Bourton-on-the-Water advertises its charming English quaintness in a perfect, one-to-nine town replica, complete with signage and living greenery.
In the insistently charming Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water, there is one World War I memorial, one bird sanctuary, but four Kingsbridge Inns. That’s quite a few Kingsbridges, even in England, where pubs’ names often sound like they were dreamed up by an uninspired Mad Libs player with limited combinations of King’s-, Queen’s-, Lion’s-, and -Arms, -Head, et cetera. With so many Kingsbridges, one might suspect fierce loyalties among the townspeople, or age-old rivalries between the proprietors, but the odds are diminished by the fact that only one Kingsbridge is large enough to stand in. The other three don’t even serve drinks. The smallest is about the size of a Monopoly house.
The lone, ordinarily proportioned Kingsbridge Inn overlooks the River Windrush, a foot-deep dribble wending through the town, which looks as if it could be the main attraction in an Anglophilic water park, with a drove of bored kids on inner tubes soon to round the bend after the next flock of mallards. The inn is owned and operated by Marston’s, a brewing and pub-operating behemoth that commandeers more than seventeen hundred pubs in the UK. The local residents, at least according to a tipsy and garrulous patron I meet named Gavin, prefer the Kingsbridge to Bourton’s other pubs, which lends it a strange sense of authenticity despite its corporate ownership—rendered authentic precisely because Bourton’s tourists are attracted to its more outwardly authentic competitors.
From the adult-size Kingsbridge, where Gavin bids me a boozy farewell, the Windrush (which lends Bourton its bathetic nickname, the “Venice of the Cotswolds”) trickles alongside more restaurants, pubs, knickknack shops, and tearooms, before flowing past the perplexingly named Old New Inn. It’s here that, if you’re willing to fork over a reasonable £3.60, you will find the other three Kingsbridge Inns: in Bourton-on-the-Water’s model village.
In the early thirties, the former owner of the Old New Inn, hoping to attract pub traffic, commissioned a group of local craftsmen to re-create the village on a one-to-nine scale, using the same Cotswold limestone with which its more utilitarian counterparts had been built in the seventeenth century. Sure enough, it’s all here—the Kingsbridge, the Cotswold Motoring Museum, the restaurants and tearooms. In the corner is a model of the model village itself, complete with a third Kingsbridge, and, within that model, another model, containing the fourth.
That recursion is somewhat discomfiting, as is the model village’s one-to-nine scale. The buildings aren’t nearly small enough to engender in the visitor a sense of gratifying, Godzilla-like destructive power. Rather, they’re just big enough to house something dangerously sentient and Lilliputian. (As it so happens, the Lilliputians were six inches tall: closer to a one-to-eleven scale, but still alarmingly close.) The effect, while not entirely menacing, is certainly uncanny—the Cotswold stone; the living greenery, expertly trimmed, including grass that is mown by the staff, adorably, with a tiny mower; the gently flowing mini-Windrush; the precise rendering of commercial signage; all of which is further exacerbated by the fact that Bourton-on-the-Water already feels like a to-scale model of an archetypal English village.
Devoid of people, there’s something Rapture-ish about the whole setting, as if some deity had spirited away the entirety of Bourton-on-the-Water’s population. From certain angles, its desertedness is the only thing that marks the model as a replica. Peering through a series of lenses in a wooden periscope situated at one end of the village, for instance, you can gain the perspective of one of the village’s raptured residents, and it’s only the lack of pedestrian traffic that gives the game away. My own photographs, taken from ground level, passed for to-scale Cotswold architecture among nearly everyone I showed them to. The only people on display at the village are hidden away in another exhibition, situated in a dark, peep-show-like room that demands another twenty pence of admission. Inside, a series of miniature tableaux narrate a variety of English domestic scenes, while other scenes evoke anachronistic forms of PG-13 raunch (who’s that young stud hiding under “Lady Hilary’s” bed?) or outright prejudice (a scene depicting an American jazz band was particularly nasty). If the Old New Inn had decided that these were the sole occupants of the village, I reasoned, best to keep them out of view and behind a modest paywall.
The British government has dignified Bourton’s model village with “grade 2” status, indicating “buildings that are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them” (and suggesting that “building” is a fairly elastic term among English preservationists). It’s the only model village with such a status, though it does have a significant predecessor: Bekonscot Model Village, which dates from the 1920s, when a model train enthusiast’s wife, exasperated by how much of her home’s square footage was claimed by her husband’s hobby, demanded that he take it outside, toward an empty swimming pool behind their home. Over the next decade, the sleepy railway town flourished, developing from a gentlemanly diversion into a midprofile tourist attraction. By 1934, it could count then-princess Elizabeth among its visitors. A photo shows her leaning over a miniature house looking mildly surprised, as if Bekonscot’s scale had made manifest the dizzying extent of her future dominion. Today, Bekenscot has evolved into more of a borough, comprising six separate fictional villages, each representing a distinct genre of interwar English settlement: The market town! The fishing village! The pollution-choked mining community! “Stuck in a 1930s time warp,” its website proclaims.
