I was back in England at the end of April, most of the time with my in-laws. They live in a sprawling village of 818 people between Stroud and Cirencester. It has a primary school, a pub and a village shop/sub-post office. A couple bought the shop as a (just) going concern three years ago. It’s been tough for them. The post office part of the business is run at a loss because the PO’s IT system continues to insist they are taking in more income than they actually are, a fault which Post Office Ltd refuses to fix or even acknowledge. Early on they asked the locals to tell them what they should stock. Many responded but few buy the goods they said they wanted. Only about a fifth of the 818 uses the shop regularly. The couple have added a delicatessen (“the smoked fish sells well; people tell us it’s better quality than Waitrose”) and gift section (“the tea towels are popular”). But they “barely break even.”
British readers will think a small village like that is lucky to still have a pub* let alone a shop. I agree. The Hampshire village of my childhood in the 1950s had at least seven shops, three pubs and a garage. Now it has a shop run by volunteers and one pub**.
The contrast with our village in the upper Dordogne valley is stark. The commune consists of the village itself, three farms, many holiday homes and several camp-sites on the two-kilometre wide flood plain on the north side of the river and a hamlet on the southern bank. Its population is 1316. It has two bakers, a pâtissier chocolatier, a butcher, a farmers’ cooperative shop (selling fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, wine and such local delicacies as foie gras and walnut oil), an ironmonger/kitchen shop, a stationer/newsagent, a bookshop/publisher, a haberdashery (also selling women’s lingerie), a computer repair/advice shop, a fashion boutique, a tailor, a pharmacy, a flower shop, four hairdressers, two banks, two garages, a driving school, a taxi company, a supermarket (with a petrol station), two beauty salons, two insurance agencies, two estate agents, two accountancy offices, two architects, a pizzeria, a crêperie, a fast-food joint, a café, a potter and a sculptor (both with small showrooms), two vets, two doctors (and various medical specialists), a dentist, a post office and a cinema. There are three schools, educating local children up to 15 years old, and a large retirement home. There are two small factories, employing 130 people, both providing specialist components for the likes of Airbus and Atlas Copco. Artisans abound, though getting any of them to come and do the work you have signed for is another matter; they are too busy. There are also two markets every week, all year, in the main square. Even in February there are always two fruit and vegetable stalls, a fishmonger, a cheesemonger and a butcher. At the height of summer the market has twice as many stalls.
The village’s customer catchment area is far wider than its administrative one, but the centre of the next door village is only four kilometres away and itself has, inter alia, a baker, a restaurant and a small supermarket. Moreover, there is an array of large supermarkets and chain stores within 15 minutes’ drive.
A British friend staying with us earlier this month described the village as “thriving” until I pointed out the number of empty shops in the main street and the trees growing out of the windows of the derelict hotel/restaurant on the way to one of the bakeries. I also told him that in the near five years we have been living here we have lost an optician, two doctors, a delicatessen and gift shop, two clothes shops and a bar, as well as several ventures – e.g. a pet grooming service and a shop selling sculptures made from scrap – which barely survived a single summer. Even so he wanted to know how it was possible for a village of this size in rural south-west France to still have so many shops and services. How much longer can this be sustained? What shops and services are thriving and why? Will the French inevitably follow the English, their rural communities mutating into accommodation for commuters and retired people, both reliant on their cars and the internet to get what they need to live? Or do current trends point to a future where French villages like ours – tightly-knit yet welcoming to outsiders, self-sufficient yet plugged into the outside world just as much as any town or city – will keep most of what they have?
Our village can survive and even prosper as long as several things happen. First, there must continue to be enough employment available locally. The signs are good. I heard last week that one of the two factories is taking on extra workers. If the government’s Labour Law reforms work, it should become less burdensome for all our local artisans to take on apprentices and keep them (and re-tile our roof, replace our chimney lining, install modern heating… sorry). One of the largest local employers, the retirement home, is confident that their income stream will keep flowing.
Secondly, we need to keep our schools if young families are going to stay. Pupil numbers are falling and there is talk that at least one will be closed and the places moved to a similar school in a small town 20 minutes from here. Yet the number of children in the village has not fallen. Instead more parents are sending their offspring to fee-paying private schools, fed up with falling standards at state schools. The closest is in another village, 10 minutes away.
There are two major advantages which French villages in areas like ours have over their English equivalents: low house prices relative to local earnings, and the vast influx of tourists in July and August. The former makes it easy for young people to stay here and will last as long as the supply of housing outstrips the demand, which it does several times over. As for the latter, the population of the Lot Department rises by 700% in the summer. Not a single shopkeeper would dream of going on holiday then; that’s when they make their money. Will French, Belgian, Dutch and British people stop coming to the Dordogne valley for their summer holidays? I think not.
The businesses doing well are those which either have adapted their service to fit in with what suits their customers or can provide something which Amazon cannot. The butcher in the market (champion butcher’s apprentice of France in 1995) closed the butchery he inherited from his father, set up his son as a butcher in a neighbouring village and delivers meat and ready-made meals over a wide area using his market van. A young man converted his internet café into an IT repair shop and spends his afternoons giving advice and help to computer illiterates like me. The customers of the haberdashery are women of a certain age who would not dream of buying their lingerie online (even if they knew how to) and are happy to pay extra for the excellent customer service the charming Fabienne gives them. I know of at least another seven businesses whose owners have innovated to survive.
Who runs these successful businesses? All bar Laurent, the market butcher, come from other parts of France. And many, sometimes most, of their customers are immigrants too (including us few foreigners and those summer tourists). The village-born prefer to shop in those big stores not far from here.
And who runs the shop in the Cotswolds village of my in-laws? A couple who immigrated from Miami; he is British, she is South American.
*It was in this village’s pub that my wife’s grandfather, Robert Mawdesley, heard the voice which he imitated when playing Walter Gabriel in the Archers, the 67-year old BBC radio soap opera of English country life. What did the fictional Ambridge look like in 1951?
**Named after the founder of Lord’s cricket ground, Thomas Lord, who is buried in the village. At least the village cricket team is still going strong.