Not much happens in the tiny village of Woolsery. Home to just over a thousand residents, the parish sits on the North Devon coast in southwestern England, nine miles southwest of the seaport of Bideford (a “Little White Town,” according to its welcome signs).
It’s a quaint but unremarkable place, where life has a tendency to simply trundle along. The Young Farmers’ Club meets on the first Tuesday of every month; the Good Companions group the first Monday afternoon. If you’re quick, the parish council is handing out black trash bags this morning in the community-hall car park. Plus, of course, there’s the ongoing pitched battle against the dot-com zillionaire determined to remodel the entire village in his own image. It’s a battle so intense that police have literally started to confiscate guns, so that’s fun.
The Prodigy Son
Michael Birch is a serial tech entrepreneur, whose past is littered with forgotten Web sites. There was his 2001 site, Birthday Alarm (where users had to e-mail all their friends asking for their birthdays, so they could subsequently be notified in advance via SMS). There was Ringo (a prototype social network quickly sold to the long-dead Tickle.com). He invested in online marketplace MyStore, along with Julian Lennon. Most notably, and most lucratively, there was Bebo.
You don’t remember Bebo, but that’s O.K. A third-tier social-media network, Bebo was the Monkees to Facebook’s Beatles. It had a brief moment in the sun, and then it was eaten alive. What is important, though, is how much money it made Birch. Six months before the financial crash of 2008, in what has been called “one of the worst deals ever made,” AOL purchased Bebo for $850 million. Two years later, AOL ditched Bebo. Three years after that, Birch bought it back from its new owners for just $1 million, before selling it to an Amazon subsidiary this past summer for a reported $25 million.
A serial tech entrepreneur whose past is littered with forgotten Web sites.
The long and the short of it is that Michael Birch has a lot of money that he apparently doesn’t know how to spend. This is where Woolsery comes in.
It’s hard to overstate how much Birch loves Woolsery. His ancestors have been in the area since 1700, his grandmother lived above the village shop, and he spent many summers there as a child. Just to underline his devotion, he even went to the trouble of naming one of his sons Devon. But when Birch visited Woolsery half a decade ago, he saw what a sad state it had fallen into. Once 2008’s Best Kept Village in Devon, its buildings had grown dilapidated, the pub had closed, the Grade II–listed manor house was derelict. Birch knew what he had to do.
Bit by bit, Birch started buying up properties in the village in order to return them to their former glory. He purchased the abandoned pub, the Farmer’s Arms, so that he could refurbish it, hiring the executive chef of a local Michelin-starred hotel. The manor house, being renovated into a hotel, is scheduled to open next year. Birch also owns a fish-and-chips shop, the village shop, four cottages, and a 90-acre farm that will exist to supply the pub kitchen. He’s reportedly paid to have the church repaired, he’s built a safer fence around the primary school, and he’s provided the junior soccer team with a new kit. He has been called, by more than one outlet, “Woolsery’s savior.”
This isn’t the first time a wealthy benefactor has swooped in to save an ailing community. Insurance billionaire Sir Roger De Haan has spent more than a decade re-invigorating the run-down seaside resort of Folkestone, in Kent, pumping millions of pounds into the town’s arts and leisure industries, building restaurants, and effectively gentrifying the place until it became an acceptable location for young families priced out of London. And it worked: in 2017, Folkestone was named as the eighth-coolest place to live in the U.K., which smacks a little of faint praise, but beggars can’t be choosers.
However, there is a world of difference between a commuter-belt seaside town and a sleepy West Country village, and the net result of Birch’s heavy investment in Woolsery is that everyone there kind of hates him. The local Facebook group bristles with increasing aggression at “Mr Birch” and his commandeering of their home. “The scaffolding around the shop is an absolute nightmare,” residents say, pointing out that tractors can no longer use the village thoroughfare. “No consideration at all,” they growl. “This village was never dying,” they fume.
Things came to a head last month, when 72-year-old resident John Heath—a man who had already spray-painted the legend BIRCH OUT OF OUR LIVES on his own property in protest—had his shotgun confiscated by police after a moment of anger. “I didn’t threaten anyone,” he said, pointing out that “I felt like shooting the electrics” of some nearby construction work.
“No consideration at all,” they growl. “This village was never dying.”
Heath went on to explain the village’s mounting frustration with Birch. “I am surrounded by his properties—there’s the shop garden to the front, a property next door but one and another property’s garden on the other side,” he told the Daily Mail. “They have these huge industrial fridges in there and the vibrating can be heard and felt from our house at all hours of the night and day. It’s affected my sleep and the Environmental Health team have even come along to monitor the situation.”
And now the village is divided. On one side are the 4 percent of villagers who work for Birch’s regeneration project and are broadly supportive of the efforts of a man who clearly holds the village in high regard. On the other are residents like Heath, incensed by the noise and disruption, and fueled by the sense that their home is being transformed into a rich man’s short-term folly. “Birxit,” they’re calling it.
It isn’t like this hasn’t happened before. Opened in 2013, Birch’s private San Francisco clubhouse, the Battery—a melange of midcentury leather armchairs, mounted animal trophies, and brick walls—flaunted a style best described as “robber baron bro.” It also boasted a 20-person hot tub, a social-media ban, and a $2,400 annual member’s fee, and Birch encountered the same kind of opprobrium he is now facing in Woolsery. The club quickly became a totem of gentrification without thought, as the city’s naturally diverse population continues to be driven to the peripheries by the ultra-rich.
And that was just one club. As Birch is discovering, it’s much harder to impose your grand design on a real working village, especially one as weird as Woolsery. The place brims with a sense of off-kilter rebellion; not just because of the shotgun-wielding locals, or because the village is the home of a global crypto-zoological-research organization, but because the village isn’t even called Woolsery. It’s Woolfardisworthy. People only call it Woolsery because that’s how it’s pronounced. Why on earth would anyone want to force decisions on a place that can’t even decide what its own name is? Surely that’s just asking for trouble.
Either way, Birxit isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
Stuart Heritage is an Editor at Large for Air Mail based in Kent, U.K.