Bebo millionaire rescues North Devon village

The Farmers Arms and fish and chip shop before their renovation.

Residents of Woolsery in North Devon have expressed their thanks to Michael Birch, the multi-millionaire founder of the Bebo social networking site, for saving their village.

Birch has been buying and renovating dilapidated buildings in the village for the last two years after being shocked by Woolsery's sad state.

Now living in California, he was brought up in Hertfordshire but had been visiting the village - home of his ancestors since 1700 - since he was a child.

"I love living in America and I love coming here... it's a great escape," he tells the BBC. "I like bringing my children here and sharing that with them."

But when he saw the village's gradual decline, he decided to step in and help.

"The pub had been closed for a number of years, the manor house had been closed a lot longer... it was knowing that I could do it, and knowing that I needed to do it," he says.

He has now transformed the village pub, the Farmer's Arms, turned the old manor house into a hotel and cafe, and renovated the local fish and chip shop - winning the gratitude of locals who say that the state of the place was putting people off from moving there.

"It's as good as winning the lottery because there's no way that the parish council and local residents could have come together with enough money to make a go of the pub," says parish councillor Robin Edmonds.

Just one benefactor can make a big difference to an entire community, and whole villages are regularly put up for sale on the condition that the new owner restore them.

Earlier this year, we reported on the sale of West Heslerton near Malton in North Yorkshire, where there's a requirement that the new buyer restore the dilapidated Hall and keep rents low.

And just last month, we took a look at the pretty village of Gangi in Sicily, where properties are on sale for just €1: after decades of people leaving, the council hopes that new owners will breathe new life into the abandoned homes.

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