The village of Litton, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 20:54 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:04 20 February 2013
Mike Smith takes a walk around the pretty Peak District hamlet of Litton where they are keeping traditions alive in a picture-postcard location
Most of us have a picture in our mind's eye of the elements that make up the archetypal English village: chocolate-box cottages set around a village green that is the venue for a host of traditional events; a cosy pub, where there is real ale and a welcoming fire; a village shop and post office, which is as much a social centre as a source of provisions and pensions; a church, a chapel, a village hall and a school where children are taught in small classes in a safe and happy environment. Everyone in this ideal village knows everyone else and there is an immediate check on the well-being of anyone who doesn't turn up in the pub or shop at their regular time.
But does this image bear any relationship to reality, or is it a fiction based on rose-tinted memories of a long-lost era? In some villages, traditional events have died out because no one can find the time or will to organise them; many country pubs have evolved into plastic and pine imitations of urban caf bars; one third of English villages now have no shop of any description, let alone a post office, and dozens of churches, chapels and village halls have been converted into residential units. 450 village schools were closed between 1983 and 1998 and, with the increasing occupancy of cottages by commuters, week-enders and holidaymakers, the days when everyone knew everyone else are long gone in many rural communities.
However, I am pleased to report that there is one place at least where that mind's eye view of the English village is entirely accurate. The pretty Peak District hamlet of Litton retains all those elements that are the life-blood of a healthy village. Its large green is a picture-postcard location for a range of annual festivities; the village hall, the church and the chapel all continue to serve their original function; there is a shop and a post office; the local children attend the village school; the pub offers the warmest of welcomes and the life of one Litton resident was actually saved when his failure to pop into the local shop at his usual time triggered a visit to his house.
As parish councillor Brian Molteno explained, the villagers responded with equal alacrity when the life of the village itself was threatened by the closure of its shop and post office in the mid-Nineties. A community group called 'Life in Litton', which had already been formed to preserve and protect village life, took immediate steps to save the post office by re-establishing the facility in the village hall and then set about raising funds from bodies such as the East Midlands Development Agency and the Countryside Agency in order to resurrect the shop.
Brian chairs Life in Litton, whose members went on a fact-finding mission to a rural shop in the Yorkshire Dales and sought advice from the Village Retail Services Association (ViRSA) before they bought the former village smithy and converted it into a combined shop and post office. Rosie Ford, who is secretary to the shop committee, told me that a set of shelves, a serving desk, a till and a fridge were all donated by villagers and 30 local people offered to serve behind the counter on an unpaid basis. Other villagers promised to bake cakes for sale in the shop which offers refreshments within the premises throughout the year and also on the green in the summer months.
Since its foundation in 1999, the shop has proved to be a highly successful enterprise. Each week shop manager Carol Millington fills three large trolleys with items purchased at a special discount from Somerfields, in order to ensure that the shelves are stacked with a wide choice of products. The store, which is open seven days per week and was extended three years ago, makes a healthy profit which is ploughed back into the village. Litton's thriving shop and post office is a testament to a community that was determined to save its soul.
This mention of souls being saved is a reminder that Litton has two active places of worship: the Methodist Chapel, a solid-looking gabled edifice on the main street, and Christ Church, a neat little building that was constructed in 1928 at the western extremity of the village, on the high road to Tideswell, where parallel lines of stone walls run across the undulating moors like the tracks of a roller-coaster.
Before 1928, Anglican worship took place in the village school, which now provides infant and junior education for 41 children and is the meeting place of the toddler group, first established by Jane Cooper and run, in the usual Litton manner, by volunteers. Sylvia Bunting, who has been brought out of retirement to administer the school until a new headteacher can be appointed, needed absolutely no persuasion to return to work. She had been missing her contact with children and couldn't resist a chance to work in Litton's idyllic little school, which is perfectly situated on the edge of the village green and has a long playground at the rear where there is a bird-hide, a pond and even a wood.
When I asked the pupils to tell me what they like most about Litton, almost 40 hands shot up immediately. According to their responses, they are fond of their village because it is quiet and small but has lively parties in the village hall and is surrounded by countryside where there are good walks and lots of chances to see wildlife, including badgers. They also like the school being central to the village and they love dressing up in Victorian costume on May Day, when they dance around the maypole on the village green. One boy even cited the village pub as a major plus point.
His view is certainly shared by adults in the community and by the many visitors who are drawn to the village by its pub, which stands alongside the village green and is known for its welcoming atmosphere and its roaring log fires. Landlady Suzy Turner, who took over at the Red Lion a year ago, has refurbished the interior without subtracting anything from its traditional character. There are no fewer than three rooms with log fires and many of the ales are supplied by local breweries. Margaret Cartledge and Ann Simpson produce homemade chips in the kitchen and chef Steven Brook is renowned for his steak and kidney pies. Village get-togethers in the pub include Sunday jam sessions and monthly quizzes.
Suzy, who originally intended to be a translator, loves her work as a landlady, which she describes as 'a life, not a job'. Like everyone else I met, she also loves the village and is already an active member of Friends of Litton Village, another of those local committees that is charged with preserving the best aspects of village life. This particular group ensures that traditional events continue to take place in the annual Wakes Week. These include a funfair, a barbecue, a coconut shy, a torchlight procession, well dressings and, of course, maypole dancing by the children.
Lots of other activities take place throughout the year, many of them in the village hall, which is a regular meeting place for the Women's Institute, the Pilates Group, the book club and the snooker club. It is also used by two parish councils and by two doctors who provide weekly surgeries. Tina Armitage, who lives in one of Litton's many pretty limestone cottages and is secretary of the Village Hall Management Committee, told me that the hall has been extended and modernised in recent years. Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire, made the first donation to the renovation fund from his own pocket and his wife, now the Dowager Duchess, laid a new foundation stone last year to commemorate the building's centenary.
Believe it or not, there are yet more committees in this little community. The Village Plan Committee is charged with ensuring that a scheme to develop and extend the village play area comes to fruition. Given Litton's track record, there is every reason to expect that all its objectives will be achieved. Hazel Harrison, who was one of the organisers of a Burns' Night event, told me that scores of villagers turned up to enjoy the haggis and raise 400 for the playground fund, even though taped bagpipe music had to be used because the local bagpipe player was engaged elsewhere on that evening!
If my description of this archetypal English village conjures up an image of a hamlet tucked into a cosy hollow, think again. Litton stands on a high limestone plateau, almost 1,000 feet above sea-level, or '1,000ft up, minus a Boy Scout', as they say locally. The plateau is criss-crossed by a complex web of drystone walls and incised by the deep valley of the River Wye, where there are two structures, one man-made and one natural, which are reminders of the barbarity of bygone days.
Litton Mill, which has now been converted into apartments, was once owned by Ellis Needham, who employed scores of child labourers. Conditions were so harsh that many of his young employees didn't survive into adulthood. Peter's Stone, an isolated limestone outcrop near the head of the valley, is also known as the Gibbet Rock, because the bodies of people hanged for serious crimes used to be set up on a gibbet and displayed there. The last person to suffer this fate was Anthony Lingard, the murderer of Hannah Oliver, who lived in the toll house at Wardlow Mires.
On a lighter note, the countryside around Litton is the habitat for rare wildflowers including blood-red cranesbills and early purple orchids. In fact, it is said that this was the countryside that sparked young David Bellamy's interest in natural history when he was staying at Ravenstor Youth Hostel.
With its historical associations and natural wonders, the countryside around Litton is like an outdoor classroom, which is a bonus for the pupils who attend the primary school. Thanks to the collective efforts of their elders, those children will also inherit a village that has retained all its traditional assets.