A Northamptonshire high street in the good old days. Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

May 11, 2020   6 mins

The Costcutter in the middle of the village of Long Buckby in Northamptonshire, Moore and Sons, will soon be changing hands. Not many people will notice. Nevertheless, it will be a significant moment in the life of the village. The shop has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1919. Trevor Moore, the grandson of the founder, has been running it for 40 years, and is looking to retire, and his children have left the village to pursue different lives, so he can’t hand it on. When he sells up, it will be another marker of the change that’s overtaking Long Buckby; the way the old village is giving way to something new.

My family called Buckby home for most of the last century. They arrived by horse and cart from nearby Crick, my great-grandmother carrying their prized possession, a carriage clock, on her lap as she travelled. My grandfather’s brothers, who were killed in the First World War, are commemorated on the memorial there; my grandfather himself never met them, having been born as a kind of replacement the year after Moore and Sons opened its doors for the first time. He and his wife, my grandmother, bought a plot of land when they both came home from the Second World War (she worked in Glasgow and London; he served in the Free French Navy) and built a home there.

My uncle and my father were born in the house they built, and grew up there. For nearly 70 years, it was the centre of our family diaspora, the still point around which all of us turned. We sold it a couple of years back when my grandmother died. Now my grandparents are buried in the graveyard of the Baptist church, in the grave that was already shared by my grandfather’s parents. Their names are recorded on a plaque on the side of the church. And the moment of our being there is already fading.

What’s replacing that era, though, is strangely uplifting to me. Over the past few years, Long Buckby has begun to grow. The village is on the train line between Coventry and Euston, and you can be in London in under an hour. Until recently, the station was separated from the village by half a mile of open fields, ideal land for development, so Buckby became a site for new housing for Londoners drifting out to the ‘burbs. When the first new streets went up, they named them after some of the people commemorated on the war memorial. So my grandfather trekked down the hill in his best suit to attend the unveiling of Norris Mews, which was named after his brothers. The housing’s OK; it’s one of those slightly Tim Burton streets, where every building went up at the same time so it looks like a film set. But there’s parking, and it’s quiet. The place is alright.

Most of those houses will be dormitory homes, lived in by people who don’t work in Buckby. But the new population is still having an impact on the village itself. There’s a place that sells good coffee now, and a pub called the Badgers Arms that opened just three years ago on the premises of an Indian restaurant that went bust, which now wins awards for its cider. Because Buckby is in Northamptonshire, the county whose council went bankrupt during the austerity years, the library was taken over by the local community, who will now need to come up with ways to make money and keep it open.

But I can’t help feeling that they might just find a way. In a village with a rapidly expanding population that seems to spend enough money in the local area at weekends to support good pubs and cafes, you can’t help but feel optimistic. Whenever I visited the village before lockdown, what I felt, more than nostalgia, was a kind of excitement. This was always one of the most lovely places in the world to me, set in beautiful countryside and offering everything a person could need. Not flash, not showy, but enough. I feel glad to think that other people, new people, are going to get to share it.

So much urban sprawl hollows out the soul of villages as they expand. Extensive development has done great damage to communities in many parts of the country, erasing the places that used to be there and replacing them with toytowns. Developers get round social housing allowances by sticking in ‘village halls’ instead, which no one uses. No one seems to build or open any shops, so street after street of anonymous residential houses spring up, with only the occasional Co-op looming out of the silence. I can only imagine that kids go mad growing up in them. In some parts of the country, old town centres have been knocked down to make way for new buildings, and once that’s happened, the spirit of these places is hard to save. The houses are sometimes well built (though not always), but the sense of community, the local ecology, the individual identity is impossible to recover.

This hasn’t quite happened in Buckby. I think it’s a product of the town centre having been left alone, allowing it to maintain a distinctive identity. It’s also not a traditionally wealthy village, so the new residents’ money has made an appreciable difference — hence the better quality of places to eat and drink. Some things have gone, and won’t be recovered. The whole village can’t hope to all know each other again, as there are too many people living there. But it’s become a better place to live, I suspect, a place with more life in it.

I’ve been thinking about Buckby as a model since the coronavirus locked us down. One of the things this period of quarantine has driven home to me, as someone who has believed all my life in a future where our unsustainable energy consumption will be stripped back, is the fact that one day not too far from now, the city as we know it will come to an end.

Carbon dioxide emissions have dropped sharply during lockdown — something that urgently needs to happen on a more permanent basis to protect our world and ourselves. So I’ve been watching the way the world has changed, and thinking about the fact that achieving the reductions in energy consumption we need is going to require a similar diminution in how much we travel, eat out and keep the lights on.

In such a future, the idea of a city that piles its residents ever higher surely becomes absurd — life is too short to live like that, if the compensations of endless consumption are taken away. People will start looking for other places to call home. There will surely be a wave of this in the wake of the coronavirus. London prices for renters and those on low incomes have been wildly unsustainable for years, to the extent that living in that city has seemed like an act of wilful ideological defiance for some time. With it seeming likely that many businesses will need to be slow and careful in rebuilding their turnover and workforce after this crisis, a lot of the people who’ve been living like that could well struggle to find new employment. Many may be forced to move.

This is one of the many human tragedies we’re facing right now, but with careful planning it could also become an opportunity to create new communities away from the centre — where people have more space, suffer less noise, and live more collectively than cities allow. Slight increases of investment in regional economies, as people relocate and buy their coffee and their cider in the village centre rather than, say, London’s West End, could have a profound impact on towns and villages all over the country.

It could lead to a better balance between our major cities and the rest of the UK, in terms of access to resources, culture, good food — all these would improve in the sticks as people invested in them. Councils would collect more tax and provide better services. It would only take a small rebalancing before the cinemas in smaller towns started showing better films to cater for an increased range of tastes, broadband companies boosted the signal to meet increased demand and transport links improved for the same reason. There will always be people who are drawn to the freedom and diversity of experience a city can provide, but there’d be nothing wrong with seeking to develop some of the UK’s smaller towns and villages into a more attractive alternative way of life, as a result of what we’re going through right now.

The other thing this would make possible, of course, would be the reimagining of our cities. We’re always going to need capitals in every region; larger concentrations of people and resources can support far more cultural and economic activity than a town of 50,000 ever could. This isn’t an argument against the city, but for a different relationship with city life — for the redesigning of urban spaces as destinations for people who live all over the country, rather than places most people are obliged to live in order to find work.

The way that villages and the people in them have changed over the course of the past few centuries is only just beginning to be understood. In a very short space of time, this country moved from being a place where most people lived within walking distance of the churchyard where their grandparents were buried, to a hugely mobile population, driven here and there by economic forces. That change led to extraordinary improvements in our quality of life — but the cost of it was unsustainable. Now our task is to reassimilate with the world we’ve been exhausting. I think part of that may involve a move out of big cities as the blinds in those places have to be drawn down. It might be that the future waits for us in places like the village my family once called home.

Barney Norris is a novelist and playwright. His latest book, The Vanishing Hours, is published by Transworld.