine shop, the post office, the priest, the policeman, the doctor, the taxi – all have gone.

All that remains is a single shop that sells the basics.

If anybody wants anything more interesting on their plate, then they will need to go to a supermarket several miles away, and for that they will need a car, as the bus is slow and infrequent, and doesn’t run on Sundays. 

Apart from the shop, all that the village can boast today is a couple of pubs, and the Horsted Club – the equivalent of a working man’s club. Horsted Keynes – the second word is pronounced ‘canes’ – may have a primary school, but with just 98 pupils it is only two-thirds full.

The fracturing of the village's community spirit has been a result of many factors. Its amenities including the old post office look very different today

The fracturing of the village’s community spirit has been a result of many factors. Its amenities including the old post office look very different today

And yes, there may be a train station, but then it is not a real train station, as it is part of the 11-mile Bluebell Line, up and down which steam engines chuff and whistle during the summer months for loco buffs and those on nostalgia trips.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Horsted Keynes is marooned in some isolated and impoverished part of the country, but you would be wrong. In fact, as the crow flies, it is just under 33 miles from Trafalgar Square. 

It lies at the very east of West Sussex, one of the richest counties in Britain and which has an economy the same size as the whole of Estonia. Houses in Horsted Keynes are not cheap – a five-bedroom semi-with a 275 square yard garden is selling for a hefty £865,000.

So if Horsted Keynes is so rich, why is it so lacking in amenities? What has happened to it, and countless other villages, towns and communities throughout the UK?

In many ways, Horsted Keynes is a good example of how amenities disappear.

One of the best witnesses to this decline is one of the village’s oldest inhabitants, 85-year-old Rory Clarke.

A landowner with some 900 acres devoted to sheep and arable farming, Mr Clarke’s father inherited the estate in 1913, and Rory has lived in Horsted Keynes since he was born. When he was growing up, there were even more shops than there were 20 years ago.

‘There was Mr Fry who sold us butterfly nets,’ he recalls over coffee in the kitchen of his beautiful and rambling farmhouse, ‘and there was a bakery as well as the two shops and the butcher. There was also a shoe repairer, a dressmaker, a blacksmith, and then there was Clocky Wood – who, of course, fixed clocks.’

Back then, the Clarke’s estate owned several houses in the village, where most of their 30 employees lived. ‘It was an agricultural village,’ says Mr Clarke, stressing the word ‘agricultural’.

It’s clear why he does so, because the demographic of Horsted Keynes has completely changed.

Mainly thanks to mechanisation, estates of such sizes barely require more than one or two full-time employees. 

Houses previously lived in by farm workers and those with associated trades are now inhabited by retirees or those who commute to London. Very few of those who live in Horsted Keynes therefore both live and work in the village, which can lead to a fracturing in community spirit.

Someone who recognises that disintegration is Billy Dye, 59, a builder and roofer, who has lived in Horsted Keynes for 30 years.

‘The village has lost its generational cohesion,’ Mr Dye tells me over a pint of Guinness in the Crown. ‘There used to be a tapestry of people who lived here. Young people can’t afford or don’t want to live here.’

There is an element of dormitory town here.

Mr Clarke’s son, Rufus, 48, feels that the way the relative newcomers live their lives has a direct impact on the demand for amenities.

‘Many parents don’t seem to find the time to spend with their children in the evenings,’ he says. ‘They just go home and shut up shop. So there’s less of an incentive to use the amenities during the weekdays.’

Rufus also believes supermarkets and the internet have fundamentally altered the way people shop, and therefore damaged local trade.

‘Ten years ago, I was selling 130 lambs for people’s deep freezers,’ he says. ‘Now, I’m just about selling 20. People are driving to the supermarket every day.’

Then of course, there is the stream of delivery vans from firms such as Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Tesco that can regularly be seen cruising around the village, the enemies of any local shop hoping to do better than break even.

David Colville, 72, chairman of the parish council, has lived in the village for 12 years with his wife Wendy. Now retired from computer security, Mr Colville sups on a pint of Harvey’s and says: ‘The modern world is changing. There is very little local employment. The hourly bus service doesn’t really suit people who might need it to go to work, and it finishes at 7.30 at night. If you don’t own a car, it’s very difficult to live here.’

Mr Colville and his wife chose Horsted Keynes because it was the ‘quintessential English village’.

‘The local vicar even dropped around a welcome pack, which included information such as when bins were collected,’ he says.

The village hasn’t had a vicar for five years, and the welcome packs are long since gone, as is the garage which was directly opposite the Colvilles’ bungalow.

‘When I arrived, I thought, “Yippee, I can just drive across the road”,’ he says, ‘But the garage closed. Now I’ve got to get it to a garage in Haywards Heath six miles away.’

One of the reasons the garage closed was the value of the site for residential development. Three houses now stand in its place.

The butcher’s and hairdresser’s is now a house, as is one of the stores. The post office, which closed several years ago, is now part of a house. And so on – shops have been turned into living-rooms.

The closure of the post office particularly sticks in Mr Colville’s craw. ‘The Government seems determined to do away with post offices,’ he bristles.

This is an interesting point, because it suggests that the diminution in amenities is not only down to mechanisation, market forces, supermarkets, demography, and the internet, but also the powers-that-be.

In May this year, MPs were warned that 2,500 post office branches could close down if the Government continued with its plan to end its subsidy of the network in 2021. The effect on many communities would be disastrous, as the post office provides so many services, including banking, bill payments, and of course, deliveries.

As it happens, Horsted Keynes is lucky, as a mobile post office arrives in the village hall twice a week, which is a lifeline for many, but it is clearly less convenient.

However, for the affluent members of the village, a post office is less of a necessity, as many big local supermarkets have sub-post offices. And of course, it is that influx of affluence that has driven up house prices.

‘The idea of affordable housing is a joke,’ says Mr Colville. ‘Nothing is affordable in this village.’

And as well as driving up prices, the people who do buy houses here would rather privately educate their children at one of the many nearby prep schools than use the village school – hence it is running well below capacity.

It would be easy to be completely gloomy about Horsted Keynes, but there is a huge sense of community spirit.

Everybody tells me that goodwill has replaced the loss of amenity, with ride-share schemes operating, and many people volunteering. A look through the parish magazine reveals a huge number of clubs and societies, and there are many events such as monthly lunch that costs just £4 per head, and an annual ‘horse race’ with hobby horses around the village green.

‘I think this village is very special,’ says Mr Colville. ‘I don’t think that community spirit is that great elsewhere, but here it is.’

Even with the lack of amenities, it would be unfair to write off Horsted Keynes as a village that has somehow died. Yes, it is nothing like as buzzing and bustling as it would have been even as recently as the 1990s, but there are enough people determined to keep things lively.

However, that does rely on that magic word, ‘goodwill’. Without it, of course, there is a chance the village would turn into a collection of houses, rather than a community, as dead as those in the graveyard at St Giles’ church.

Buried there, as it happens, is Harold Macmillan, whose house was just outside the village. He, of course, is remembered for his phrase ‘You’ve never had it so good’. That may not apply to Horsted Keynes today, but things could be a lot worse.

Other places should take note – if they don’t all want to turn into ghost towns.