How did Beer become a finalist in the Village of the Year 2018 contest?
PUBLISHED: 12:52 10 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:52 10 July 2018
This picture is © Guy Newman and is licenced to be used in with Fran McElhone / KOR Communications feature on Beer 2018 only -
FRAN McELHONE visits the small East Devon fishing village so special it was a finalist in Channel 4's Village of the Year 2018 contest
The historic fishing village of Beer snuggles in the crease of a deep verdant valley which leads down to a crescent moon of pebbles flanked by high white limestone cliffs.
A brook winds past independent shops, galleries and eateries in the direction of the beach where colourful fishing boats come and go, as they have done for an age, with people coming from far and wide to enjoy locally caught crab sandwiches or fish and chips and loll back in stripy deck chairs.
But aesthetic charm doesn’t equate soul; that comes from the personalities that dwell somewhere, those who are intent on keeping treasured idiosyncrasies and traditions alive for future generations.
And Beer has soul. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Peter, Henry, Ursula, and Norah – and so many countless others – many of Beer’s endearing traits wouldn’t exist and many other facets of its heritage would have been consigned to the history books long ago.
And besides, a pretty panorama alone doesn’t guarantee you a place in the final of a national TV series: earlier this year, Beer became a runner up in Channel 4’s Village of the Year with Penelope Keith, out of 400 that entered and 76 that were featured.
When I went to find out more about the village’s recent designation from the locals, I discovered that Beer’s pervading sense of community spirit, which is so ardent that some residents describe it as “one happy family”, is, along with its good looks, the village’s defining trait, and may well have its roots in the village’s fishing heritage.
“There has to be a sense of community down here on the beach when you’re fishing,” fisherman of 70 years, Peter Bartlett, 86, tells me as we walk across the pebbles towards his old boat, the Barbara Jean. “To get your boat in and out of the water you need help from the other fishermen; you all have to help each other.”
Born and bred in Beer, Peter embodies the village’s fishing heritage, landing his first catch of shellfish on the beach aged 12 from a rowing boat. “There was a time when I came in one day with just a few lobsters and thought, I’m never going to be a millionaire doing this,” he continues.
“And then, I looked up at the cliffs and realised, I already was a millionaire, because I was born here. And this feeling gets better every day.”
It wasn’t long before I witnessed the widespread heartfelt fondness which won over the programme’s judges who described Beer as “a village with a beating heart”, with Penelope Keith introducing the village as “intoxicating and stunning” and a “jewel in the crown of the 95-mile Jurassic Coast”.
Beer is a worthy recipient of such felicitous tag lines; it is teeming with clubs and events, Beer Regatta, Beer Beer Festival, Beer Pumpkin Show and Beer Festival included. But with or without bunting, the village has inherent charm.
Gilbert and Woozie Taylor have run Woozie’s Deli on the High Street for 18 years. “The spirit of the village comes from its sense of community,” Woozie tells me, in between customers. As we chat, Ursula Makepeace wanders in.
Ursula is the president of Beer Horticultural Society, which has been providing the village’s floral decorations since 1985. The society has won Britain in Bloom awards every year since, most of them golds.
Ursula is also responsible for entering Beer in Village of the Year. “There’s so much I love about living here,” Ursula, who has lived here for 35 years, tells me. “There’s a friendly atmosphere and there is a young vibe about it too, with many people who went to school in Beer, returning and starting families here.”
Helping to preserve a treasured aspect of Beer’s historical identity is Nigel Harding, commodore of Beer Luggers Club. The club founded in 1985 to preserve the tradition which can be traced back to smugglers who used to land on the beach in the 1700s.
Nigel describes the style of sailing, with its dipping the yard technique, as “complex”, the same word he uses to describe the club’s social diary! “Luggers are unique boats,” he adds. “We just think it’s our responsibility to keep them all going as long as we can.”
A few members of Beer Village Heritage Trust, which is integral to spreading the word about Beer’s past, present and future, are waiting for me when I arrive at the heritage centre on the beach. The group’s popular beach clean event also featured on Village of the Year.
“There is a physical evidence of the village 5,000 years ago,” Henry Jaggers says referring to the discovery of Neolithic flint tools. “And Beer Quarry Caves, which date back to the Roman times, would have given employment to hundreds of people,” he adds.
Beer stone has been used to build 24 English cathedrals including Exeter Cathedral’s elaborately carved West Front. These days, the caves are an internationally recognised bat habitat for greater and lesser horseshoe bats as well as being a popular visitor attraction.
And then there’s the role played by a tiny piece of greenstone - a piece of Beer cliff which is millions of years old - which helped inform scientists involved in an 18-month European Space Agency exobiology expedition in 2008, about the survival in space of microbes found in the rock.
I learn that one factor influencing change in Beer in recent years is the increase in second home and holiday let ownership – an informal review conducted by Beer Parish Council found that around 29 per cent of homes surveyed are either second homes or holiday lets.
And while the village welcomes the impact on commerce and vitality, there is concern about its effect on the provision of affordable homes. In 2013, the council supported the formation of the Beer Community Land Trust to provide affordable housing in the village.
Keen to support the community, East Devon landowner Clinton Devon Estates, whose ties with the village date back 300 years, sold the Trust a site for seven houses which were built and occupied within 18-months.
So, what the judges said is true; a genuine fondness for the village, its diverse and wonderful history and sprinkling of quirks, is omnipresent and keeping Beer’s ancient spirit alive.
And when I found myself bemoaning the effect of the morning drizzle on my photos, Norah is quick to remind me that Beer is lovely, whatever the weather. She’s quite right.
East Devon landowner Clinton Devon Estates has a centuries-old connection with Beer.
Clinton Devon Estates owns and lets around 50 residential properties in and around the village including the cliff-top allotments and the characterful row of flint-faced fishermen’s cottages on Common Lane, whose architectural charm is thought to have set the tone for subsequent building in the village.
Much of the Estates’ residential housing portfolio had the original purpose of housing farm workers who worked on the Estates’ farms as well as quarry workers who worked at Beer quarry, also owned by the Estate.
One of the Estates’ houses was previously lived in by Catherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives. Some of the village’s key buildings represent the legacy of Clinton Devon Estates’ forefathers with St Michael’s Church built by Mark Rolle, in the late 1800s, at the site of a 16th century chapel. Mark Rolle also funded the building of the village’s schoolrooms and a row of ten almshouses.
Clinton Devon Estates is as committed to preserving the built and natural environment and contributing to the community as its predecessor Mark Rolle was, and in recent years has worked with the Beer Community Land Trust to provide land for affordable housing.