A few days ago, I picked up on news of Totnes. Allegedly, democracy was dead in Totnes.
Why? A ‘right-on’ whole food business had vacated their premises; not gone bust, just moved to a new home. Oxfam was mooted as a worthy successor to their previous home. Oxfam is approved of in the same vein as whole-foods by the politically active denizens of Totnes. That’s when democracy apparently vacated Totnes. For Oxfam declined the offer, and the Landlord exercised his democratic right to rent the new premises to anyone who would pay the rent. ‘Right’, ‘Landlord’? These are mutually exclusive terms in Totnes. Rights only belong to the right-on.
The new tenant was Costa Coffee. Totnes cognoscenti was horrified. They petitioned the council, they formed action groups, they got themselves on the local radio, they invited the Guardian to write of their imminent peril. Totnes was a ‘naice‘ town, it already had 40 coffee shops selling wholemeal sesame seed cake and fair trade coffee, they didn’t want Costa Coffee. Their fear was that uneducated oafs might come to Totnes and actually prefer Costa Coffee, and drive the worthy sandal wearing Fair Trade vendors out of town. People must be protected from their stupidity – Costa should be banned in Totnes.
They lost. Costa won. Hence the liberal belief that ‘democracy was dead’.
I didn’t write of it at the time, but it has come back to haunt me this morning. I have just read ‘Sir Roy Strong’s Ludlow‘ in the Telegraph. I don’t know Totnes that well, but I do know Ludlow, and I well remember a similar campaign in Ludlow. This time it was Tesco’s not Costa.
The ‘Stop Tesco’s’ campaign went on for years. Years and years. Money was raised, angry meetings held, radio interviews conducted, newspaper badgered, some people devoted their entire lives to the ‘Stop Tesco’s’ campaign.
You might be wondering at this point just why companies like Tesco’s or Costa Coffee fight so hard to be allowed to trade in towns where they are so manifestly ‘unwanted’. Surely it is commercial suicide? I would argue that they are more liberal than the liberal cognoscenti.
Let us return to ‘Sir Roy Strong’s Ludlow’. It is, as he describes, a world of hand made organic sausages, bookbinders in shops with bow windows (when did you last see a High Street Bookbinder?), myriad antique shops, Georgian houses (average house price £572,863), paint shops that sell nothing but Farrow and Ball paint (choice? Who would buy anything else?), cheesemongers with an eye wateringly expensive range of foreign cheeses, bakers skilled in the art of peasant bread, and more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else outside of London – all encased in a close knit jostle of medieval Grade ll listed properties based round a historic castle. Nowhere cheered louder than Sir Roy Strong’s Ludlow when Woolworth’s went out of business, it was the only ‘downmarket’ store in town.
It is not Ludlow though, merely ‘Sir Roy Strong’s Ludlow’. A well preserved playpen for the Metropolitan elite when they want to play country. I used to shop there, and wondered why the cheesemongers beautiful hand-made glass windows were smashed in periodically, why the local paper carried reports of violent town centre fights with knives – were the liberal elite who occupied these houses really so unruly?
Many years ago the railway came to Ludlow. It coursed its path a respectful distance from the mansions of the wealthy wool merchants, on the outskirts of town. Today, if you walk to the edge of town, past the twee Wisteria Cottages, the Dower Houses, the Court Houses, you will come to open fields. What wonderful lives these people must live, surrounded by such beauty. A the edge of the fields are thickets of tall trees. Walk towards those trees one day – for unless you fall upon the little-known underpass at Rock Lane, it is the only chance you will have to access Ludlow’s real secret from ‘Sir Roy Strong’s Ludlow’. Through the trees are paths, paths beaten down by hundreds of feet, nay thousands. Not gentile dog walkers; human beings, in search of food.
You see, the other side of those railway tracks, the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ indeed, was built a secret Ludlow. One that is never mentioned. Hidden more successfully from liberal eyesight than ever was the railway. Multiple thousands of Ludlow inhabitants live there; in houses, when they own them, of an average value of £84,368 . Many times more than live in the Disneyworld playpen. You will have found the Sandpits Estate. Or ‘The Pits’ as it is known for good reason.
Tesco’s knew they were there. Tesco’s knew that the inhabitants were overwhelmingly unemployed. Michelin starred restaurants prefer to hire Jemima on her gap year than a girl who has rarely eaten at a table, much less waited on one. Antique shops have little use for a sales assistant who privately aspires to a DFS sofa. Tesco’s knew that ‘The Pits’ possessed two shops in those days, a news-agent and tobacconist and a Spar shop. They knew, too, that the inhabitants would buy own brand ‘Value Added’ sausages in preference to the overpriced organic paprika and Chianti offerings on sale in what had become a ‘gourmet food market’ rather than the food market hosted by old Ludlow.
Tesco’s won in the end, and they built what the cognoscenti refer to as ‘Tesco’s Revenge’. Possibly the ugliest building in Ludlow. A zinc sheeted monstrosity that owes its architecture to the cattle sheds it replaced. The architects tried hard with the verbal hyperbole. Allegedly it follows ‘the flowing lines of Corve Street blending seamlessly into the landscape’. Like Hell.
It is a brutally functional temple of chicken nuggets, DVDs, cheap paint, and top up cards for your mobile phone. A cheap cafe too, with sticky buns and strong tea. It is packed every day. Aisles full of overflowing trolleys. An overwhelming commercial success. In spite of the noisy liberals who insisted that Tesco’s was neither wanted nor needed in their playground.
Do any of you know Totnes well enough to tell me whether the same hidden demographics apply there? Are there really only Fair Trade coffee drinkers living there?