Wednesday afternoon at about 3.30 in Chuffleigh is like Wednesday afternoon, at about 3.30 in any other small village in Devon. Except for the fact that Chuffleigh feels as though it has been cut off from the rest of societyfor some time; almost frozen in time perhaps back to some year in the late seventies.
In years gone by, Chuffleigh had seemed more connected to the modern world, and more vital, yet the clockwork of life within the village seems never to have had a beginning.
The Old Garage stands halfway down the main high street opposite the village church; virtually abandoned. The rusting hand dials which measured out fuel that was delivered by the attended service staff of the past , have not turned for years. The ancient seventies British Leyland signage is still present, but the garage itself has been locked (or so we thought) for years, the interior still visible through its unusual concertina glass doors which were folded back during the day revealing the formerly busy workshop.
The narrow, single road, running through the village connects the small network of village streets forming the fabric of the village itself, is rough and unkempt, and a source of constant complaint to The Parish Council of St Nigel’s.
The river Chuff rises in the millpools at the back of the village, and trickles underneath its single tiny humpbacked bridge opposite The Old Bakery, eventually finding its way into the dappled shade behind the church of St Nigel on the Chuff, and outward to Felchingham, eventually meeting the sea at Chuffmouth 25 miles further on.
Even the now abandoned railway cutting points to a busier past. Not that there was ever a station at Chuffleigh – the nearest branch line station was down the road at Chuffmore about three miles away. The choice of Chuffmore had been a source of bitterness in the past, since a station at Chuffleigh would certainly have brought more prosperity; in the minds of the villagers this somehow made Chuffmore more important than Chuffleigh. Now, since The Beeching Report in 1963, the branch line has long since been uprooted, and all that remains now is a deep overgrown cutting leading off to Felchingham.
The creation of The Village Shop had been the vicar’s idea. The reverend Colin Hardcandle had taken up his appointment at St Nigels some six years earlier, having spent time at St Collins (no connection) in Felchingham, where he had seen – to great effect, how beneficial a thriving shop can be for the community. The vicar seemingly tries to present himself as a ‘modern’ man of the church by introducing himself to new potential members of his flock, as ‘Reverend Colin’. But, as with many old fashioned village communities, and oddly – he thought, the younger, mainly unruly lads of the village, he is surprised they prefer using his formal title, ‘Reverend Hardcandle’, usually followed by a quick snort of uncontrollable laughter.
The Reverend lives in the vicarage by himself – well, with the exception of his aging dog Bonker, a small wirey and rather smelly border terrier. It is rather hard to explain why, but Bonker smelt very distinctly of very strong popcorn. Musky, deeply unpleasant, and omnipresent. They say that the sense of smell can trigger memory recall like no other sense; unfortunately for the villagers Chuffleigh, the pleasure of opening a pack of popcorn will be ruined forever. Like many old dogs, his breath was the most eye watering of a number of fragrances he unknowingly emitted; choking – like nerve gas. Bonker had been ‘rescued’ by The Reverend after he’d been told by the local farming family, Giles and Jilly Farmer, that they didn’t want him anymore, and
“If you don’t take him Vicar, it’ll be down to the vets and onwards up to that big doghouse in the sky”, Giles Farmer said, rather matter of factually.
Just before Bonker’s transfer of ownership from the Farmers, the Reverend Hardcandle enquired about Bonker’s unusual name.
“We just called him that because he is a bit mad, didn’t we Jill?” replied Giles rather awkwardly, and now increasingly keen to get the exchange done and dusted as soon as possible.
The truth was that Bonker shagged everything with four legs within his increasingly failing field of view. Such was his enthusiasm for his sport that sometimes, he widened his selection criteria to include two legs. Hence ‘Bonker’. And not because was a bit bonkers, as the Reverend later recalled on very many quiet strolls out, where he was compelled to physically intervene during some of Bonkers more enthusiastic hip-action conquests. Nothing, and no one was safe, he realised.
The Village Shop itself sells everything. Well, everything edible and drinkable that is. Chuffleigh has money, so that is top scoff, and top booze. It is also a Post Office, and outside the shop is a small adverts cabinet. ‘Rageh Scoobs Taxis – We’ll drive you, so you don’t have to’ reads one of the least creative adverts, written by Rageh himself. It is also without doubt the social centre of the village, the big switchboard where scandal is propelled from a single person to the entire village. It is run by four members of the village community, the foremost member being Marjorie Growler, a stern, rather matronly lady who is not to be tangled with under any circumstances.
