When Holly Dawson posted a tweet about a benefactor who left two homes to be let cheaply to hard-up people in her village, it went viral. But there were also many cynics who cast doubt on the story. She felt compelled to check it out.
Like all good stories, this one starts with a cup of tea in a friend's garden. We're talking, as we often talk, about houses - the impossibility, in this expensive corner of Sussex, of finding a home you can actually afford. Rents around here, even for the smallest two-bedroom house, average £1,000 a month or more. In my case, as a self-employed single parent with two small children, every penny, and many a sleepless night, are spent keeping a roof over our heads.
My friend mentions some houses that a man left for low-income families to rent for three years at £300 a month.
We remark on the good humans; how stories like this are something we need to hear more and more. Later, scrolling through the shouty soapbox noise of Twitter, I decide to share this nugget of niceness. I don't expect anyone to respond - I don't use hashtags or copy anyone in. My normal tweets about Virginia Woolf and geeky lit events get barely a scattering of likes. I write:
Just heard about a guy who died in my village + left 3 houses to the council, with the stipulation that they're for young families to rent for a fixed period of 3yrs with rent of £300 pcm (in an area where rent is £1000+). Because we all need to talk more about the good humans.
Talking about the good humans is something I feel we definitely all need to do. Especially on Twitter. But I had no idea how much Twitter agreed.
I wake up the next morning to 5,000 likes. The rest of the day, my phone explodes, until I have to turn notifications off. I watch the number rise hypnotically, swiping down on my screen to see the tally go up, 100 more at each refresh. Night falls with 41K likes, 8,000 retweets and nearly 200 comments.
The comments seem to fall into three categories:
1) People praising this stranger's random act of kindness ("give him a sainthood"), thanking me for sharing good news, pleased there's goodness in the world.
2) People who think I've made it up ("I'm filing this under things that didn't happen") - a few put me forward for @DHOTYA, the Didn't Happen of the Year Awards.
3) Cynics, sceptical about the council ("Three lucky council officials") or about the capitalist system ("Three houses? He's the problem" / "How much was he charging when he was alive though?"). Also random racists: "They will give it to immigrants" / "The Somalis will be grateful."
Something which began as a local anecdote has suddenly become a story I have to prove. I find myself in the uncomfortable grey zone where something becomes "true" through popularity not fact. Despite having presented it purely as something I'd "heard", I feel compelled to uncover the truth as I watch comment after comment deride the landlord's kindness with cynicism.
Other comments spur me on, such as: "This man deserves a plaque memorialising his contribution" and "Shame you don't mention the benefactor's name so they can be acknowledged for this great act of kindness and generosity."
So I start asking around the village. I speak to the parish council, to the village history group, to people walking on the green. And the stories I discover reveal even more kindness than I expected.
St Mary's Church, Ringmer, 2014
April, four years ago, the village church. People of all ages and backgrounds have come to celebrate the life of a remarkable man. Ian Askew, 92 - Army captain and Military Cross winner, High Sheriff of Sussex, joint master of the Southdown Hunt, antiques dealer, churchgoer, star of many a local pantomime, philanthropist. A good-humoured, high-spirited bachelor, for whom his community became his family, dishing out money, often anonymously, to local groups and individuals in need.
"Ian could mix with everybody," recalls one local. "He was well-known as someone who would talk with anyone, often popping into coffee mornings at the village hall and chatting with older residents. He had strong relationships with all his tenants, never raising rents or throwing anyone out. There are still people living on the old controlled rents on his estate."
Askew lived alone in nearby Wellingham House but, finding it bigger than he needed, he let a charity have it for a peppercorn rent, and it became a home for people with learning difficulties.
The more I hear, the more I realise that Ian Askew may have died in 2014, but in the gifts he leaves behind he very much lives on.
The Brickworks, The Broyle, Ringmer, 1970
The stories take me further back still, to 1970, a few fields away from the church, where a large Victorian brickworks is making its final bricks. For nearly 200 years, a brickworks has stood here. The village, rich in Weald clay, has been renowned for its pottery since the Norman conquest - there are remains of medieval kilns scattered all over these fields. Bricks from this brickyard built every house on the pre-war Nevill estate in nearby Lewes. The clay pond will one day become part of an animal rescue centre, housing ducks that my children and I will spend many afternoons feeding.
The Bentley Estate, 1970
Not far over the fields, in the sprawling Bentley estate, a man called Gerald Askew is taking his final breaths. Gerald is Ian Askew's brother. Between them, they own much of the area: Plashett Wood, where my children will, years later, go to forest school; Wellingham House, next door to my children's future nursery; Bentley, where we will go for my son's second birthday. They also own the brickworks. But now Gerald is dying, the kilns have stopped firing, and soon Ian Askew will come up with a plan for the brickyard house.
The Jubilee Cottages, 1977
Ian turns the house into two semi-detached cottages, to be let to young couples while they wait for years on the council housing list. He calls them the Jubilee Cottages, to mark the Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee. He has seen the difficulties faced by families in need as they languish on the waiting list, and he wants to help them, by allowing them to rent his houses for the same price as a council house (then £100 or so per month) until they reach the top of the list. The cottages are managed by the district council until all housing stock is sold off. They are then placed into a protected trust, managed, to this day, by Ringmer parish council.
