The village of Snap no longer exists, but is helpfully signposted, nonetheless. Lost settlements are not always so easily found as this, and a brisk five-minute stroll from the Aldbourne Road and I am at the site, marked in gothic script on my map. There are several of these invisible communities on the Marlborough Downs and lately I have become keen to pay each a pastoral visit, scanning them for signs of life. Unlike the previous one I saw (Shaw, on the periphery of the West Woods, whose medieval residents are evidenced only by an occasional lumpy ridge in the grass), Snap satisfies by having been inhabited almost within living memory. Ever a small place, by 1909 just two villagers remained, and most buildings were destroyed when the area was used for military training during the First World War.
May days arrive early, beautifully prepared – and this morning’s virginal sky has been ready for some time, like the well-rehearsed birds and breakfasting cattle who glance up as I bustle in, late to the gathering. Situated within a grove of youngish trees, Snap seems at first to have completely gone, until squared lines of rubble emerge amid the greenery, and a series of homesteads soon becomes noticeable. Standing in one of these chambers of the human hearth cannot but feel intrusive, causing one to wonder whether time is porous enough to be haunted in reverse.
An abandoned settlement easily calls to our imagination, for it speaks of a belonging that is familiar and concrete but just out of reach. Whereas our dwellings are plainly fixed, moulds to which we must accommodate, these vacant bricks could house whatever we want them to. Every such place is also a parable – a prophetic sign, even – and the story of Snap is no different. Its sacrifice to the profits of sheep farming offers a final, passing shot of a countryside transformed by enclosures of land and the cloth industry that burgeoned alongside the rearing of vast flocks. At one point, the Bishop of Winchester alone owned thirty thousand sheep on Salisbury Plain.
Parish churches, engrossed and gilded beyond all possible need of their community, were a regular beneficiary of those whose made wealthy by the wool trade, although none was built here. Snap’s witness to the golden fleece was its own demise. Two large farms, which together had provided villagers’ employment, were left untenanted by the agricultural depression of the 1890s and bought up by a butcher from nearby Ramsbury, John Wilson, who converted them into a sheep run, forcing the remaining villagers’ departure. It was an episode that provoked great controversy, even leading to the local Member of Parliament being sued for describing the Wilson family as oppressive and tyrannical. An account from the 1960s, however, found this outrage already overgrown with other myths of desertion, locals supposing it had to do with their water supply.
As landscape historian Richard Muir observed in his study of Britain’s lost villages, if such a lapse of memory can take place within fifty years, it is little surprise that the undocumented lives of earlier generations of dispossessed poor are as obscure to us as these forgotten walls under the soil. At precisely the point when Snap was in terminal decline, that hidden culture was beginning to be a focus of liberal intellectual concern, especially among those who sought to recover the lore, language and artistic expression of rural communities. The English Folk Revival – with its Maypoles, Morris men and other approximations of Merrie England – was one of the great social and educational projects of the Twentieth Century and a monumental act of historical invention. Its narrative of extinction and retrieval was necessary in order to fill a perceived void among the modern, industrialized masses – namely, the meaningful ties and traditions of a small community. The only lost things we tend to seek are those we miss in the present.
Collection and circulation of folk songs by Cecil Sharp and others became a particular totem: half-recalled snatches of a ‘national music’ grounded (according to Ralph Vaughan Williams) in a mystic parochialism. Folk song should, Williams felt, enable people to ‘feel at home’, so he set about rechristening these tunes and placing them at the heart of the parish: within the leaf-green covers of the English Hymnal, whose first edition appeared in 1906. Through ongoing presence in Anglican churches and schools (the latter via its companion volume for children, Songs of Praise), The English Hymnal ensured that Christian worship became one of the most effective carriers of the folk revival, long after its ideological binding had foxed and faded.
While its aims – national and spiritual unity, deepening of local roots – were lofty and, to a degree, laudable, they presumed upon a ‘lost’ class of peasantry, untainted by mechanised culture, who were on the verge of dying out. As Georgina Boyes explored in The Imagined Village, her interrogation of the movement, this assumption was simply not borne out by its own fieldwork. The ‘Folk’ were essentially a construct, who needed to exist and so did – allowing the gatekeepers of the Revival to decide which among their values and traditions were legitimate, to further their missionary ends.