Mrs Growler and the Reverend Hardcandle have never really hit things off, and that is really not just with regard to the shop. Mrs Growler’s matronliness and general fustiness should not be confused with naivety, whereas The Reverend is no doubt naïve, especially with regard to the more ‘physical’ aspects of his flock’s marital worries, who nevertheless still misguidedly rely on him for dispensing solutions to their marital discord. These are the high and low pressure weather systems of their relationship which frequently collide with such ferocity.
Mrs Growler had fallen out with the Vicar some five years previously after he had introduced the idea of the shop to the community. The idea of a shop had been welcomed as a universally good thing, but rather like an over enthusiastic puppy dog, he had done all of the running himself, including the composition of business plans and researching suitable locations.
Finding a location had been harder than he expected. The first choice should really have been The Old Garage, given that it had lain idle for so long, perhaps thirty years or more. However, the rather hushed up ‘incident’ involving Hugo Farmer, Giles and Jilly Farmer’s dashing but rather naughty 24 year old son some 12 months previously, had pushed it out of reach as a choice for the shop’s location, and it definitely rendered the site unsuitable for any activity involving food, at least in the mind of the Vicar. This state of affairs rather perplexed the rest of the village, who were not aware of the truth and did not understand why The Old Garage was still not on the list.
Instead, a purpose built site was found next to the old telephone exchange, and built from scratch with funds raised by a seemingly endless run of Raffles and Cheese & Wine evenings, and then built by the local builders, Jeff Hardon, and his son, Ivor at next to no cost.
Mrs Growler, who since retiring to Chuffleigh with her husband Graham had been keen to get involved with the Community, had heard about the shop and decided to find out more. She had suggested to the vicar that she’d like to play a leading part in the shop, and the vicar, realising this could be a way of releasing some of his well needed time, agreed.
They met over tea at the Vicarage, and Reverend Hardcandle showed Mrs Growler the incorporation documents for the shop. She noted with a nod that he had incorporated it in his own name, Reverend Colin Quentin Edgar Hardcandle, so no problem there. Then she noted that the shop had taken on the formal business name ‘Chuffleigh Union Neighbourhood Trading Co.’, which immediately paused her enthusiastic munching of one of the digestive biscuits the vicar had provided, and brought on a an obvious and prolonged stare of disbelief at the black and white print she had in her left hand. There was also a considerable and uncomfortable silence. Except for Bonker, who with what seemed to be a small smile, punctuated the silence with what they all knew would inevitably cause them to gag involuntarily.
“Is there anything wrong Mrs Growler?”, the vicar enquired, trying to keep on-subject despite Bonkers atmospheric contributions.
“Oh no. Definitely no!” Mrs Growler protested, shaking her head repeatedly, distributing a few of the biscuit crumbs which had become loosely connected with Mrs Growlers mouth during the mastication process.
“We can’t use that name for the shop. Look at the acronym the words form vicar!” she pointed out.
Reverend Hardcandle looked. And looked. Eventually, realising his massive faux pas, he instantly turned a deep shade of crimson, and fully agreed with Mrs Growler that the shop could not be called Chuffleigh Union Neighbourhood Trading Co. At the same time he recalled, a year or so previously, a couple of unexplained and baffling incidences of uncontrollable sniggering as he was registering the business name. Now, it dawned on him why that was.
At that point in time, some inescapable truths and some social positioning in the village took place. Firstly, Reverend Hardcandle realised it could not ‘get out’ that he had registered the village shop with a name like this. This in itself meant he had to trust Mrs Growler not to reveal it. To trust her, meant he had to concede fully to her demands of having a hand in running the shop, and at the same moment, she knew she had carte blanche to fix the problem the vicar had created, thus leading to full control of his project.
Chuffleigh Village Shop opened to great fanfare some six months later. Jeff and Ivor were allowed to place a sign on the shop exterior proudly reminding the village who had erected it, something that even Mrs Growler hadn’t spotted the horrendous consequences of. Reverend Hardcandle attended with Bonker on a very tight leash – he had also taken the precaution of ensuring Bonker had not eaten any meat-based dog food that day, just in case. Marjorie Growler wore her best hat, and Rageh Scoobs offered 5% discount on taxi fares to Felchingham all day – something he was surprised nobody took up.