Penelope Keith’s top five British villages

In her new show Hidden Villages, The Good Life actress has been exploring Britain’s hamlets – now she says we must do more to support life outside our cities

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Many of Westminster’s elite have rural constituencies. Others own vast tracts of the countryside. But do any truly understand the tests and trials of those who live there? For Penelope Keith, recently returned to her own quiet corner of Surrey after a peripatetic month filming a new three-part series, Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages, the answer is an emphatic “No!”

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“It was the cry I heard everywhere I went, the same one I hear all the time even in places really near to London: ‘They don’t know what life is like for us. They don’t know and don’t care.’ Time was MPs considered themselves the representatives of the people…” Here she pauses to explain away a snuffle (“Merely a cold, not man flu”) and gives just the hint of a sniff. “Now, of course, it’s a career in itself.”

But the actress whose role as the socially ambitious Margo Leadbetter in 1970s sitcom The Good Life established her as part of the national TV landscape was cheered by the way in which rural-dwellers (and crucially among them, the young) are rising to their varied challenges. “If my travels taught me anything, it’s that people are incredibly resilient and also creative where their communities are concerned.”

While national headlines are generated by those major, external threats to the environment in specific places – the proposed HS2 train line as it forges north from Euston, say, or fracking – Keith fears an ongoing deterioration in the quality of life elsewhere goes unnoticed. “Local shops close because those with cars drive to supermarkets on the edge of nearby towns. Post offices and pubs close, too. These are important social hubs, vanishing week by week.”

Keith, 74, generated column inches herself last year by suggesting property prices are being inflated by so-called “silver splitters”, divorcing couples with the means to disperse into two separate homes instead of remaining in a shared one. Second-home owners provoke mixed feelings, too. “They bring in money, but if young people can’t then afford to stay where they’ve lived all their lives… And don’t talk to me about ‘affordable’ housing at £300k. Whose idea of affordable is that?”

Rural Britain remains a dream destination for many millions of us. Series like The Archers fuel the appealing fantasy of close-knit village life. Despite its phenomenal death count, so does Midsomer Murders. “Beautifully filmed and I love seeing so many of my contemporaries make appearances in it,” Keith notes approvingly. But what’s her advice for townies actually contemplating moving to the country?


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“Ask not what your village can do for you. Ask what you can do for your village. Look to get involved. Go into the post office, if there still is one, or local shop and find out what’s going on. There is a support network in most villages, albeit mainly voluntary. My parish magazine is absolutely full of information about special interest groups, up to and including line dancing.” Line but not pole? “Er, not yet, no.” Her appreciation of the British countryside began in childhood, with family holidays taken in Somerset, Cornwall or Scotland. And while the travelling life of an actor has seen her perform or film all across the UK, the filming of Hidden Villages introduced Keith to splendours new. “Anglesey? Quite beautiful. And Norfolk, which I didn’t really know. So many wonderful places. I’m loath to single out any personal favourites but if you insist…”

1. ROSSENDALE VALLEY
“My husband Rodney is from this part of Lancashire, so I’ve had my very own guide to the area. The landscape is stunning and I love the weeny village of Wycoller (right), which is overlooked by mighty Pendle Hill, a landmark forever associated with witch trials.”

3. BUDE, CORNWALL “You didn’t go abroad for holidays when I was a girl. If, like me, you were from London, you just went south or west. I’ve such happy memories of Bude. And as they’re childhood ones, it seems like the sun was always shining there.”


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4. BANCHORY, ABERDEENSHIRE
“I had family there and still do. Driving up the old A1 to visit used to take two whole days, with an overnight stop at a B&B in Morpeth. I learnt to swim in the sea at nearby Stonehaven. Even now I can remember the coldness of the water.”

5. SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY
“A perk of working in theatre is that your days are often free. I spent a year with the RSC in Stratford- upon-Avon and so had lots of opportunity to explore this part of Warwickshire and some of its lovely towns and villages, like Henley-in-Arden.”

Watch Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages tonight at 9pm on More4


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Go on a rural retreat with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details