Plague, War, Trains, Cars, Things New Can't Kill English Village : Countryside: One such, Hatfield Broad Oak, was thriving when William the Conqueror rampaged across the land in 1066.

It's a tourist's dream of old England, with a haunted pub dating from the 16th Century, historic homes lining the High Street and an imposing Medieval church.

Yet no souvenir shops spoil the ancient facades, and tour buses shun the winding roads that lead to its quaint neighbors--Molehill Green, Matching Tye, Matching Green, Bacon End, High Easter, White Roothing, Abbess Roding and Little Laver.

Hatfield Broad Oak is just one of thousands of villages in England, their anonymity and peace assured by their very numbers.

"This has remained a real community," said Edna Halls. "I lived away once, but I hated it." Now in middle age, she works the dairy farm her grandfather bought in 1900.

Hatfield Broad Oak was thriving when William the Conqueror rampaged across the land in 1066. England's villages have survived plague, civil war, industrialization, railroads and automobiles, defying centuries of doomsayers announcing their imminent disappearance.

David Hodgson, vicar of St. Mary's Church, calls the village "a fascinating microcosm of English life."

"You've got your farmers, but you've got your London stockbrokers too," he said. "And there is a face-to-face intimacy you don't get in town."

Dukes and counts in earlier centuries were attracted by the hunting grounds of Hatfield Forest, a mile away.

The 1,100 current residents are more likely to be bankers, teachers or antique dealers, lured from London by the tranquillity, wide skies and vivid vistas of wheat and yellow rapeseed. The capital is a 40-minute train ride away.

"We wanted to live in the countryside," said botanist Jo Bridge, who moved from London last winter with her husband, Martin, another botanist, and infant son, Christopher. "And I have made more friends here in five months than I did during years in London."

John Milton summed up England's love of the country-village life in "Paradise Lost" in 1667:

As one who long in populous city pent,

Where house thick and sewers annoy the air.

Forth issuing on a summer's morn to breathe

Among the pleasant villages and farms

Adjoin'd, from each thing met conceives delight.

Inevitably, newcomers bring change. Modern housing developments loop around the ancient center of Hatfield Broad Oak and cars crowd the main street that was once a wagon route between London and Great Dunmow, 5 miles to the northeast.

The local bakery and haberdashers have given up the unequal struggle with supermarkets in nearby towns. The general store ("Use Us or Lose Us") and the butcher carry on; a computer dealership, antique shop and clothing rental shop cater to special interests.

Some long-term residents mourn for the past.

"In the old days you knew everybody and you never locked a door," said Grace Gunn, 79, who has lived here all her life.

"We were all sociable then. Now people don't have the time," she said. In bygone years there was only one car in the village. "It was the doctor's and it only went 5 m.p.h.," she said. "If you were having a baby, you just had to wait."

She recalls village fetes with their stalls and choirs and competitions for outsize vegetables, all presided over by the vicar. No one seems to know why they stopped.

"I don't open many fetes now but village groups still like to think the church is taking a benign interest," Hodgson said.

"Someone once said to me: 'It's nice to know you're there, like the village clock."'

Among nearly 20 local clubs and organizations there is an amateur dramatics society that stages three lively performances a year, including a Christmas pantomime. Thespian Tony Ringwood said audiences love the inevitable mistakes: "I think some people come just for that."

The Women's Institute rallies housewives to fund-raisers and discussion evenings. Apprentice campanologists peal the bells of St. Mary's twice a week.

The country flavor is fiercely guarded by the 170-strong local branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

"We can be very rude to people in order to preserve the character of the village," said chairman Fred Wood.

They write protest letters when off-course aircraft from nearby Stansted Airport roar over the village. They fought to stop the building of a malodorous pig-fattening facility on the village rim, but lost.

The Domesday Book, the tax survey commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086, found 115 households in Hatfield Broad Oak. Ancient mysteries hover like a cloud of local Essex mist.

Pub owner Andrew Stock said a female ghost has been sighted several times in an upper room at the Cock Inn.

"We've no idea who she is," he said. "But she's frightened a few people."

No one knows who battered the stone effigy of Sir Robert de Vere, a beneficent 13th-Century lord of the manor, which lies in the nave of St. Mary's, draped in chain mail, its face and upper torso shattered.

Local historian Brian Pugh speculates that the damage dates from the 16th Century, when King Henry VIII closed the nation's monasteries. The effigy, Pugh speculates, was ripped out of the local Benedictine priory and "unceremoniously dumped in the church yard to be ravaged by time, the elements and any passing yeoman with a tool to sharpen."

Richard Rich, who committed perjury to ensure the conviction and execution of Sir Thomas More, was made lord of the manor here by Henry.

Rich interrogated suspected heretics in the 1540s, Pugh said, and "personally tortured a noblewoman called Anne Askewe on the rack in the Tower of London."

Pugh has found enough history in Hatfield Broad Oak to fill a 60-page book, and the manuscript is still growing.

Such ancient associations impart "a sense of continuity," Hodgson said.

But some things frustrate him about St. Mary's, where every century since the 11th has left its mark:

"My ambition is to go into the third Christian millennium with a toilet in my church."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World