Once-humble cottages have gone upmarket, but rural myths live on

DOROTHY PRICE has run the post office in the tiny rural village of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire, England, for 43 years. Her mother did it for 16 years before that.

Like her father, her late husband was a railway man. As she puts it, he was "the last one on the platform" when Adlestrop Station (internationally famous because of a poem about it by Edward Thomas) was closed in 1963. Except for three years, Mrs. Price has lived in Adlestrop, in many ways a typical English village, since 1921.

Things have changed vastly in this time. And they continue to do so. In 1936 she saw the school close. It is now a private house. She was one of its last pupils. "The room I knew," she says, "is now two bedrooms." She has seen the local "big house" family, the Leighs (relations of Jane Austen), lease their mansion to others as recently as the 1980s. "We lost the late Lord Leigh, you see," she says.

Mrs. Price herself was moved out of the house she was born in when "they wanted to do it up" and was put into the thatched cottage that now houses the post office. She pays rent, but almost all the other houses are now privately owned on long leaseholds. This means that young locals can no longer afford to live in the village. It also means that it may be difficult for the post office to continue when she decides to give it up. Her cottage is "very pretty," and it seems unlikely to her that a future occupant would want it to be a post office as well as a home.

On the plus side, Mrs. Price has watched the tourist appeal of Adlestrop grow. She is forever directing people to the famous but derelict train station. Ramblers frequent the village, setting out just behind the Village Hall, which Mrs. Price saw built in 1962. Today, the new inhabitants open their gardens to the public in June, for charity. Very popular.

But Mrs. Price has also seen the rectory vacated by the vicar and the church reduced to only one service every two weeks. The present vicar lives elsewhere. "He has got five parishes," she says.

She has seen fewer and fewer jobs for farm workers - the very people the village existed to house - and the fields, once working farms, taken over by stables for upscale residents' horses.

She says that - apart from the school buses that take children like her granddaughters to school in other villages - there are as few as four buses a week serving Adlestrop. The bus companies (one an enterprising volunteer company called The Villager) would provide more if needed. But most Adlestrop citizens today have cars. Mobility is certainly required: There is no grocery store in the village.

Mrs. Price is a cheerful, perky woman. She finds the new, mainly retired inhabitants of her village (who have come "from all around" - London, Yorkshire, wherever) very friendly. But she has also seen a great many of the villagers she grew up with disappear. "There are only about two of us now," she says, "that are really village people."

In England, the words "village" and "village people" carry special connotations. Small, rural, and close-knit, the image of a village is quite different from that of a town and is something of an idyllic myth in the national imagination. Surprisingly, however, quite a number of the estimated 13,000 villages in England do have all the appearance, even today, of living up to the ideal.

But appearances can be deceiving. In the past, villages were often less romantic than the myth. The living conditions of the mostly poorly paid workers could be miserable. There was little contact with the outside world. Ironically, it is the prettier examples of such villages that today are magnets to middle-class home buyers who dream of rustic bliss. But are today's appearances also misleading? "There has been an influx of new people to rural England in the last 20 years," Jeremy Fennell says. "This causes some problems for the indigenous population."

Mr. Fennell is head of rural policy for an eight-year-old charity called Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE). The rural population is growing much faster than the urban population - 7.6 percent since 1981, compared with a national average rate of 2.7 percent. Sociologists have even invented a term for it: "counter-urbanization."

ACRE's business is to identify and help alleviate some of today's rural problems: transportation, poverty, and homelessness, for example.

The estimated rural population in England has reached about 11 million, according to Fennell, which is just over 21 percent of the population. "The paradox is that services aren't increasing accordingly," he says.

Homelessness is a problem, he adds, and is increasing faster than in urban areas. Some 12 percent of all the English people classified as homeless from 1992 to 1993 were in rural areas. By June 1993, 4,542 families were in temporary accommodations in the countryside. There are fewer new homes being built in rural areas, he notes.

And Fennell points out that poverty in the countryside can be more hidden than in cities. One reason is that country people often take in relatives who have lost their homes. "Country people keep up fronts," he says.

RURAL ORDER: Hedgerows neatly divide harvested from unharvested fields in Oxfordshire (top). A friendly goat grazes in the Yorkshire village of Thornton Watlass.

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