Last Sunday my wife and I found ourselves at the very heart of the wicked conspiracy that has haunted England’s green and pleasant land. Like Frodo and Sam trudging into Mordor, we summoned up every last ounce of courage for the gruelling three-minute stroll from our front door to the centre of Chipping Norton, the sleepy Oxfordshire market town that has suddenly found itself on the nation’s front pages.
In the market square, the local school’s band was entertaining hundreds of onlookers at the town’s annual summer festival. But if rumours were to be believed, beneath the illusion of idyllic Englishness was a more sinister reality. When we moved here, five years ago, we thought ‘Chippy’ was a quiet little Cotswold town with a rare sense of community. Now we discover that it is the 21st-century equivalent of the Village in the 1960s series The Prisoner; the home of the dreaded ‘Chipping Norton Set’. How could we have been so naive?
For the first time in my life, I know how it must feel to be the man living next door to a Bond villain. You smile and wave as your neighbours take out the bins, but little do you suspect that when they get back indoors, they will be poring over transcripts of hacked telephone calls. But perhaps I am being unfair. After all, one of the odd things about the so-called Chipping Norton Set is that none of them lives in Chipping Norton.
David Cameron lives in the hamlet of Dean, best known for its council tip. (My wife once spotted Samantha going for a walk nearby. You might have thought she could have found a more attractive route. Or maybe she had just dumped an old fridge-freezer.) Rebekah Brooks lives in Churchill, just down the road. Jeremy Clarkson lives in the middle of nowhere. And Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch live in Burford, a quarter of an hour’s drive away.
The truth is that Chipping Norton could hardly be a less appropriate headquarters for a Dan Brown-style international conspiracy. In a wildly overwrought column, the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne laid into the “louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral” conspirators, but none of those words really apply to poor old Chippy. Of all the popular Cotswold towns, it is easily the most unpretentious.
You want louche? Try Stow on the Wold. Amoral? Bourton-on-the-Water. Power-hungry? You don’t know power-hungry until you’ve been to Moreton-in-Marsh. By contrast, Chippy’s greatest asset is probably its magnificent hardware store, Harpers. And no, I don’t know if it sells phone-hacking equipment.