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Village SOS

chapel-5-1-12When Sarah fronted the six-part series Village SOS, she followed passionate locals willing to work hard to achieve life-changing results for their village communities. Here, two participants in the exciting Big Lottery Fund/BBC led initiative, recount the hard work needed to generate jobs and interest in an attempt to bolster their struggling areas

 The unused chapel in Caistor, LINCOLNSHIRE

charlotte-5-1-12Charlotte Hastings, a 30-year-old consultant from London, left her career in the glam, fast-paced world of fashion to become a village champion in Caistor’s mission to bring back its heritage

Though Caistor sits on a Roman road, was a Roman town and the site of a Roman fort, very few people – even the villagers themselves – recognised this. Lamenting this gap in the local history, Roy Schofield, chair of Caistor Arts and Heritage Centre, embarked on a project to create a museum showcasing Caistor’s valuable past. Though the heritage was originally at the forefront of the scheme, business and practical matters took over.

The sensible option seemed to be to convert the town’s abandoned chapel into a café and heritage centre. In a locality scarce of a decent cappuccino haunt, ‘village champion’ Charlotte Hastings jumped on the idea straightaway. Going off-trend ‘My working life, so far, had been largely centred around the fashion industry, and at some point along the way I had become disillusioned with the whole enterprise. My involvement with Village SOS happened by chance, after some absent-minded internet browsing on the BBC website one day. Looking for a project I could make a genuine difference to, rather than being a cog in London’s fashion machine, I applied for the ‘Village Champion’ scheme. Before I knew it, I was moving to Caistor for a year.

‘Transferring the frantic pace of the capital to laid back village life was a double-edged sword. Though I was welcomed with open arms, trying to boost the planning and construction rates in a place that had always been afforded the luxury of time was sometimes frustrating. Learning to work with volunteers, who give as much or as little time as they can, took strength of mind and patience. You can’t tell someone to step up when they are working off their own backs.

‘Putting the projects’ potential into reality was also tough, with many of the locals doubting that we could ever achieve the café’s bespoke fittings and gorgeous vaulted windows. Though the renovation is the toughest test I’ve ever faced, and at points seemed to be “do or die” the outcome was rewarding. The café, though lacking the historical theme originally hoped for, is now complete with a timeline for history enthusiasts, and is buzzing with new volunteers offering to help out every day.

‘Though happy to see the café making a profit, the project, for me, has been a dose of realism. The café is almost like a baby someone else is now raising, and despite the emotional and mental strife, I aim to further my career in other deserving schemes.’

The water mill in Talgarth, Wales
bruce-gray-head-shot-5-1-12Bruce Gray, a 39-year-old hostile environment consultant from Talgarth, Powys, describes his work as the chairman of the board during the complete restoration of the town’s disused water mill

The wheel on the water mill in Talgarth hadn’t worked since 1946, when its owner, overcome by a sudden bout of rage at the water tax payment scheme, smashed up the milling machinery. The plan to regenerate the mill had been in the pipeline for a while, with a select group of Talgarth inhabitants working to raise a hydroelectric fund, to give the wheel the TLC it needed to start working again. It wasn’t until the Big Lottery Fund started sponsoring the project, however, that the restoration work really took off.

watermill-5-1-12The wheels of change 
‘Though granted the money in July, building work only started in October,’ recalls Bruce. ‘The first few months were a bureaucratic nightmare as we tried to achieve planning permission for a listed building. Since the project was given the deadline of a year, this was really not a good start. And as the winter weather approached, things only got worse.

‘Trying to collaborate a team of contractors, historical machine experts and our group of community-based volunteers in a frost covered Talgarth was a huge mission. The task of building the leat (the channel supplying the water from the river to the wheel) was near impossible. Eventually we had no choice but to light fires to warm the earth in order to pour the concrete in, otherwise the deadline would have slipped past us.

‘The struggle to revamp the old workshop into a café – one that would make use of the mill’s flour for its baked goods – was a crucial one in terms of rebuilding Talgarth’s whole economy and community spirit. After the closure of the town’s psychiatric hospital in the ’60s, a huge social centre was lost. As more and more shops closed, the community started dying. Close to the Brecon Beacons, in what should have been a tourist rich area, the town had to generate interest in the vicinity or continue to suffer.

‘Indeed, the week before Village SOS aired, Talgarth received just 70 visitors. The week after the show it had 2,500. Thanks to the “Beeny effect”, those numbers have stayed constant. Though the completion of the café was slightly delayed, we now have a wood-fired oven for pizzas and bread – a source of excellent revenue for the mill. Eventually, the profits made from the mill will be distributed across the community to special projects. For a town that was struggling to get back on its legs, it feels good to contribute and give back to the local community, and boost Talgarth’s confidence further.’

This article was first published in at home with Sarah Beeny in December 2011. [Read the digital edition here]

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