As thousands of country pubs, shops and post offices have shut down over the past few decades, loneliness has become an increasingly serious problem for village folk with nowhere left to meet and socialise.
Now, however, those rural communities are finding a new vitality from an unlikely source – their village halls.
Throughout the country, some 10,000 village halls are casting aside their image of scuffed lino floors and battered tea urns to bring people together in droves.
Home buyers like to get a sense that their new location has a community spirit
Hickling, on the Norfolk Broads, used to have 15 shops until 20 years ago; now every one of them has closed.
‘That wasn’t so bad for people who’d lived here all their lives, who knew each other and had cars to drive to the nearest shops,’ says Yvonne Pugh, secretary of the hall.
‘But retirees, who moved to Hickling, had nowhere to meet other people.’
The turnaround of the village came in 2012 when, following a dramatic make-over, the locals started using the hall for everything from quiz and curry nights to Pilates and yoga classes.
‘The hall is the social centre of the village now,’ says Pugh. ‘New faces are absorbed very easily into the community.’
A vibrant village hall will have a considerable effect on the property market.
‘People buy into a lifestyle when they move to a village,’ says Rupert Sweeting, head of national country sales at Knight Frank. ‘A thriving social scene focused on the hall adds at least 10 per cent to house prices.’
Some canny committees have the nous to provide activities in their hall which match the needs of the locals. In Braishfield, Hampshire, for example, the closure of the three shops had a disastrous effect.
Not only did everyone have to drive to Romsey for supplies, others – the smallholders – lost an outlet for their produce.
The solution was to build a farm shop and next to it a cafe, which between them employ 40 volunteers.
This is a mixed-age community and sports teams meet up in the hall, where tennis and art sessions take place when the mother and toddler group hasn’t booked the facilities.
‘People start and finish their country walks here,’ says Ian Knight, 68, chairman of the hall committee. ‘So we benefit both socially and in terms of well-being.’
Newcomers to village life sometimes complain that they miss out on the latest films. That isn’t something you’ll hear in the smart commuter village of Ramsbury, Wiltshire, where the 200 locals are quick to buy their £4 tickets for the Ramsbury Roxy in the Memorial Hall.
‘We have a proper electric screen and get all the latest films,’ says organiser Keith Mantle. ‘The pub serves fish and chips before the show and we have a bar where everyone can meet afterwards.’
The hall in Ramsbury is also used by amateur dramatic groups, the Ramsbury Players; the choir — Bella Voce — and various dance classes.
A transport group, which meets in the hall, also does much to make up for the local skeletal bus service.
The Ramsbury Flyer takes groups – mainly of elderly residents – on shopping trips to Hungerford, Marlborough and Newbury.
‘They enjoy the chat in the bus as much as the shopping,’ says Mantle. ‘In summer, there are trips to the seaside.’
Village halls are also proving to be ideal venues for musicians and entertainers.
In Mylor, Cornwall, resident Steve Hutt has showbusiness connections and has brought the likes of comedian Jack Dee and composer John Williams to the Mylor Sessions at the local hall.
Jazz shows at Goring Village Hall, Oxfordshire, have starred the late musicians George Melly and Chris Barber, while Nettlebed Village hall is considered one of the best folk clubs in the country.
The likes of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Ralph McTell – all of whom have filled the Royal Albert Hall – sing for the locals.
What is the attraction of playing in a village hall? ‘Performing under the spotlight in a big theatre means you can see nothing,’ says Dave Pegg, bassist with Fairport Convention.
‘I love village halls, where you can see the whites of the punters’ eyes – it’s a more intimate experience.’