Where I live in Oxfordshire, we still have a shop, a junior school, a bus service, a post office (two half days a week) and three pubs – well, it is quite a large village! But we are among the very fortunate. During the past few years thousands of rural communities have seen those vital services withdrawn, making them feel even more isolated and deprived. It is no exaggeration when campaigners claim that traditional life in our countryside is now fighting for survival. As we reported last issue, during the coming year, it is reckoned that 54 country pubs and 33 village shops will go out of business every month.
Those doomed shops and pubs join a long, grim list. More than 2,000 of them have closed for good in the past two years alone. Once they were at the very core of rural Britain; now they are a threatened species – you can search for miles and not find one. But there are some inspiring examples of communities that are fighting against the tide.
Some time ago I was in the lovely village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset and was told what happened when the only local shop was about to close. A villager stood up during a church service and urged everyone to lend the shopkeeper enough money to keep the business going, and within a couple of days £12,000 had been raised. The shop was restocked, the locals pledged to use it (which clearly they had not been doing) and within a short time the loans had been repaid. Now, the shop is thriving.
In the village of Gunnerside in Swaledale, North Yorkshire, the Kings Head pub was on the verge of closure recently so locals rallied round to clean and tidy, and get it back in business. Other pubs have reopened with split personalities to drum up more trade – lounge bars are also shops and sometimes even post offices. And in Suffolk, a post office came back to life thanks to a local benefactor. He left £500,000 in his will to the village church, which purchased the post office and reopened it two years after it had closed.
The reality is that country people now have to fight to keep the things that once were taken for granted. Another 10,000 affordable houses in rural areas in the next 10 years would certainly help. And if we are lucky enough to still have our shop, pub, post office or bus service, we should make use of them – then we can’t blame ourselves if they go.
There’s nothing more relaxing after a hard day outdoors than a long, hot bath. But how about adding lots of salt to the water and throwing in a load of seaweed? That’s what happened to me the other week during a brief trip to the west coast of Ireland.
I stopped at a centre that specialises in seaweed treatments in the little town of Strandhill in County Sligo and climbed into a Victorian cast-iron bath filled with seawater and weed. It feels rather slimy but you soon get used to it and, as instructed, I plastered the stuff around my body. The promise is that it’ll relax the muscles, plump up and add definition to the skin, increase circulation and combat the effects of aging.
Well, I don’t know about that but it was an unexpectedly pleasant experience. I added some cold water and imagined myself swimming in the Pacific. A drop more cold and I was in the Mediterranean; finally, a big splash of cold and I was in the Irish Sea, so I got out quickly! Then you scoop your seaweed into a bucket and it’s sent off to an organic farm to use as fertiliser.
Just recently I was making my way gingerly along a very narrow path on the Great Orme, that steep and impressive limestone headland on the north Wales coast, wishing just for once that I was a goat! A dozen or so of these sure-footed creatures leapt from crag to crag high above me, while several hundred feet almost vertically below was the sea.
When I paused to take in the view, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a cloud of exquisite, very tiny butterflies – a sub-species of the silver studded blue, which is only found on the Great Orme. So here, the rare was commonplace and I felt privileged to be among them.
I had similar feelings when, a few years ago, I was birdwatching on the Falkland Islands. On one of the remotest of the 780 islands, West Point, three of the world’s rarest species were all around me – black-browed albatross, rockhopper penguins and striated caracara, a bird of prey. The caracaras were so fearless that one of them came right up to me and flew off with my sandwiches!