Contrary to Twitter's cynical assumption that the houses would be sold, rented out at an inflated price or reserved for council officials and their relatives, Askew's intention has in fact been honoured for four decades, and that shows no signs of changing. The houses are now rented out for three years, not two, as they were in the past, and though the rent appears to have tripled to £300 it has actually halved in real terms. Families apply to the parish, outlining their circumstances and their connection to the area. Many use the opportunity to save up for a deposit to get a foot on the precarious housing ladder.
As I try to find past tenants to speak to about the cottages, I am surprised to discover I recognise one of the names - a family I met in a swimming class years ago when we had babies of the same age. I ask them what the Jubilee tenancy meant to them.
"We were so grateful for the cottage and the generosity of the Askew family and the parish. It enabled us to start our married life without the strain of money worries, staying close to our families in an otherwise unaffordable location. Being at Jubilee enabled us to start our own business, as well as prepare for a family of our own, saving for a deposit for our first home where we now live. None of that would have been possible without this legacy."
I visit the cottages. They are beautiful and remote, surrounded by fields and fresh air. Children's toys fill the garden. Above the front door, a stone is engraved with the details of Askew's gift and the date, 1977. These are sturdy family homes, built to last. A place that once made bricks is now helping young families save for bricks of their own.
What would happen to people if they couldn't live here? They'd be forced to move 20 miles away or more. As the local housing office told me a few years ago: "We simply can't house people in Lewes. You have to go further afield."
At a time when private accommodation is unstable and expensive, and public housing barely exists, it's comforting to think that part of the gap is being filled in these informal, compassionate ways. Some of the Twitter comments highlight similar acts of philanthropy around the UK. More good humans, whom we should talk about. As someone says on Twitter, "Was this in the news? It should be everywhere. Might encourage others to do the same." Another comment hopes Askew might "start a new trend".
At present, there are so many gaps that people fall through. A young person tells me on Twitter: As a person at risk of homelessness, I applaud this man. There aren't enough houses. Though I am top priority, if the houses are not there, my choice is a B&B in the city which means a 2hr school run everyday, the streets, or living with my abusers.
The more I look, the more I discover that Ringmer is the village that kindness built. Ian Askew's gift here is not the only legacy of its kind, with some acts of philanthropy going back hundreds of years. In 1787, Miss Henrietta Hay left £2,000 to be invested, the interest paid to elderly people in need in the parish in the form of small pensions. Her wishes have been carried out for over 200 years, with local residents receiving windfalls every year just before Christmas. Going further back still, to the 1690s, Dame Barbara Thomas and Sybilla Stapley bequeathed £200 to pay the salary of a schoolmaster at Ringmer Charity School. Teachers' salaries may have changed in the last 300 years, but the endowment still exists, donations still being made to support the village school. And Ian Askew's legacy lives on beyond Jubilee Cottages. His Charitable Fund still supports charities and organisations across Sussex.
Every Wednesday evening, as I put my children to bed, I hear the bellringers practising in the village church. I draw great comfort from it. I get chatting to a man who tells me that, a few weeks after Ian Askew's death, the bellringers marked what would have been his 93rd birthday - 9 May 2014 - by playing a "Plain Bob Minor".
I wouldn't have been listening then. I would've been in my old house, frustratedly searching for somewhere to live, to build a new life. Typing in criteria like "garden" and "two bedrooms", when all the while I should have been typing: "A place that cares enough for bellringers to mark the birthday of a late good human."
But of course there's no tickbox for such things. No compassion-o-meter to measure the small moments, tiny acts, tender stories and kind people sewn into the fabric of your area. The people who check in on sick neighbours or get groceries for the elderly, who lend you the pound for your shopping trolley, who help you get on to the bus with your pushchair, who smile at you warmly for no reason at all, who clear the snow from your winter path. In this case, the man who goes to coffee mornings, church services and village meetings, always listening out to hear what people need, then quietly making anonymous donations.
We don't always know what we really want when we are trying to make a home. For the people on Ian Askew's list for the Jubilee Cottages, it's clear though that they want somewhere safe for three years while they get themselves sorted. Where they won't be randomly evicted when the landlord sells, or ups the rent. Where they can feel some of the goodness that may have eluded them until signing that lease.
Compared with the beautiful, chocolate-box villages around here, Ringmer is often seen as a budget suburb of Lewes, a concrete splodge in the South Downs. Outsiders rarely see beyond the centre of the village: chippy, offie, Dominos, McColls. Funeral parlour, pet shop. A shop that keeps changing - tanning salon, nail bar, dance studio, now empty. You have to dig a bit deeper to discover the independent bakery that bakes the best bread; the tiny public library, shut down this year by the council, only to be reopened as a community library by a tenacious group of locals; the community orchard full of local varieties of apples, pears and plums, planted on land donated by a local farmer and run by passionate volunteers.
When I moved with my children into our Ringmer home, I wasn't looking for a community, and until now I didn't know I had one. But a random tweet has connected me to a village built on compassion and stories. A place of good humans.
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