Save our villages

Around 1,200 country pubs and shops are closing every year. Louise Tickle meets the valiant villagers who are fighting to keep their communities alive

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How we saved our pub
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Kevin Mills, Birgham, Berwickshire
“The pub that was originally called The Fisherman’s Arms closed in the autumn of 2001, as the owner wasn’t well and the business failed. At that point it was quite a popular place. In 2004 it reopened under new ownership and under a new name, much to the delight of the villagers, but locals soon realised that the new pub’s main focus was food. Trade dwindled over time as locals deserted it. It was eventually closed down in the autumn of 2007.
The next thing we knew the owners had put in a planning application to turn the building into mainly residential accommodation and put it up for sale. There was a huge hubbub when it was discovered that the pub might disappear for good – out of 180 residents, 60 turned out for what turned into a very vociferous village meeting.
I was asked to chair a group to help save the pub, and more than 100 objections were lodged with the Scottish Borders Council. We also lobbied our councillors, MSPs and MPs. Meanwhile, we were wondering how to revive the pub. We conducted a marketing survey and a financial viability study, which convinced us that a pub in Birgham could be successful, and when we got the original planning application turned down in summer last year, five of us from the campaign group pooled funds and bought it.
We wanted to involve as many villagers as possible, so once we’d signed the deeds, we offered anyone who lived in Birgham the chance to buy shares. Eighteen more people bought in, so we are now 23 shareholders. On 6 December 2008 it reopened, once again named The Fisherman’s Arms. The food is very good. Everything is made on the premises, there’s nothing bought in, and it’s doing a roaring trade, with people coming to Birgham from all around. Above all, villagers are happy to give their custom. We have great tenants and a fantastic landlady, Pauline, who runs it. Two chefs have been employed, and it’s also a chance for young people locally to get a part-time job that gives them good work experience as well as a wage. The pub hosts community groups too – there’s a ladies’ group, a wine-tasting group and live folk music jamming session most Fridays.
Birgham is only a very small village; it doesn’t have a shop, a post office or a school, and the campaign to save the pub was fantastic in that it brought local people together in a way that hadn’t happened here for a very long time.”
 
How we saved our orchard
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Richard Borrill, Cross O’Cliff, Lincolnshire
“I’ve known the orchard all my life. I played in it as a child and live next to it now. The threat it faced became apparent in the early 1990s when people living nearby suddenly realised the county council was planning to build bungalows on it. We all thought: ‘We’re not having that!’. It was pretty unkempt, mind you, having been left untended since the war. The old Victorian and Edwardian fruit trees – apples and pears – had shot up and the site was covered in brambles.
When we heard permission had been agreed on the orchard – at the time, councils were allowed to grant their own planning – we knew we had a battle on our hands. I helped to form a residents’ association that was made up of a group of people who just wouldn’t give in. I think we were all in love with the place. It was a real tangle and beautiful when spring came and the blossom flowered.
We did a lot with the local press to build support and were heading towards a public enquiry. Then we discovered it was possible to get funding from Common Ground to restore special places like this. We tried to persuade the county council to accept the funding, but they didn’t want to know. We were saved when a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition briefly took power and decided the orchard was a local asset. To be fair, no matter who has controlled the council since, that support has continued.
There are 80 households here, and a quarter were prepared to put in the initial physical graft to clear, prune and replant. In late summer of 1996, the council did the first clearing and after that, 20 or so volunteers would turn up every weekend. With a few other volunteers, I try to put in two hours a week, but it can be a lot more. You get carried away! Now it’s a haven for wildlife and looks like an orchard again. I’ve planted the fruit varieties that would have been in a Victorian orchard, with one or two Edwardian varieties because they’re local. Families come and pick the fruit in autumn, which is great. It’s like an oasis, quiet and peaceful – and a wonderful tribute to community action.”
 
