I saw a red squirrel just once in my life. Sitting on the end of a horizontal bough, it could not have known how soon its race would become extinct in Kent. That was 1951, and I was just eight and enjoying my first real experience of the countryside. I had travelled less than thirty miles from my London home to a tiny Kentish village called Vigo, but it seemed as if I had journeyed to another world. We would gather wild strawberries as we walked along Whitepost Lane. Glow-worms shone in the undergrowth beside Rhododendron Avenue. As we walked back to the cottage in the evenings, bats would swoop low over our heads. Entering a field we would set uncountable hordes of rabbits scattering in all directions. This was Kent, just before the page turned to a new era of mechanical farming and chemical controls. Country was still different from town.
At that time, Vigo was a village in name, but scarcely existed at all. The village centre consisted of a few Nissen huts (the remains of an army camp) one of which served as the General Store and Post Office, where we could buy milk that had hardly travelled since it left the cow. Such houses as there were hid shyly behind brambles and bushes. Nothing could be less like the crowded streets of my London home borough. I was entranced.
Twenty years later, whilst out for a Sunday afternoon drive, a nostalgic urge turned me back toward Vigo. The warm Spring day had drawn us out to enjoy the countryside as a therapeutic relief following a long, hard Winter. As I rounded a bend, half expecting to see the corrugated outline of the old General Store, I was startled to see a modern estate-village nestling in the woods. Though obviously new, it snuggled inoffensively among the trees and looked inviting. "Fancy moving?" I said to my wife, as we turned in and pulled up in front of the Croudace show-house. Six months later we were residents.
Nostalgia certainly played a part in our decision to move to Vigo, but we also had a strong sense of 'calling'. It's hard to explain what that feels like, so you'll have to take my word for it. What's certain is that, during that six month period, a significant number of professing Christians felt a similar call to settle in the village, forming a core around which Vigo's first church would form. The new Vigo Village was a world away from the hamlet I stayed at during 1951. This was no longer a working, rural community, but a commuter dormitory where at least half of the population spends their days working in distant towns and cities. In such a context it was hard to see how we could form effective relationships and establish a workable community of faith. But it was a challenge worth facing, and we wasted no time before locating like-minded people and making friends. A Christian fellowship began to emerge.
Croudace (the village's builders) always intended their model village to include a church, and named one of the roads "Churchside" in anticipation. But the traditional denominations showed no interest in setting up there. The Church of England went as far as to commission a survey amongst the new villagers, and concluded that there was "not enough interest". I wondered where Christianity would have been if the early apostles had backed off from regions where they were not wanted! We had no grand plans, no formal credentials, nor powerful preaching gift. We simply believed that this was the right place to be and that something good would develop as we just lived in the community and made friends.
Our little fellowship was not overly ambitious, but tentatively began meeting from house to house in Chestnut Lane and, later, in Churchside on a couple of evenings a week. We avoided the regular church times, so that people who had connections with traditional churches outside the village could preserve their loyalties by attending their normal meetings. There was no pressure to conform. This approach worked and we quickly achieved a closeness of fellowship that attracted others. One of our most successful ventures was to form our own Sunday School, which soon attracted 30-40 children. That's quite a house-full on a regular basis! We started each Sunday morning with an opening session of group singing in the living room, followed by age-group classes split around every available room in the house. At a time of increasing secularisation it was the only way many of those children were going to hear the stories that lie at the centre of our faith, and our culture. Jesus has not gone out of fashion.
By 1975 the fellowship was well established, but our growing family was on the move again. We relocated to Lincolnshire, satisfied that we had played our part in starting something of value. Since then we have moved again, to Bristol, and our family has grown up and moved across the world. Our time in Vigo was a long while ago and was, in truth, quite brief, but it still feels like a major part of our life. We remember the bluebells, and the foggy nights; we remember the rhododendrons and the damp windows. We remember Vigo's unique micro-climate - carpeted in snow while the rest of Kent was clear. And we remember the fellowship we had with people who were happy just to be Christians, without regard to pointless divisions inherited from the past.
My Vigo red squirrel was among the last of a disappearing breed, but twenty years on Christianity was able to reinvent itself for a new community and culture. Now, another twenty-eight years later, it is still vital, versatile and alive.