Author and broadcaster Tony Francis gives an outsider’s view of this unique community

Great British Life: Stone bridge over Downham brookStone bridge over Downham brook (Image: Archant)

There’s little sign of Downham till you get there. And when you do, there’s no sign that you’ve arrived. This dreamy location in the Ribble Valley is the only place I know without a village sign. Effectively it’s incognito. Slightly mysterious, but that’s only a fraction of the story. There aren’t any television aerials either, or obtrusive satellite dishes, overhead wires or even road markings. Downham hasn’t changed since the 1950s. The cars are the only giveaway.

You could be excused for thinking it had lost touch with reality, or that the decks had been cleared for filming a period drama (‘Downham’ Abbey perhaps?) But you’d be wrong. Although film and television producers have taken advantage of its unspoilt scenery in the past, the village looks like this because succeeding Lord Clitheroes have decreed it.

The present incumbent, Ralph Assheton has recently taken over responsibility for the estate from his father. As well as managing Downham, Ralph also runs a wood-chip business on the estate. He had this to say about the aversion to street furniture: ‘It’s not so much a philosophy, more a wish to conserve nice things and avoid the ugly bits. As soon as you put up a sign for something, you need another sign to explain it. We agreed to a bus timetable next to the telephone box, but there’s no sign for the bus stop. We don’t need it.’

Although the ‘unnamed’ village is only three miles from the market town of Clitheroe, we’re in Lancashire’s finest countryside. It’s too dramatic to be called pretty and Downham, for all its limestone beauty, is too ‘natural’ to decorate a chocolate box. That’s not a criticism. Plain and simple makes a welcome change from over-manicured verges and roses around every door. There’s a mediaeval order to Downham. The church and manor sit on the crest of a ridge. Thirty two estate cottages are neatly arranged in two groups, one below Downham Hall and the other around the main street and village stream.

Great British Life: Downham cottagesDownham cottages (Image: Archant)

Shimmering, or sometimes glowering in the background, is Pendle Hill, an isolated mountain detached from the Pennines and standing 1,827 feet above sea level. It’s a moody place, beloved of hikers but synonymous with witches. In 1610, Downham was indirectly involved in Britain’s most notorious witchcraft trial. The case of the Pendle Witches resulted in ten women being hanged for a series of murders in what was then classified as bandit country. North-east Lancashire resembled the tribal areas of Waziristan – wild and lawless. You didn’t go there if longevity was your aim. Witches and warlocks lurked around every rock. The air was thick with flying broomsticks.

One of the witches, a certain Alice Nutter, was said to be hiding in Downham Old Hall when she was wanted for trial at Lancaster. It’s been suggested that Alice was guilty of ‘nothing more sinister than being a vegetarian spinster who owned a black cat.’ Evidence presented at the trial had little to do with fact and a lot to do with hearsay and superstition. The witches would have walked free today.

The Assheton family took ownership of Downham estate in 1558, almost 50 years before the celebrated trial. It’s been in their hands ever since. Currently there are 32 rented homes, a flourishing pub/restaurant called the Assheton Arms and a post office-cum tearoom. Several villagers have expressed an interest in reviving its fortunes should Lord Clitheroe deem it necessary. In the meantime, he’s getting used to the idea of ‘playing God’, or ‘balancing the population’ as it’s more commonly known. He seems to be getting it right. Out of a population of 100, there’s a three way split between over-65s, thirtysomethings and under-18s.

For a time, Downham was notable for its barter scheme. A case of ‘you cut my hair and I’ll wash your car’. It’s called Time Bank and it originally operated on a credit/debit system like any other bank. I’ve seen similar schemes come and go. At Stiperstones in Shropshire, they even issued cheque books in their own currency. It didn’t last. Downham too has had to modify the idea. Rather than a swap-shop of skills, it’s become a voluntary service to put washers on leaking taps for the elderly.

Great British Life: Michelle Brown of Downham Ice CreamMichelle Brown of Downham Ice Cream (Image: Archant)

If you’re in the Ribble Valley, make a point of adding Downham to your collection of extraordinary villages. If you can find it, that is. Downham has the courage to stand by a principle, regardless of what others think. I like that. One day the new millennium might come knocking at its door, but so far, there’s no sign of it – forgive the pun.

Tony Francis’s book Extraordinary Villages is published by Merlin Unwin Books

Great British Life: Mary and Keith at Briar CottageMary and Keith at Briar Cottage (Image: Archant)

A rural idyll

People regard Downham as a time capsule, a bucolic vision preserved in aspic, writes Roger Borrell. But what’s it like to live there? Pretty idyllic, according to the people I met.

Downham has changed – just not very much and not very quickly. Major alterations were made to St Leonard’s Parish Church around the turn of the last century, the thatches have been replaced, the Post Office is no more and the village’s wonderful pub, The Assheton Arms, has a new wall after much pencil-sucking by the planners.

And don’t forget that Keith and Mary Hall managed to get a window put in the gable end of their quaint Briar Cottage, which is approaching 300 years old. They’ve lived in this house ever since they were married 44 years ago and both say they would never think of leaving.

Mary is the sixth generation of her family, the Robinsons, to have lived in Downham. They go back to the days when locals got up at 4am to walk to the mills in Blackburn.

Keith was originally from Clitheroe, a former quarry manager at Castle Cement and now with Silverwoods, the auction house.

Briar Cottage, close to the beck running through the village, was formerly the home of Mary’s godfather who emigrated to New Zealand. ‘He did come back to visit many years later,’ she says. ‘He asked to be dropped off at the top of the village so he could walk through it. He couldn’t believe that nothing had changed.’

The few changes that have happened can be spotted in Keith’s extraordinary collection of old postcards. Of more than 1000, around half are from Downham, the oldest dating back to the 1890s. He has bought them from sales, shops and fairs and has made some remarkable finds.

One is a black and white shot from the 1920s. It shows children tobogganing down a hill and the Halls were amazed to discover one of them was Mary’s father. Another was a card bought in Kendal that had been sent decades earlier by one of their neighbours. She had no idea how it got to Kendal.

Downham’s unspoilt state has made it a favourite with film and television companies. Mary appeared in the 1961 film Whistle Down the Wind and they were both extras in the more recent BBC drama, Born and Bred.

‘It’s a special place,’ says Mary. ‘When we got married I wanted to move away but we didn’t and now I’d never consider living anywhere else. It does get busy with visitors but they’ve mostly gone by 6pm and we take the village back then.’

It is unusual to still find a village that is entirely owned by the estate with all of the inhabitants as tenants. But Keith and Mary are more than happy with the arrangement.

‘We would never have been able to have afforded this house if we had to buy it,’ says Keith. Mary adds: ‘Some people think it’s wrong that one family owns the village but a lot of nonsense is talked. They think we have to bow and scrape – it’s a lot of rubbish. It’s not like that at all. We love being here.’