Village that cracked the secrets of eternal life: Residents of Detling live 12 years longer than average. So what has it got that other places haven’t? JANE FRYER drops by in search of its elixir
- A small village near Maidstone in Kent has the highest life expectancy in Britain
- Detling’s average lifespan for women is 95 – 12 years above the national average
- Mary Maskell, 98, who lost daughter due to Covid, says secret is to have ‘fun’
Nestled between the A249, a high-speed train link and the M20, the village of Detling does not immediately strike you as the epicentre of eternal youth.
For starters, it is tiny — with a population of barely 800, fewer than 400 houses (albeit many of them attractively beamed) and a gentle roar of traffic in the distance.
Strung out on a hillside near Maidstone in Kent and sliced in half by a busy dual carriageway, there isn’t much to it.
The Cock Horse pub, St Martin Church, the village hall, community shop, a smart red telephone box (home to an emergency defibrillator), a glut of lovingly tended gardens and, well, that’s about it.
The small village of Detling in Kent has the highest life expectancy in the whole country. In order, residents Gill, 82 (L),David Humphrey, 87 , Tikki Gulland, 71, and John Clayton , 78, (R) stand outside The Cock Horse pub
According to Public Health England, the average lifespan for women in Detling is 95, which is a full 12 years above the national average
The small village is nestled between the A249, a high-speed train link and the M20, near Maidstone, Kent
And yet there is a certain magic about the place. And that’s perhaps because Detling has the highest life expectancy in the whole country.
In fact, according to Public Health England, the average lifespan for women here is a stonking 95. Ninety-five! That’s a full 12 years above the national average and more than two decades longer than the less fortunate women of north-east England’s Stockton-on-Tees, who average just 72.
And, it seems, Detling residents certainly know their luck. Everywhere I turn I see octogenarians with glowing cheeks and tail-wagging dogs, striding up the hill barely taking a breath.
Their brilliant community shop-cum-post office is festooned with awards and buzzing with chat and laughter. There is even a booze licence, in case you fancy a cheeky glass of sherry in the sun, and a playground next door for children — or, more likely, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Almost everyone I meet looks a good 15 years younger than they are. Strong striding legs, clear skin, enviable joints, remarkably full heads of hair, sharp eyes and very twinkly senses of humour.
And, of course, they all love gin and tonics, chilled rosé, strong tea and recklessly late-in-the-day fully caffeinated coffees.
John Clayton, 79, who co-founded the village’s award-winning shop, is a silver-haired powerhouse who used to run a steelworks and looks as if he could easily build his own house — after chopping down the necessary trees, that is. His handshake alone contains enough vim to set you fizzing.
Community store and post office founders, Richard Finn, 71, (L) and John Clayton, 78, (R)
Finn and Clayton founded the village’s award-winning shop, which has a booze licence, in case you fancy a cheeky glass of sherry in the sun, and a playground next door for children
Tikki Gulland, a relative youngster at 71, looks impossibly youthful, with skin as creamy as butter. And Gill Humfrey, 82, is the most immaculately presented octogenarian I have ever met.
Then there’s Irene Nobbs, a brilliantly beady lady with neatly set hair, who is counting down to her 103rd birthday. (Her 102nd was a pirate-themed bash — with blasting opera, naturally.) A former hairdresser and teacher, she lives in Barty House Nursing Home near by.
Sadly, she has even outlived her daughter — who died of Covid earlier this year — and puts her longevity down to being cheerful.
It’s because she’s one of life’s ‘joiner-inners’, she says. ‘Oh, and a nice glass of rosé at lunch and dinner!’
Mary Maskell, 98, is just as chirpy and tells me she still swims regularly: ‘I’ve had a very happy life, but mostly I’m just GOOD at having fun.’
Gill, 82 (L) and David Humphrey, 87, pose outside a converted telephone box, which is now the village’s defibrillator
Detling resident Mary Maskell, 98, says the secret to their longevity is having ‘fun’
So what’s their secret? Some people put it down to the hill that extends up into the Pilgrims’ Way, an ancient route between Winchester and Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury.
‘All that walking up and down all day, does you the world of good,’ says Women’s Institute stalwart Eunice Hardman, 79.
Others, such as Margaret Cooke, 89, and Richard Finn, 73 (who co-founded the village shop with John), credit the water.