How we saved our village green
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Laurie Kubiak, Roding Valley, Essex
“Ours is an absolutely textbook village green: a triangular piece of land next to the church. Local people have used it as a village green since the 1930s, when most of Roding Valley was built by Charles French. It was never, however, officially registered as a village green, a legal designation that offers special protection from development. When French died, ownership passed to a charitable trust, but the land continued to be used by villagers for sports, picnics, school activities and children’s play, and was always maintained by the council.
When the trust sold the land to developers in 2006, it gave no advance warning of its intention, so it was a shock to wake up one morning to the sight of chainsaws cutting down trees. Two of the oldest trees were gone in a matter of hours. It was bewildering and traumatic, and initially nobody knew what to do to stop it.
People sprang into action very fast however, fuelled by genuine anger. A few locals were out the next day collecting signatures for a petition, and a meeting was called by one family who had lived in Roding Valley for five generations. We live on the same road and I ended up as chair of a new residents’ committee made up of two representatives from each of the surrounding streets. We also invited representatives for the oldest and youngest community members. We realised we’d have to get the green officially registered despite determined opposition by the developers. It took nearly three years to get to the point of a public enquiry, which began in November 2008. Sustaining the campaign for all that time is a real testament to the committee’s commitment to the cause.
We had over 200 witness statements attesting to the different types of use that the local community made of the land and 30 people gave personal testimony. In July this year we got the decision, completely accepting that the land has every characteristic of a village green, and giving us the legal designation. The land is still owned by the developers, but they’ll never be able to do anything with it – other than watch Roding Valley community enjoy using it!”
 
How we saved our primary school
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Jemima Myrddin-Evans, Llanfair Kilgeddin, Monmouthshire
“It was just after Easter in 2009 that the headteacher called an ad hoc meeting to tell parents that the council was threatening our tiny school with closure. We were shocked. The school is much loved – it’s at full capacity with 39 on the roll, class sizes are small and every child’s individual needs are catered for.
Everyone wanted the school to stay open.We formed a working party of eight and it quickly turned into a full-on campaign. We downloaded the council’s documentation, giving its reasons for wanting to shut the school down, and soon realised that we could refute all of them. It was quite a political thing; small schools are perceived as expensive and it’s often just simpler financially and logistically for councils to plonk kids into one great big school.
We were lucky to have an incredibly multi-talented group. Jobs were divvied up according to aptitude. I was the co-ordinator, another parent looked at the council’s financial arguments, someone else kept local newspapers informed, a lawyer advised on the relevant legislation and anyone who had contacts in the council rang them up to make our case.
Though we were allowed to attend, we couldn’t speak at the council’s cabinet meeting where the decision would be made to go to full consultation, so we drew up a list of arguments and attached all our evidence and letters of support. We could hardly contain our excitement when they threw out the plan, and made sure to write a press release straightaway so the decision would be published the next day and they couldn’t go back on it! In the end, we know that the main reason we were kept open was because it’s the only Church of England voluntary aided school in north Monmouthshire, and we focused in on the principle of parental choice. If it had closed we’d all have been hugely upset, because it’s a major part of village life.”
 
How we saved our village shop
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Maralynn Smith, Islip, Oxfordshire
“We used to have a few shops in Islip but they gradually disappeared until there was just one general store. It was such a friendly place (people used to weigh their babies on the fruit and veg scales!) but after 44 years, the owners wanted to retire. There were no buyers so it looked like our village would lose its last shop. A lady called Henrietta Leyser was not to be discouraged. She found out Cherwell Council had funds available for start-ups, then organised a questionnaire asking Islip residents whether they wanted a village shop and if they were prepared to volunteer. That was when I got involved, like lots of others, by offering to run the shop for an hour a week.
We have quite a big space in the village hall now, but it wasn’t like that to start with. The hall committee offered us – for no rent at first – their cloakroom, it was the tiniest room you’ve ever seen. Some villagers generously gave financial donations to get it kitted out. We’re open as much as our 30-odd volunteers can manage. The shop is a real community hub, with a packed noticeboard, a regular newsletter and an email update. The effort involved in keeping it vibrant, getting interesting stock and ensuring we offer services people value – we’ll deliver free to people who’ve just had a baby or can’t get out – is just as important as the initial effort to save it.
We specialise in organic and Fairtrade goods, and stock local produce like meat from a nearby butcher. He’s kind enough to give us a 20 per cent discount, and he’s not the only one; it’s that sort of support that makes all the difference. A pensioner came in the other day and spent nearly £40. Having a local shop is very important to people like that.” 
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