An Invasion Unlike Any Other

Only 6 people now reside in the village of Pilkinsbury in what was once a thriving community – home to a Primary School, Post Office and bustling community centre.

“It all began with them ornamental gardens.”

I’m sat down in the centre of what used to be the village square on a rather tired bench that feels like it might break at any moment. There’s a tree behind us, but its bark is barely visible thanks to a thick covering of heart-shaped leaves. Next to me is Gerald Thompson, he’s been living in the village since he was a boy and has seen the transformation from vibrant English community to ghost town. I met up with Gerald to find out what it’s like living in an abandoned village and how an invading plant species stole the life from a once prosperous village.

Just a touch too young to join up during World War II, Gerald has lived a rich and varied life – despite the fact that he lives alone in an abandoned village, his outlook is surprisingly cheery:

“I’ve never wanted for company in the last few years, even when the last of my old friends moved away. I’ve pretty much spent my whole life in this place, to leave now would feel like giving up.”

As he talks to me, Gerald winds a leaf through his hands. The shield-shaped leaf is a good 10cm or so long, it’s ribbed contours matching Gerald’s gnarled fingers. The village square is covered in these leaves. They sprout from bamboo-like plants that rise to just over 3m, towering over both myself and Gerald alike. The buildings surrounding the square are just about visible, however it’s clear that this plant has also clung to them too.

“They wanted it for the ornamental gardens first. The Victorians – this was before my time of course – thought it looked pretty and they figured it was a nice, fast growing plant. Everyone likes quick results, I guess. Anyway, it was pretty much contained to a handful of gardens – but within a few years it had started to spread out to other people’s gardens. Before we knew it, the leaves had made it to the top of the church steeple.”

For decades, the inhabitants of Pilkinsbury, good people who felt like they were closely attuned to their natural surroundings, had allowed this plant to grow across their village, unaware of the structural impact it would have on their homes and the financial toll that it would take on their futures.

“My house has been in the family for generations, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving, letting go of it for pennies, just because a natty plant had found it’s way into the foundations.”

As we walk around the deserted village Gerald points out the buildings telling me who used to live in each home and when they left.

By the time the villagers had discovered the destructive nature of the plant that their forefathers had welcomed into their homes, it was simply too late. Attempts to hack the plant back with strimmers and machetes had only worsened their predicament. The plant this village were dealing with was Japanese knotweed, one of the most invasive, industrious plants in the world. By the time they’d called professionals to assess the situation the problem had gotten well out of control.

“For a time the older ones, like myself, tried to convince the younger ones that it wasn’t a problem. Our houses might well have dropped significantly in value, but if our families continued to live in them and the village continued to thrive, then was there really a problem?”

Unfortunately there was.

Knotweed takes thousands of pounds off house values because of the structural damage it causes to the buildings that it grows near. Its roots are made up of rhizomes, continuously growing systems that have the ability to grow complete new plants from the smallest of fragments – making each shard hurriedly hacked down simply another problem to deal with in the future.

“By the time we’d faced up to the enormity of the problem, the cost of Japanese knotweed removal had risen too high. The younger ones felt that it would be better to start somewhere new than burden their children with a property that would be worth next to nothing by the time they’d grown up.”

So the people began to leave, in dribs and drabs and then in reams. Over the course of a year, the village emptied – leaving Gerald and a handful of retirees as the last bastions of a once thriving village.

“I don’t resent them – they wanted financial security for their families, I only had myself to consider. It was sad to see them go, but I wasn’t about to follow. This is my home and it always will be.”

The Countryside in Motion Pictures

Us countryside folks rarely get much of a look-in when it comes to representation in the movies.

Similar to the much maligned Southern States of America, the UK’s countryside and those residing there are often given short shrift when it comes to how they’re portrayed on the big screen.

‘Cornish people as violent, xenophobic psychopaths’ in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971)

Not many movies get made by people from the countryside, as a result cinema-goers are often given a very skewed, biased depiction of what living in the countryside is like.

Cultural cliches are often used as shorthand by lazy movie makers who find it easier to lean heavily on worn stereotypes than attempt to present a three-dimensional portrayal of characters from the Westcountry. The tweed-wearing farmer, half cut on cider and with an incomprehensible accent is one of the most commonly used archetypes in movies and television – it’s surprising that film-makers are allowed to get away with this still, considering the focus the media has on politically correct representations of certain groups.

‘A rather darker, cynical edge is given to the locals who are revealed to be a part of a sinister cult,’ in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2006)

Take the popular, long-running murder mystery series, Midsomer Murders. Whilst the show is technically is set in the fictional county of Midsomer, the writers draw heavily from tired countryside cliches to depict a version of the English countryside that is both misleading and offensive. Local characters are repeatedly portrayed as being slow or dimwitted, especially when being interviewed by the well-spoken hero, Inspector Barnaby.

Midsomer Murders’ unique draw as a mystery show is the juxtaposition of the idyllic countryside with gruesome murders, an idea that is used once more for comic effect in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. Although arguably deeper than Murders ever was, the director still gets a lot of comic mileage out of exaggerating rural accents and depicting country folk as unintelligent. This time, however, a rather darker, cynical edge is given to the locals who are revealed to be a part of a sinister cult. Though comic and (arguably) well-meaning, Wright’s picture did not do the image of rural England any favours.

Similarly, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is notorious for having depicted Cornish people as violent, xenophobic psychopaths. Dustin Hoffman’s turn as an American mathematician who is forced to embrace his violent side was well-received at the time, however it remains today as a film that depicts rural folk as uneducated, backwards people. I’d like to say that this kind of profiling and negative stereotyping is a thing of the past, however even films released this year, such as The Bad Education Movie, have used rural characters for cheap, low-brow laughs.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news.

Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (2017), where Somerset is the backdrop for ‘a powerful family-driven story.’

Despite rural locations and people being misrepresented for decades, there have been two films released this year that have made the most of beautiful locations and realistic characterisation.

Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature, The Levelling, tells the story of a daughter returning home to her Somerset farm in the wake of the 2014 floods that severely affected the agricultural community. This dark film uses the ruined Somerset levels as a moody backdrop for a powerful family-driven story. Similarly, God’s Own Country also makes use of rural England’s stunning scenery whilst telling a story of gay lovers who meet through their agricultural work, which already has critics drawing comparisons to Brokeback Mountain.

The Levelling is available on-demand and to buy now. God’s Own Country will get it’s home release on 29th January 2018.