Storm in a Winchelsea teacup

Not a fan of mute canaries: journalist Tony Francis probably won't be moving to Winchelsea

Last week a notice in the shop in Winchelsea proudly announced that the latest edition of the rural magazine The Countryman included a five-page feature on the ancient town by “journalist and long-time presenter of TV’s Heart of the Country“, Tony Francis. Residents who hurried out to buy the magazine were aghast to discover Winchelsea mocked.

In a well-written article entitled “Identity crisis in Sussex”, Francis firmly put paid to Winchelsea’s pretensions to be a town. He also had great fun with the Winchelsea Corporation, apparently having visited on a Sunday when they had turned out for the Patronal Festival. “They love dressing up in Winchelsea,” he explained. “Any pretext will do.” And as for the “robed and bewigged” Corporation, it is “not so much a toothless bulldog, more of a mute canary”.

For upset citizens of this “village with an identity crisis”, there was cold comfort in the raft of factual inaccuracies in the article. According to Francis, Winchelsea is on Iden Hill (last time I checked it was Iham Hill). The population was 400 (that’s just the electoral list), half of whom are weekenders (it is actually just 20-25%). The medieval port used to import Burgundy and Beaujolais (300-400 years too early) and it used to be bigger than Southampton and more important militarily than Portsmouth! And so on.

Since the storm in Winchelsea’s social teacup calmed down, residents have been pondering how Francis could have got so many facts so badly wrong. Who was his source? In fact, Francis names his sources. He names one of the Corporation wives, described as a lady wth the “improbable name of Bren Dunk” and former mayor, Mike Melvin, who is apparently a Cockney (can you hear Bow Bells from Croydon?), who appear to have scored a huge own goal for the town/village.

Melvin was manning the Corporation’s museum when he spoke to Francis and seems to have been his dubious historical source. And he avoided explaining to Francis that the Corporation is unelected, something which would surely have provoked more comment. Instead, Francis left Winchelsea believing that “most of the male population” had been mayor and was told by Melvin that “it’s no good standing for mayor unless you’re prepared to pay the price” in terms of the cost of attending Cinque Port functions. In fact, it’s no good standing for mayor in Winchelsea at all, as it is unelected! Meanwhile, the “improbably” named Bren Dunk whispered in Francis’s ear that: “We have a rebel in the village. He thinks this is nonsense and the jurats are a waste of time.” Who could she have possibly been alluding to?

Concluding his article, the badly informed Francis took aim at the opposite side of the community and dismissed Winchelsea’s attempt to be emparished. He was told that if Winchelsea became a parish, it would have to forfeit its status as a town. But an irritated spokesman for the Parish of Winchelsea Action Group dismissed this statement as another of Francis’s inaccuracies. “That is utterly incorrect. Winchelsea Corporation has no civic standing; it is established as a charity. So there is no reason why an elected Winchelsea Parish Council and the unelected Winchelsea Corporation could not co-exist. This is a fiction that the Corporation has poured into the ears of our gullible county and district councillors when they are invited to the Corporation’s mayoring, along with the myth that a parish for the village would break up the ecclesiastical parish. Sounds like one from Mr Melvin!”

So is there anybody in Winchelsea who Tony Francis did not manage to upset?