Margaret Ingram’s Portrait of a village that’s neat and trim and full of variety’.
Focus on Brailes Focus Magazine 1978
Once across the bridge over the Stour, out of Shipston on the way to Banbury, following a pleasantly wide road beside a windbreak of poplars there is a sense of freedom, main road forgotten, as the horizon lifts to the distant hills and you are surrounded by completely unspoilt countryside which brings you to Brailes.
It is neat and trim and full of variety throughout the long length of its village street, which drops down from the brow of Upper Brailes for a mile of more before reaching the 16th century George Hotel, Post Office and stores and the surprisingly large and beautiful parish church of Lower Brailes.
The is areal village, more rich in community life than in commuters, for although half of its inhabitants may now be comparative newcomers, the other 50% were born in Brailes and have lived there all their lives in the clusters of small, stone walled cottages or in the larger houses built of local brick.
Many houses date back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century, but with plenty of space and trees the new buildings blend in well, making the whole place attractive to the eye; cats sleep among the plants in cottage windows, but without any suggestion of bring a self-consciously 'best kept' village.
But, however attractive a place may appear architecturally, it is the inhabitants who give it charm and make its character. It says much for the quality of life in Brailes that not only does it seem almost completely classless but that on the whole newcomers have been welcomed and made to feel at home by the older inhabitants.
"I know of nowhere where there is less class distinction" the vicar Rev. H. E. Wright told me, "nor anywhere where more is done for the comfort of the people.
"If you are in the bar of The George at lunchtime you will see members of the executive and managerial class and retired people with perhaps the rank of Colonel, mixing with villagers or labourers from a road gang, without there being any sense of patronage or exaggerated respect.
"It is a true democracy and there is seldom a day when something is not happening in the village hall, or an evening when it is not booked."
At one of the houses off the High Street, bordering the fields, as so many of the cottages do, lives Mrs Green, a pleasant blue-eyed woman, who you might judge to be in her fifties but who is in fact 86 and living with her daughter, but she is the most completely happy person.
Only the death of her husband at 83 had disturbed a life of absolute simplicity and happiness and, now with 10 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, she possesses a face of absolute serenity.
This sense of happiness and a young look which belies their real age can be found on more than one face in Brailes. Lotte Reason aged eighty two, beamed at me from her cottage in the High Street.
She left Brailes as a young girl to go into Service but came back to nurse her parents and has remained here ever since, "helping everyone in the row and always doing things for people," her neighbours told me.
Nearby, at Sunny Villa, Honor Hews chatted to me out of her windows. A farmer's daughter, she had been sent away to school in Banbury as a girl and had longed to be a school teacher but her father would not hear of it.
In those days daughters remained at home and helped with the many tasks of the kitchen and diary and looked after the poultry.
"Village people then were content not to go about" she said, "except on foot. There were few bicycles and only the farmers had a horse to drive".
"All the children went to the village school until a certain age. The farmers' wives made butter and sold it at the door, with milk and eggs. Milk was a penny a pint and people brought their own cans and jugs. Butter was 10d a pound..."
The merriness of John Clements in the blacksmith's forge seemed at variance with his memories of the 'good old days.'
"Not much good about them, compared with the comfort of today," he told me. "Living in a two up two down, with six or seven kids, no hot water and a privy in the garden didn't give much chance of the good life.
"You were mostly hungry. From October to February there'd be meat enough, because everyone kept a pig. You swopped around when they were killed but after that, there was only salt meat and what you could grow in the garden.
"I can knock off at five today but in those days a blacksmith worked from eight to eight. He'd got to stop late to see to the farm machinery and wait for the ploughshares to come in for sharpening.
"If there was a frost you'd have to be off out before six in the morning to fix the frost nails in the horses' hooves before the milk could be delivered.
"But you knew everyone in the village and you were into everything that went on. The coming of the motor car changed everything entirely."
Another visitor to the forge took up the tale, remembering the eight miles he'd always had to walk to school and back. I was eleven to twelve before I got hold of an old bike," he said. "The footpaths you see now were the roads we too to work, with our flag baskets in our backs, made from rushes to hold out food for the day - usually half a loaf with a lump of fat bacon and an onion. "And a bottle of cold tea which would be frozen solid when you came to drink it. "We cleaned swedes for ten shillings a week. The great thing was to get behind the threshing machine for six shillings a day. "We were happy then, though there was no time for pleasure, it was all work. But, those old horses, they were like human beings," he said reminiscently.
"We worked hard and lived hard and sometimes we were that hungry we were glad to pull a swede and eat it, or pick over the cattle feed for locust beans which we'd smash with a hammer.
