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Locals - v - offcumdens: time to pull together?

Friday 31 March 2006

A competition to find the best village in North Yorkshire set our countryside commentator John Sheard to a-pondering on the conflict between locals and incomers that has changed the face of the 21st century communities

IT IS 20 years this year since I first heard the word "offcumden." And it was one of the unhappiest single moments of my life, casting a very long shadow indeed over what my wife and I had hoped to be a joyous, long-anticipated occasion.

As someone who had spent his youth wandering the Derbyshire Peak District on foot or bicycle, but who gone away to work in the big city, I had always longed to say goodbye to the urban rat race and set down some rural roots.

When that day finally came, after some 25 years of Fleet Street stress, my York-born wife and I bought a cottage in a Yorkshire Dales village which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent (and, thankfully, there were a few of those).

After the usual three days of hell of removals, we were more or less tided up and decided to celebrate by having Sunday lunch in the one-and-only village pub. I had barely taken the top of my first ever village pint when a local lady came up to me and snarled that we "offcumdens" were paying such ridiculous prices for property that we were forcing members of her family out.

Pulling together in the 21st Century village
Pulling together in the 21st Century village

Now although I had worked in big cities both here and abroad for a quarter of a century, I had always managed to live in rural or semi rural areas, even if it meant very long commutes. In our previous village high up in the Lancashire Pennines, the local farmers had been our best friends.

But here, hoping to relax and blend in with my wife, a lifelong ambition achieved at last, I was greeted with a vitriolic attack from a complete stranger. Yes, we were offcumdens, but we were innocent ones. We had taken a huge drop in income to move to the Dales, we were working and not wealthy retirees, and we wanted to become part of the community.

It never happened. The village was split down the middle between the locals - your family had to have lived there for three generations to qualify - or mainly wealthy newcomers from Bradford. The former didn't like us and we didn't particularly care for the latter so we ended up in limbo. We moved six miles after just 18 months and, I am delighted to report, have lived happily ever after.

What brought this bitter but now mainly forgotten episode to mind this week was the launch of a competition to find the best village in North Yorkshire, a project organised by the Yorkshire Rural Community Council and sponsored by the Calor Gas company (see News, Thursday).

Now this event is not about prettiness, like the better-known Tidy Britain or Britain in Bloom competitions (both of which, I should say, have my passionate support) but about "social inclusiveness" (a piece of modern jargon which in normal circumstances I despise).

But in this particular instance, it is a good phrase because the modern village in the 21st Century is completely unlike the ones I knew back in Derbyshire 50 years ago. Sad to say, they as a rule are no longer places which offer jobs for the locals, and here in the Dales many have been subject to large-scale invasions by offcumdens.

This is a problem which has studied by many voluntary organisations and government funded quangos and most have come up with similar conclusions: that although a large-scale influx of outsiders is often resented by the locals, the newcomers often breath new life into community life, their children help keep the village school open, and their cash helps the pub and village shop to survive.

In other words, both sets - locals and offcumdens - would be much happier working together than being at each others' throats. And that is the message that the rural community council is trying to get across with its Best Village competition.

For the past 20 years, I have done my best to press whatever skills I posses into supporting rural life (although journalists are of much less use in this than, say, drystone wallers or sheep shearers) but I am still and always shall be an offcumden.

So, I suppose, will be my daughter, although she went to Skipton High School. But here's a thought: she has just presented my wife and I with a bouncing grandson, born in Airedale General Hospital. Will he ever be able to make that proud boast, "I'm a local?" Another 20 years might give us the answer to that one.

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