‘It’s straight off the chalk — there’s a reservoir up the road,’ says Richard. ‘It’s pretty hard, so we all have softeners but it’s very nice.’
But David Humfrey, 87, a retired history teacher, isn’t so sure: ‘The water? I’d maybe put some gin in it!’ While Gill, his wife of 60 years, puts it down to all the community activities on offer.
And certainly, Detlingers love to be busy — and I mean really busy.
This is not a daytime telly and Sudoku sort of place. No, no.
Life here is awash with activity — everything from garden safari societies, village picnics and the WI to the famed cricket club, Detling Players, and the much-anticipated Villager Of The Year Competition (each year a resident is commemorated for their special community contribution on a wooden plaque in the village hall).
‘You have to join in, even if sometimes you don’t want to,’ says Mr Clayton, who as well as running the shop, being a key member of the very active parish council and recent winner of the ‘most stunning bowler’ award, likes to clean the church in his spare time.
Back in 2013, Mr Humfrey and six pals threw a joint 80th in the village hall and invited all of Detling. ‘Oh it was lovely!’ says wife Gill. ‘We put on a huge ploughman’s lunch.’ And they even organised a personal fly-by from a World War II Spitfire — ‘We had a friend who flies in the Battle Of Britain memorial show’.
Halloween is frowned on a bit for ‘being too American’ but Christmas is HUGE — until recently marked yearly with a procession called ‘Search for the Christ Child’, starting in the pub and ending in a barn where you’ll find oxen, donkeys, pigs, sheep and — lying in the manger — a baby.
Yes, a real baby. It all sounds so joyous. As Gill told me: ‘Every day we pinch ourselves after all these years. We would never leave.’
But Detling has not always been so blessed.
Back in December 2000, the village was rocked by tragedy when eight-year-old Jade Hobbs and her grandmother Margaret Kuwertz, 79, were struck by a car as they took their usual route over the carriageway down into the village to do some Christmas shopping.
Both died at the scene and are now buried in the churchyard. It shook the tight-knit village to the core. But instead of being cowed, the community fought back by campaigning for a new footbridge.
‘We ended up doing a sit-in on the road until the highways people agreed,’ says Richard Finn. And a year and a half later, the footbridge — named Jade’s Crossing and decorated in her memory with a silhouette of a dancing girl — opened, providing a safe connection between the two halves of the village for the first time.
Another dip followed soon after, however, when the primary school shut, then the shop closed down. Even the pub went off the boil for a bit.
For many villages, this would have been the beginning of the end. A move to satellite commuter-belt status. The death of the local community.
Again, not Detling. Sadly, there was nothing that could be done about the school — as is often the case in rural villages, there simply weren’t enough children to keep it going — but today, a planning application has been lodged for a sympathetic conversion.
But the shop could be saved, and was, with a slice of land, a couple of containers, a touch of landscaping and at least 40 volunteers.
So last January, just before lockdown and to great fanfare, it opened, seven days a week — and immediately became the new village hub and subsequently a life-support system during Covid.
‘They say it added about £2,000 to the value of houses here,’ laughs Richard Finn. ‘Imagine what this latest news [about life expectancy] will do!’
Not that houses come up very often — although if you do happen to have a spare £1,750,000, Tikki Gulland is (reluctantly) downsizing and her house, the Croft, complete with a magical four-acre garden and a lot of lovely neighbours, is a total gem and available via Strutt & Parker.
The parish council also raised money to revamp the cricket pavilion and buy two areas of ancient woodland: ‘It is essential that people have somewhere lovely to walk,’ insists Mr Clayton.
Everything here is done out of love. ‘You couldn’t hide away here. A lot of caring goes on. Which is nice for all,’ says Gill Humfrey. Or, as Tikki puts it: ‘We put our arms around each other here.’
But I think Mr Clayton sums it up best: ‘This is a little bit of yesteryear — where people used to look after each other.
‘We lost it as a country, but when you come to Detling you can see it again. We are a shining beacon of yesteryear.’
So if you love gin and tonic, a glass of rosé, community events, rolling countryside, endless activities and, like David Humfrey, you are so deaf you can’t hear the traffic — ‘It’s very handy,’ he beams — then this could be the place for you.
And you never know, given the stats, you could be here for quite some time.
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