Social and political movements are prone to doing this, of course (as is the church whenever it presumes to know the mind of Christ) but their authority ceases in the moment they instrumentalise those they represent – or become remote from them, which is the usual counterpart. When, for one group of people, it becomes ideologically necessary for another group to act or think a certain way – the ‘white working class’, say – contact with reality soon disappears.
Frustrating though it can be to our causes, communal identity (past and present) is usually far more open and harder to categorise than we might imagine or need it to be, and is under continual renegotiation. The English village – a compact of ideal and reality – is peculiarly susceptible to being conscripted in ways that limit its potential, like the assumption it ought only to grow by a process of faithful reproduction, as it were a photograph, captured by time and unable to move. Unlike the fluid and mutable urban scene, the village must advance in freeze-frame: tracked by facsimiles of what was never static to begin with.
In 1946 Penguin Books published The Anatomy of the Village: an unusual manifesto for renewing rural life as the Post-War era began, written by the eminent planner Thomas Sharp. In this lucidly-written and (given the crimes of planning about to be committed on many provincial towns) surprisingly balanced report, Sharp notes how ‘something of a romantic fallacy has grown up round the idea of building in the country’, warning of the danger of ‘tradition gone morbid’. Respect for heritage was vital, but only if it really did offer life and growth, adding with emphasis: ‘true tradition is not a pool which has welled up at some particular moment of time and has remained stagnant ever since’. Sharp’s conclusion was that ‘simplicity’ of style and scale is the village’s defining character, which is perhaps why they lend themselves so readily to possession – and dispossession. Small communities are more stoutly defended because we who inhabit such places see them more immediately as ‘ours’: you can throw your arms around a village, and never let go.
They also retain a tenacious national significance, even when the vast majority of us no longer live in one. At home I am reading Ayisha Malik’s novel This Green and Pleasant Land, in which Bilal, a secular Muslim living in the pregnantly-named village of Babel’s End, seeks to enact his mother’s dying request that he build there a mosque and so recover his own inheritance of faith. It proves infinitely more provocative to start a mosque in Babel’s End than in Birmingham. The very word ‘hissed in the village hall’ as Bilal makes his proposal to the parish council, and the ensuing controversy (which involves an appropriately conflicted and liberal-minded vicar) centres around contested ideas of both heritage and Englishness, for which the church building offers an intense focus. It is a perceptive and generous-hearted story, which avoids tidy platitudes and finds hope in the patient forming of neighbourly relations – the essence, after all, of the village ethic.
All of which suggests that unless we rebuild the village, we will not rebuild England – or redefine its place within the United Kingdom, within Europe, and our unsettled world. Whatever realm we seek can only be located among people sometimes intolerably different from ourselves, but with whom we share undeniable common ground. England was long ago wedded to Christianity – too long ago, indeed, for that covenant to be claimed only by Anglicans. And just as its narrative once offered resources that proved uniquely advantageous to becoming one people from many, a trace memory of that promise remains, on a Half Term holiday named Whitsuntide. Traditionally this is when Christians commemorate the gift of the Holy Spirit, uncorked like spraying Prosecco over the internationals gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Each one, apparently, could hear the Gospel in their own tongue – and from this riot of translation the early church was impelled from confinement into the furthest reaches of the ancient world. Not the reversal of Babel, then, but its baptism – a Christening, not a flattening, of local particularity.
The Holy Ghost is a wraith from hereafter – breath of life in the face of death. Unlike others, this spirit is arrabon – foretaste of what is to come. Walking from Snap, sunlight sprinkled by shimmying leaves, I spot an overgrown stone placed by children from Toothill School, near Swindon, in honour of its departed people. Dated 1991, and that school now closed, it marks a memory of a memory, making me idly question whether there might also be signs hereabouts of lost villages as yet unconceived. After all, romances of the future have at least a fair chance of coming true.