"They were very sweet, you could buy them for a farthing apiece in the village, When you started ploughing with the horses, there'd be a piece of paper stuck on a hedge and that was where you'd aim the plough and woe betide you if the furrow wasn't straight. "You'd have the carter's foot behind you but were too glad of the few pence, to say aught about it." "The only pleasure we had was walking and that we did for miles, sometimes following the hounds on foot and climbing up high to watch the field. "We had the Heythrop and the Warwickshire meeting in the village. Then, on moonlight nights we'd play 'fox and hounds' ourselves." Even today, he'd rather walk and sit watching at the top of the hill with his field glasses, then go for any holiday. But it was good to dwell on the old days from the comforts of a modern council bungalow. He still followed the hounds, thanks to his pension because he and his 'mates' could have a whip round and hire a car to follow in - an unimaginable dream of opulence in the old days.
"Do you remember" asked the blacksmith, "how we'd go a mile out of our way to miss the policeman? His cape rolled up was harder than any truncheon, though I've felt it many a time on my backside, just for playing in the brook, sailing paper boats. It was far worse than the school cane."
truncheon though I've felt it many a time on my backside, just for playing in the boats. It was far worse than the school cane." What Harry Davies misses most after his forty years spend working for the council, are the walks after church on a Sunday evening, when you met everyone you knew and could pass the time of day. Now, since the coming of the car, nobody walks any more. "Folk don't want exercise today" he said, ruefully, "so you never pass a soul. We were less critical in the old days and enjoyed having a get-together for a sing-song or concert on a Sunday. "If anyone could give a bit of a song, we were grateful. We didn't expect him to sound like Val Doonican. "Television has spoiled all that. Of course, they were good old days - only for some though. Certainly there was more friendliness then. "You never locked your door and no one ever knocked on it neither, they'd just walk in. "Mind you, it's still a friendly place. Since I've been laid up this winter, people have gone out of their way to be helpful. Can't do enough for me. Even complete strangers coming round to see if I want any shopping.
"In those days, there were three bakers baking...now it doesn't pay to have a shop in Upper Brailes any more because people can go by care to Shipston, but those who can't have a long walk down. Miss Crook's is the only shop that's still the same."
Miss Crook is the butcher, whose mother and grandmother were butchers before her. The business was begun by her grandfather and the shop, surely one of the most charming left in England, seems hardly to have changed. Her grandmother must have served meat there in the long alpaca dress of Victorian days.
There are still great hooks around the porch where, on less hygiene-conscious times, the meat was hung outside for display. Miss Crook knows everyone and her shop tends to be the hub of the village. She sells nothing pre-packed and knows exactly what her customers like. In fact, she can pretty well assess their requirements as they step inside the shop, remembering that they had a shoulder of lamb last week, and what, therefore they will like this week and how much they will want to spend.
I asked her what she felt was the greatest change in Brailes since that day when her mother was not well and she, as a girl, went into the shop to take her place and remained there ever since.
She thought the greatest change had taken place that morning I spoke with her. She had received news that the Midland Bank, for 'security reasons' was to cease to come out from Shipston to its sub-office on Tuesdays and Fridays, as it has always done, so that now everybody would have to bank in Shipston. "I remember my father popping to the grocer's shop across the way, where the sub-cashier had his office. You could post your money up till 4pm in those days and the bank in Shipston would have it the next morning."
The other great change for the village, Miss Crook considered, was the cessation of the Midland Red bus, sadly missed as even though people were very kind if you needed a lift "it was not the same". There is a bus from Brailes to Banbury on Mondays and Thursdays and on Saturdays, a bus to Shipston. By no means all the inhabitants have cars but, as the vicar told me, no-one ever goes to the doctors' (since Brailes has ceased to have its own) without picking up anyone who wants to go.
In fact, he told me, people have simply to go to the end of the village and stand, to be sure of a lift. Colonel Hatley, a comparative newcomer to the village, but who has done a great deal for it, had arranged a splendid transport system to cover hospital visiting and would always look after anyone needing to go anywhere.
The splendid parish church of St. George, in the perpendicular style, battlemented and pinnacled, with a large square, six belled tower and fine lychgate, is known locally as the Cathedral of the Feldon, the rolling open country south of the river Avon and which, in Saxon times, referred to land which was arable rather than for grazing. Its register goes back to 1570 and its size and imposing character speak of the prosperity of the village in medieval times.
There was a settled community in Brailes before the Roman occupation but the list of incumbents dates only from 1153. The church was given by the Earl of Warwick to the priory in Kenilworth in 1124 and so there may have been a church in existence before that date.
Brailes in the 14th century was a bustling market town with a thriving water mill and an important wool trade.
