English Dacha Diaries 3 – Butchers, Bakers & Candlestick makers

Ross Hunter

Welcome to Burrowbeck. Since the retreat from Moscow, this is my village, my dacha. Swapping a city of 20 million for a hamlet of 20 houses means a few changes to life’s rhythms and options. As most Muscovites know, the ideal mix is urban pace and excitement and rural peace in nature. Does English village life have anything in common with dacha weekends and holidays?  Join in, as we explore the idea.  

In children’s stories and the myths of history, villages are rural idylls of social calm, respectful order, and thriving local crafts. Indeed, many of our family names are leftovers from craft vocations. Test yourself: line up these common English names with what they did: were Messrs. Baker, Cooper, Fletcher, Mason, Squire and Smith the local doyens of arrows, barrels, bread, estate management, ironwork or walls? In Ye Olde Merrie England, people had and knew their places. Life was static, as well as nasty, brutish and short. Rural graveyards are full of the majority of children who didn’t survive: ours includes three small Bronte children who would not become novelists.   

Come coal, railways and industrial towns, go rural self sufficiency, local trades and eventually shops. So have the small primary schools, and the Post Offices, and now the phone boxes. What have we left?  

Pubs! In my father’ village, down south, 10 pubs became six became three in only four decades.  Here, there are two working pubs and three dead ones. Oddly, both working pubs are in greater Burrowbeck, only 2km apart, while three larger villages have no watering holes at all.  It was once worse! From being unpretentious local drinking spots, and therefore the local social node, pubs were and still are being squeezed by cheap supermarket booze and the Drink Driving Laws. These are taken seriously in UK, dare I say more so than Moscow? Driving for a pint or many became unwise. Pubs adapted by moving “upmarket” to be restaurants with bars.  

The Fenwick Arms in 1908

Our own, The Fenwick Arms, went too far, and for too long became the exclusive haunt of the overpriced 4×4 set, the sort who noisily order ‘Cab Sav’ wine and ‘Bolly’ (probably Prosecco on the quiet) while they nibble guacamole ‘petits fours’ and leave the authentic mushy peas unsavoured. If you wanted to avoid your friends and neighbours that was the place to hide. At a massive price. Mercifully, a(nother) takeover gave us our pub back, with a decent restaurant too. We even quaff our very own branded “Burrowbeck Bitter”, although there are rumours of a spot of ‘badge engineering’ along the road from the brewery in Lunebridge.  Friday is locals’ evening, complete with tasty bar snacks on the house (free!). A bit like Silver’s in its heyday, you can pop in and guarantee to meet a few folk you know, and a few more. Hooray! A proper pub. Better still, ‘The Fenwick’ is all of a dozen metres away, a short crawl home if needs must. Cheers! Mine’s a pint, nul pyet.      

The Devil’s Bridge

What else? We have three village halls and three churches. Sounds good, though they do compete with each other rather. Our village is dispersed, being really a little ‘conruralation’ of a handful of hamlets. Within roughly a Boulevard Ring’s distance of here, we have far fewer citizens than are currently stuck in traffic on that Moscow road, and no traffic lights. 

Most have ‘delicate’ finances, and need social fund raising events. These tap the same regular punters every event, with the added spice of vicious, if genteel, competition to host any hopefully lucrative ‘bit of a do’, in the local patois.  

The few other local services include proudly mounted cardiac defibrillators, a plague of bikers every dry weekend, heading for the famous ‘Devil’s Bridge’. Motorcyclists don’t ‘do’ speed limits; the Police do make a steady profit from their radar gun. My best efforts at getting nicked for speeding on my pushbike have proved futile. Can you do better? There is an excellent heart hospital in Blackpool, a short flight away in the Air Ambulance.*  

(*Donations welcome, or pop into their charity shop, ideally on a Tuesday, when we volunteer there. More on this later.)