Lately I have been thinking about the differences between small town USA, where we used to live, and a village in the Cotswolds, where we live now. I have been comparing my daily life here and to my life in the US. The differences are not big, but there are differences and I think they are caused by the way the towns and villages are situated here. The physical layout of this place affects how I live.
England is a small and crowded island, with a population of 51 million and a density of 1023 people per square mile.* It is the second most densely populated country in Europe (Malta is first), and it is densest where we are in the south. Everything has to be smaller so that it will all fit. The cars are smaller, the roads are narrower, the houses are smaller, things have less space between them.
The only way that I have come up with to describe the differences is to start with a model of an American small town and then turn it into an English village.
Create a Model of an American Small Town
Get out your lego pieces. Make a grid. Put down rows of houses on straight roads. Each house sits in the middle of its property and has a driveway, a garage, a front yard and a back yard. Main Street in the center of town has the shops. Let’s ignore the hideous box stores and strip malls for now (we have those here too). The town sprawls out and ends, then the countryside begins. If you are lucky there is a National Forest or State Park outside town for hiking, or some good parks in town.
Now, let’s turn this American small town into an English village.
Transform the American Houses to English Cottages
The average house size in England is 800 square feet. You get a small kitchen with an under the counter fridge. No laundry room because the washing machine is in the kitchen. Forget the clothes dryer, we hang our clothes on racks that spend a day or two in a hallway or near a sunny window. There will be a dining room if you are lucky, or maybe an eat-in kitchen – or you may have to squeeze a small table into a corner of the living room (which they call a lounge). The bedrooms are smaller than American bedrooms. What they call a “single”, I call a “closet”.
Now you have the typical English cottage, but we are not finished. Stretch it up to three levels. Remember this island is small so the houses must have a small footprint. There are houses on one level (bungalows), but most houses are two, three, even four levels. Make the staircases narrow and steep because you don’t want to waste too much floor space on them. (You have to have healthy knees to live in an English cottage.)
Change the American Town into Villages Scattered Around a Town
Next we change the layout of the town. In your model divide the town into segments. One segment will be the larger town, the rest will be villages.
Create your first village. Wrap your hands around a group of houses and streets and squeeze them all together into the center. You get a heap of houses surrounded by green space.
The houses are no longer in nice rows – four or five of them may be lined up and attached (a terrace). Sometimes two stick together (semi-detached). Occasionally one falls into its own space (detached). Frequently they jumble together so that you have to go through the garden of one house to get to the house behind. Instead of each house having a good sized front and back yard, some have gardens, some have small courtyards, some have no garden. Hardly any of them end up with a driveway and a garage – waste of space anyway when you can park on the street.
A few houses fall back the way they started – detached house, garage, driveway, front and back gardens. These are the 1980s housing estates built on the edges of English towns and villages. Driving through these areas I feel like I am back in the US (except these houses are much smaller than you find in US neighborhoods).
During this transformation the roads become narrow, usually one lane. Maybe a little wider to let everyone park their cars. Driving on roads in villages is always a challenge – you dodge and weave your way down a street.
Create the rest of your villages and then the town, which is just a slightly larger version of a village. What you end up with is a dense small town, surrounded by countryside and dense villages. Villages back onto farm fields or woods or open common land. No matter where you live in a village, you are close to the countryside.
The Special Ingredient – The Countryside and Public Access to Private Land
And that is what makes all the difference in the English village – the proximity to rural life. Sheep, cows and horses grazing in some fields, crops growing in others. Large areas of protected woodland. Working farms outside the villages.
The countryside is crisscrossed by footpaths. Some of them go along rivers or through protected woodlands, others go through farm fields. We have walked on some footpaths that go right into someone’s garden and out the other side. I am waiting to find a footpath that goes through someone’s house!
England’s “public access to private land” means you can live close to your neighbors but be walking in beautiful countryside in a few minutes. You don’t have to own your piece of the countryside, it is there for us all to use.
My English Village
Our house is in a group of five attached houses. Its footprint is small because the house is on three levels (one and half rooms per level). We are on the edge of a village with farm fields and woodland outside our front door. We put on our hiking boots and head out on the miles of trails. When we get bored with these trails we drive over to the next valley.
Instead of living in a small town like Santa Fe and driving through town to different neighborhoods, I drive through farmlands to the next village. Or to town. I drive to the Waitrose in Stroud for groceries. For the Post Office or to pickup a newspaper I walk up the hill to the center of my village. The best bakery is in Nailsworth. For afternoon tea we go to Minchinhampton. If I need something from a department store like Marks and Spencer, I drive to Cheltenham. Everything is within a 30 minute drive.
The reason that we are living in an English village, instead of an American small town, is the access to the footpaths and walking trails. We used to vacation here for a couple of weeks each year, just to go walking. Now we are lucky enough to go walking year-round. The sun just came out – time to put on our boots and go for a walk!
We spent 20 years in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is as close to a European small town as you get in the US – it is a few hundred years old with neighborhoods of historic houses, the center of town does not have high-rise buildings but is a collection of historic buildings around a plaza (like the “piazza” in Italy or the “village green” in England), houses are jumbled together and many of the roads are narrow. Our house in Santa Fe was historic and small, probably about the same as the one we are in now, but on one level. And we had a driveway and a garage. We had good access to hiking trails in the Santa Fe National Forest, which was close by, but nothing like the amount and variety of trails that we have here.
* From Wikipedia – England, 395 people per square kilometer (1 square mile = 2.58998811 square kilometres).