The stopping train to Oxford, getting off at Didcot Parkway on my way to a family funeral: a trip through an England of picturesque railway stations and houseboats on the Thames and car parks filled with commuters’ cars and helpful railwaymen who tell you platform details and train times from the top of their heads; an England where people smile and say “Good morning” to the clergyman who passes them in the street. Perhaps these are Chesterton’s “Secret People”, the ones who make one feel that the British passport inside the left inside jacket pocket is still something to cherish. Their England is still rich in culture, in traditions probably unknown in even the next village.
In the village in the west of England where I was baptized, an uncle I meet at the funeral tells me of a parade in his Somerset village in two weeks’ time. The members of the village Friendly Society will go on their annual walk, as they have done since 1818.
In the days before any welfare system other than the most meagre parish relief. The friendly societies sprang up as self help societies, groups of working people who paid into a fund that would help if one fell sick or died. In Long Sutton the Friendly Society had a “club day” ever year on Trinity Monday. It began with a church service in the morning at which the club banner was laid on the altar. The service was followed by the annual walk, a tour of local farms, a different area of the village each year, where club members were served with refreshments.
In a welfare state, the Friendly Society has become a social organization and their club day has moved to a Saturday, but they still walk each year, though the drinking has been curtailed. Club days in the past were an occasion for a “booze up”, with some barely able to walk home at the end of the day, it would be considered an abuse of hospitality now to arrive drunk at a house or farm.
After the funeral, we stand inside the local British Legion where tables are weighed down with sandwiches and pastries and sausages and Scotch eggs and cakes and gateaux; ladies of the Legion providing the “light” refreshments. The names of past villagers who died on some foreign battlefield, or at the local RAF station, are commemorated on the walls. Photographs of men, who will remain forever young, smile across the decades.
There is an England that can only be found if you look for it, an England without hoodies, shopping malls, or any of the stories that fill the popular press. There is an England still secure with itself; with polished cars, neat gardens and good manners. A hard working, private people who take all that is thrown at them and still bid you “Good day”.
Perhaps the reason the secret people have never spoken is that they have no need to.
Long Sutton club members dressed in 19th century garb to participate in a 1993 village pageant that marked the 500th anniversary of the dedication of the church tower in 1493