A friend is trying to decide whether he would prefer to retire to a small town or continue living in a big city, and I have been asked to proffer my advice.

Life in small towns can be gentle and humane, in my experience. There is a palpable sense of community. People look out for one another. Churchgoers often stop and chat after Mass and get to know the faces that they see so regularly.

Local shops and retailers are supported. The traders are known and appreciated, and they usually offer backing to local endeavours, such as music festivals, regattas or sporting events.

If small towns are sometimes gossipy, they can also be understanding of the failings and foibles of people in the community. Eccentricities may be noticed and registered, but they are usually tolerated. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is often practised. Small-town life can make people are aware of the value of reciprocity.

The generational changes of family life are closely observed, as babies appear, grow up into school pupils and blossom into young adults. At the other end of the spectrum, neighbours grow older, sometimes frailer, and then move towards life’s departure lounge. This close observation of the life cycle imparts a form of compassion, I believe. And crime is rare.

Yes, there is what I’ve heard call “the Ambridge element”: the gossip about who’s doing what. This is usually petty rather than vicious. The English, in particular, are also tactful: they are neighbourly without being intrusive.

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