In 1547 there were 2,000 people living in the parish and it was probably the third largest town in the county after Coventry and Warwick, with Birmingham a mere hamlet. It has clay soil and wheat, beans and barley having been listed as it's chief crops. It was a corn growing area from Roman times until a few sheep appeared after the enclosure at the end of the 18th century. Some of the old charities date from this time, with the loss of open woodlands and the rights of loppage and cutting furze.
The fuel land charity is still in existence though merged by the vicar into the Brailes United Charities Fund, which looks after the needy in the village today. In frosty weather the ridge and furrow of the common land can still be seen. There was a good deal of early enclosure. Four ploughs were put out of use and 16 persons ejected by 1485 by William Brown, King's servant and Bailiff. IN 1510, Richard Greville converted his land and pastures and destroyed buildings, causing three ploughs to be lost and 26 persons 'to deport in tears'.
Other sadnesses are hinted at in 1349 when the Black Death reduced England's population by half and the Plague of 1360 ravaged South Warwickshire. History repeated itself in 1603 when Brailes suffered a second Plague; and in 1876, according to a window in the south aisle of the Church, 37 children died of diphtheria.
One great attraction of St. George's church is its carillon, dating from the 18th century. It plays four hymn tunes a day, with a different tune on Sundays at mi-day and mid-night. Two of the bells were re-cast by Richard Keene and bear the cheerful messages: I'll crack no more, now ring your fill Merry George I was and will be still (1668)
and I'm not the bell I was, but quite another I'm now as rite as Merry George, my brother (1671)
It is curious that extensive repairs to the church had to be undertaken in 1649, the year that Charles I was beheaded and the Civil War came to an end. Royalist troops were quartered in Brailes in 1643 but the Roundheads later commandeered nearby Compton Wynyates and billeted 120 troops there.
Mrs Eva Bickley has cleaned the church for over twenty five years and hates the thought of ever giving up as it is such a joyful task. "I love carrying up the water and mopping and cleaning," she said. "It is so relaxing and peaceful there that all my burdens seem to go, especially when the bells peal. I love to polish until everything smells clean and rub up the brass until it shines and you can see what you've done. I'm always singing and people tell me how nice it is but I was in service before I was 14 and I've always had to be Doing."
Brailes has always been a very ecumenical village and there are very good relations and sometimes joint services between the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican churches. They share a combined diary of event in the parish magazine, 'The Feldon News' and join together for Christian Aid Week. Curiously enough, the Roman Catholic family of Bishop exercised the patronage of the Anglican Church for 150 years, after Elizabeth I, always anxious for money, disposed of it to John Bishop in 1584.
The Catholic Church, in its beautiful setting, is worth a special visit. It is part of a rectory which was given to Augustinians by the Earl of Warwick in the 13th century. Here, during Stuart and Tudor times, the Bishop family maintained a secret mass. The chapel was opened to the public in 1726 and was once the malt barn and stables of the rectory. The Methodist chapel, a neat, brick building is in the centre of the village near Mint Row, a charming group of bungalows built for the elderly. Brailes is fortunate in its community life through having a population which even today mostly works locally. Very few go very far as there is little industry in Shipston, and Banbury and Stratford offer managerial posts. The old inhabitants of Brailes are very proud to belong to a village full of history. Bill Hancock, another who was born and bred here fears they may soon become a minority through the influx of newcomers made possible by the motor car, though he admits that there is very little division between old and new residents.
One or two people feel that the newcomers step too quickly into the vacant spaces on the council and begin to 'run the village' but on the whole, it is recognised that people want to help and to belong and that the older inhabitants do not always come forward. A member of the parish council told me "it depends on what you do for the village. I have been here only four years but I have found a friendliness here which one would never find on a town, especially in the shops. It brings you down to earth as you see how society works from top to bottom and teaches you to give and take and value people for what they are. "When you shop in a town you are not a person but just a type, belonging to a certain strata of society. No-one is interested in you for yourself, as they are here." Beginning with the Feldon Club, the list of village activities for young and old is too numerous to mention, though it was obvious from talking to Doug Cummings, who began the Entertainments Committee 20 years ago for money raising efforts, that one could be out every night and not get around everything that goes on. He has been in the church choir for over 50 years and is chairman of Brailes Silver Band. This must have a special mention, if only for the number of brass band widows it creates every Friday evening through the seriousness and enthusiasm of its members.
It has various bookings away from Brailes during the year and I talked to the Slater family who have four generations playing in it; tenor, bass, cornet and boy cornet, (David aged nine).
The biggest day of the village year and becoming very well known is the second Saturday of August, when Brailes Show is held. It attracts competitors from as far away as Reading, Birmingham and Coventry.
Originally started as a flower show during the war to collect money for the Wings for Victory campaign, it became a combined flower show and gymkhana to raise funds for the village hall. It has expanded to the impressive, high standard show jumping and gymkhana it is today, with trade stands, side shows and a dog show. It has darts, swings, a Punch and Judy, football, a 'jolly good tea' and offers something for all. Profits go to various funds but chiefly for the upkeep of the village hall and playing fields. The charge for admission is kept very low and is free for children.
Everyone does something, but the farmers are relied on very heavily for help in lending straw bales and driving in posts with their tractors. Of course, there is a handful of people in the background doing the main planning and donkey work, though everybody rallies round 'on the day'. It is a spacious, gracious and well-planned show.
Naturally, it is a special day for Miss Sylvia Painter at Stonecraft Riding School which she runs singlehanded, mainly for children. She was born here and kept an Arab stud for 16 years. Now she has twelve riding school ponies and five Arabs.
Miss Painter is a Methodist who teaches in the Sunday School and helps with senior citizens when she has time, which is not often. She works from 8am until dusk but she loves her life and the friendliness of the village. "No-one is ever missed out here" she said. As the village is surrounded by very good farmland, the farmers are important members of the community. It is not so many years ago that the village was feudal; all land, housing and employment, belonging to two or three farmers or the lord of the manor, "A benign autocracy" in the words of one old timer. "At the turn of the century, Brailes was completely self-supporting," Ken Bradley told me. We had our own yard, ironworks, brick-yard, chaff-cutters, tailor, baker, saddler, shoemaker, wheelwright, glazier, surgeon, carpenter and stone-mason. "My father remembered the night watchman putting wet sacks over the holes of the brick kiln they shouldn’t be seen by the Zeppelins. Mr Taylor of the brewery was always inventing things. I remember a non-drip crockery tap with flowers on which they used for measuring the drinks until they had to use the official measure. There was quite a few of them around here. "A lot of plush was made in the cottages at the end of the village but they were all burned down. There's no doubt it was the motor car that changed Brailes most because it meant that people could live here and still work at a distance away. That put up the prices of houses for local people who couldn't compete with executive salaries. "There are very few houses to rent now because they've all been offered for sale and the local people have moved out into council bungalows.
"Even with more outsiders here, I wouldn't change I'd never leave Brailes. It's the best place on earth."
I met a young couple who are newcomers to Brailes. They fell in love with the village and spent a year coming to it every Sunday in the hope of one day being able to live there. Mick is an art historian and Mo a professional cook. They lunched at the friendly Gate Inn each week until, eventually, Tony, who keeps it, asked them why they came and so their desire became known. One day a suitable cottage did come on the market and through the local grapevine of the milkman, the baker, the pub, the couple were telephoned and told about it.
They could not be more happy now, nor more accepted. Mick already has an allotment and is known locally as 'the digger'. "He never returns from it" say Mo, "without a lettuce, a turnip, a bag of sprouts or something having been given him."They had to go to America during the winter and left the keys of their cottage with friends/ Having previously lived in a London flat they did not think about turning off the water but as the weather became more severe it occurred to a neighbour, who knew the cottage of old, that they probably had frozen pipes.
Borrowing the keys, he prevented the inevitable burst and on the day they were due back, lit the Aga for their return. This is the essence of country living, or at least living in a village like Brailes.
"The Gate is a wonderful social point," says Mo. "Whatever I need, I'm sure to get all the help and advice I want there. I've never been anywhere that's so friendly." The Gate is an attractive, unprepossessing, 17th century stone built pub and Tony's wife, Dot, does a cooked meal every evening, advertising 'eggs as collected from the nest'. Tony also drives the school bus.
During the 19th century Brailes hot the national press through a local manslaughter and scandal. Two young men were taking a short cut across a field to the Shipston road over a path used by workmen for over 60 years. They were apprehended by a game-keeper, George Ditton, and accused of poaching. One of them ran off but the other, Henry Clifton, described as a 'respectable young man', stayed in protest and was shot and killed.
The village soon showed where it's sympathies lay as, at the funeral service, they numbered a thousand, a great number standing in the aisles and chancel.
The gamekeeper was charged with manslaughter. His employer was the squire of Brailes Hall, and a justice of the peace. The case was dismissed. It says much for the vicar of the day tha
the caused such a protest to be made in the House of Commons that the squire's name was removed from the Bench.
The situation of Brailes and its relatively slow growth towards 'progress' has saved it from too many pressures and allowed its community spirit to live.
On a summer's day, with the rooks cawing in the trees near the church, its flag catching the breeze and the cottage gardens making a brave display, there is a peace about Brailes which brings you close to a vanished world.
It is a feeling that is intensified when the inhabitants are asleep, and one is made aware of the deep silence of the night in those places lucky enough to be far from main roads and passing lorries. •
Focus Magazine 1978
Reproduced with kind permission of the Focus magazine/ Stratford Herald May 2009