I have a confession to make. Way back at the turn of the century (i.e. the year 2000), I watched the first series of the American television show Survivor. Little did I know then, but this one programme would give rise to an entirely new genre: reality TV. For me, that one series of Survivor was enough, and I didn’t follow any of the subsequent shows: the Big Brothers, the Bachelors, the Apprentices.
However, in early 2018 MrElaineous and I got a little addicted to a very British take on reality programming: Penelope Keith’s Village of the Year. For American readers, Penelope Keith is perhaps best known from a 1970s series called To the Manor Born, which seems to be the British equivalent of Green Acres: a fish-out-of-water comedy of city slickers making a life for themselves in the country.
Capitalising on this connection, Penelope led a small group of experts in assessing 76 villages from across the whole of the UK. Each of the early episodes saw four villages go head-to-head to show off their bona fides: the quirky traditions, the community pride, the picturesque architecture. One village would emerge victorious from each heat, and there were then quarter and semi-finals. Eventually four villages emerged as finalists: Bamburgh in Northumberland, Broughshane in Northern Ireland, Beer in Devon, and Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire. Quite frankly, they all looked amazing, and MrElaineous and I agreed that it would be great to pay them all a visit. Since we had already been to Bamburgh, there were only three to go!
Beer was the first one we tackled, paying a visit last summer to this quaint seaside village nestled along a beautiful harbour. We had a lovely time and I turned it into a five-part series on the blog and then, well, we ran out of steam.
It was mentioned whenever we discussed travel—“We really should go to Hampstead Norreys some time.”—but we never made any plans. Earlier in the spring I finally looked it up and was embarrassed to see how close we were: in just under an hour we could be in the very centre of the village. However, it wasn’t until recently that we decided to go on impulse—beautiful weather and a free day meant it was time for us to finally seize the moment.
Our first stop was the Hampstead Norreys Community Shop and Café, which had been featured in the programme. Since then, it has done very well for itself, winning Best Rural Shop in Britain. Just in the short period of time we were there it was possible to see that it served as the village heart, with a steady trickle of people of all ages popping in to grab a bite to eat, collect their groceries, or pick up their morning paper. It also stocked locally made gifts and, the thing that made my own heart beat faster with excitement, it had a well-stocked plastic-free section.
While ordering breakfast, we started chatting with Lesley, a shop volunteer and one of the driving forces behind the village’s forthcoming GreenFest. It was wonderful to hear about everything the community was doing to reduce plastic waste and incorporate sustainability into day-to-day life. For example, rather than hand out disposable bags, the shop provided “Bring me back” bags to locals who forgot their reusables. Villagers were also keen eco-brickers, turning their handiwork into a bench at the local primary school.
Lesley also recommended going for a walk in the surrounding woodlands so, after a very tasty meal, we followed her directions and embarked on an unexpected part of our journey. On the way into the woodland, we passed a dog walker who was heading out, and we didn’t see another soul during the whole of the walk. Instead, the woods were incredibly peaceful, with just the occasional birdsong or scurrying squirrel to break the silence; within a few minutes it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, despite being no more than a stone’s throw from the village itself.
One of the first areas of interest that we came across was the former site of a motte and bailey castle. These were considered a new-fangled technology in 1066 when they were brought over during the Norman invasion. They are composed of a motte (mound) and an enclosed courtyard (bailey), typically surrounded by a protective ditch and a wooden fence or palisade. They made excellent defensive structures … at least until they were replaced by the *slightly* more robust stone castles. Only the motte remains here today, but we scrambled to the top to have a look around before continuing onwards.
We soon came across a meadow with a smattering of wildflowers. If you stayed quiet, the sound of insects filled the air: grasshoppers, bees, and assorted flies all made their presence known, even if we couldn’t always see them. Butterflies fluttered by and dragonflies darted just on the edge of vision; we spent a while happily photographing what we could.
As we finished our circular walk and approached the village again, we came to the back of the churchyard. I am never one to walk past an interesting cemetery, so we went inside and discovered one of the most unusual grave monuments I have ever seen in the UK. It is in the form of a step pyramid with an ornate top and metal plaques listing the family members buried below. These were the Lowsleys, who we later discovered were former owners of the Manor House that bordered the church property.
The church itself was open for visitors but empty except for us. It served as a history lesson about the village, with more information about the Lowsleys and those who had called Hampstead Norreys home over the centuries. One of my favourites was the vicar who was so admired by his parishioners that they put a plaque up to his memory directly above the pulpit. That’s quite a high bar for newcomers to live up to!
We went on to the Living Rainforest, a site just outside the village that is dedicated to showcasing how much the entire world depends on its rainforests for clean air and other resources. Seeing the amazing tropical plants, both in terms of size and colour, reminded me of the 19th century plant hunters. They risked it all to bring back orchids, bromeliads, ferns, flowers, and fruit trees from all corners of the earth. Today, we can walk into any garden centre to get a house plant!
It was also an opportunity to see some of the weirdest (giant stick insects) and cutest (pygmy marmosets) rainforest animals up close. Some were even free-range, with flitting finches and colourful fowl wandering about underfoot. The Living Rainforest’s most famous resident is probably Cinnamon the sloth. Cinnamon is also a free-ranger and unfortunately we couldn’t find him/her during our visit.
While our first visit to Hampstead Norreys was long overdue, I can guarantee there will be a second. I just haven’t decided whether it will be to continue talking sustainability, delve deeper into the beautiful woodland, track down a sloth, or sample more of the café’s delicious brownies. Maybe all of the above? This is the type of reality show I’m more than happy to see repeated!
If you have time this Saturday (7 September 2019) and want to learn more about what can be done to live more sustainably, please consider attending the GreenFest.
You can read more about my efforts to cut back on plastic in the Plastic Free July blog posts over on Off the Ground, or consider signing up to be notified when my new blog launches: Reduce Your Wasteline. The Facebook group is currently live: please pop by!