Bourton’s model village, opened in 1937, is an early example of the many erected in the wake of Bekonscot’s success. If Bekenscot and Bourton, as I suspect, represent a yearning for a stoppage in time in the wake of the trauma of World War I, their successors—Babbacombe, Merrivale, Tucktonia, among them—may have been psychic compensation for the destruction wrought upon Britain during World War II; a response to the terrifying realization that that Fortress Britain wasn’t as impregnable as it might have seemed, and a way of imaginatively repudiating the industrialization that had enabled the two great bloodbaths of the twentieth century. But at the same time, a vaporous, nostalgic ruralism had long been a component of British self-conception, and it’s hard not to see the model village as a particularly curious manifestation of an ideal familiar since the Romantics. I suspect it’s no accident that a model of Thomas Hardy’s home is on display at Bourton-on-the-Water—the villages populating his Wessex might be the most direct literary analog to the modeling impulse.
While many model villages settle on a particular historical moment in which to situate the diorama—the 1950s for Wimborne, the 1640s for Corfe Castle—plenty others are content with an amorphous sense of the past, a hazy “then” only legible insofar as it isn’t “now.” The ambition, as the Godshill model village’s promotional materials make clear, is the experience of something “timeless.” And often placeless. For most model villages, the aspiration is a kind of English ur-village. Bondville Model Village, for instance, “is not modeled on any particular location but everybody seems to recognize somewhere even if not quite sure where [sic].”
By contrast, and as an exception to the rule, Bourton’s model village develops proudly in concert with its real-life analog. The model depicts the village in whichever year the visitor beholds it. This doesn’t require an extraordinary amount of maintenance, because many of the buildings the model village depicts are themselves zoned for preservation (but not, so far as I can tell, all of them—leaving open the tantalizing possibility of there being an unprotected building with a protected model). What do change are the little things: storefronts, street signage. This subtle fidelity is a testament to just how negligibly modernity has affected the village itself. Rather than trafficking in Bekenscot’s grab-bag nostalgia, Bourton’s model village advertises the town’s own quaintness by underscoring its contemporaneity. After all, who needs the fantasy of Bekenscot when you’ve got an actual replica? But then again, who needs the model village at Bourton when you’ve got a realer deal yet, Bourton itself? An extant element of the past, rather than a hypothetical one?
Walking further down the real High Street, away from the Old New Inn, I reach an invisible barrier. If you’ve never visited the model village, you won’t know exactly where it is, but if you have, you can appreciate the precise moment where you cross into terra incognita, off the edge of the model-village map. Despite the meticulously replicated Lloyd’s of London signage and precision scaling, the model village still perpetrates a kind of fraud, one that is hinted at in the village’s very name. Much of Bourton-on-the-Water is, in fact, off the water. These are by and large the areas of town that were built after the foundations of the model village were laid, though no attempt has been made to replicate them. As you cross the border, miniature-worthy structures are replaced with the familiar hallmarks of suburban Western civilization. An industrial park, a driving school, pale brick housing developments in a poor imitation of the Cotswold aesthetic, themselves looking like so many inexpertly crafted models. Buildings and businesses that, by virtue of their not being pubs or bed-and-breakfasts, seem to violate some unwritten law of the Cotswold economy. I wonder if some particularly savvy realtor has ever considered advertising property by promoting the fact that it enjoys a replica in the model village—the imprimatur of the authentic Bourton-on-the-Water, imparted by a facsimile.
There’s something in this demarcation of Englishness that feels perniciously retrograde. Whatever form of ostensibly benign conservatism the model village represents, it seems clear to me, is no longer tenable in the post-Brexit UK. The guiding principle of the model village’s Englishness is, like the Brexiteers’, exclusion. It’s something that, of all people, Liam Gallagher of the band Oasis seemed attuned to, if inadvertently, when he decided to film the music video for 2008’s eminently forgettable “I’m Outta Time” at the Bourton Model Village. (He caused a minor stir by calling a local farmer a “geezer” during the shoot.) Toward the end of the song, the band interposes a clip from one of John Lennon’s final interviews: “As Churchill said, it’s every Englishman’s inalienable right to live where the hell he likes,” Lennon says, defending his decision to reside in New York. “What’s [England] going to do, vanish? Is it not going to be there when I get back?” It’s not a great last look for Lennon, with his casual invocations of imperial prerogatives and blithe national confidence. But while I’m somewhat doubtful that Liam chose to pair this quotation with the model village as an indictment of smug English parochialism, Lennon’s words might as well be inscribed above the village’s entry turnstile. Here are four hundred years of preserved English heritage inscribed in another layer of eighty years of preserved English heritage. What’s it going to do, vanish?
A day before my visit to the model village, I took a long walk through the surrounding countryside, looping through several neighboring villages, each more idyllic and model-like than the last: Naunton, Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter. According to an online guide, I was to follow the course of the Windrush, and after passing through a “wood,” would descend into fields that mark the “site of the Medieval Village of Lower Barford.” But despite sticking to the prescribed path as best I could, I never saw any remnants of Lower Barford. I could hazard a guess, based on the loveliness of the way the Windrush oxbowed through one particular valley—it is, at any rate, the site I would have chosen for my medieval village—but there was nothing but the scenery there to recommend the presence of a Dark Age ghost town. The vanished Lower Barford was something of an overdetermined rejoinder to both the Lennonists and the model-village enthusiasts, an ubi sunt chastening of the preservationist will.
There’s always something sad about such places—the reduction of a living community to an empty field. In that sense, it’s easy to imagine the Lower Barford Model Village, with to-scale tannery, stables, and blacksmith, precisely hewn from local stone, outfitted with living shrubbery, its dirt roads teeming with mewling kids. It’s not inconceivable that some enterprising innkeeper might be considering the idea this very second. But I doubt I’d visit. In the solemn silence of the valley, it seemed far better to simply lend the vanished the dignity of vanishing.
Matthew Sherrill is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine.