Be the pillar of your community, says Julie Duhra, whose Premier c-store helps to define the area of Hadley, three miles to the north of Telford.
But what is a community and how do you go about defining it? A good starting place to think about this is a new book The Village News by Tom Fort.
While the book is focused on English villages in particular, one of its strengths is that it describes how local people shape living communities. As a journalist, Fort is strong at finding great source material and building an argument that the village “as a model for communal living is simply too strong to fail”.
The story of lots of villages put together is the story of “our nation”, Fort argues. In explaining why, he provides you with all the insight you need to understand how your retail business can be the anchor for your community.
A question that you may never have asked is have there always been villages in England? Archaeological evidence says that villages existed before the Romans and afterwards. But these ancient villages were settlements that depended upon people collaborating to work the land and, as land use and ownership changed, they simply moved to where the work was.
Be the pillar of your community, says Julie Duhra. But what is a community and how do you go about defining it?
If you visit an old village “those weathered walls and crooked roofs and gable ends are so solid and permanent. The temptation is to invest the lives of those who left them with the same qualities.” However, people migration and mobility are a constant. For example, Clayworth in Northampton had 401 inhabitants in 1676. Twelve years later, 244 had left and 255 new people had arrived.
Bibury, Gloucester, as featured in the UK passport, is a picture postcard village, but it no longer sustains a local population.
North Moreton near Didcot in Oxfordshire shows a different face. “In the old days, everyone was part of village life whether they liked it or not. They were bound by a network of interdependence. Today there is no such web,” notes Fort.
“The village has learned to live without the squire. It could probably survive without the parson and the church, although it does not have to. It helps to have a pub, but this is not as crucial as it used to be. It needs a good village shop, which is a post office as well, and if it has more than one shop it is doing well. It needs a successful school and a thriving village hall; and…it needs infusions of new blood if is not to atrophy.”
It is a lesson that repeats itself in Askrigg, North Yorkshire, and Rippingdale, Lincolnshire. The chapter on Chopwell, Tyne and Wear, shines a light on the mining village after the mine has closed. It has one successful business, a fishing supplies shop, whose owner’s dad was happy to say what had gone wrong: The council.
“Killed it, haven’t they,” he said. “Used to be full of shops, Chopwell did. What did they do? Laid on a free bus to take Chopwell folk to the Tesco at Consett. Everything’s gone now.”
Tesco also gets a mention in the story of Bar Hill, Cambridgeshire, a new village built by planners north of Cambridge. In 2000, after a seven-year planning battle, Tesco opened a superstore there “like a huge wedge driven into the heart of what was once intended as a contemporary version of a peaceful, rural settlement”.
However, Fort asks the residents what they think. It’s handy, say new residents. Elderly people all liked it too. But one said, when asked to describe Bar Hill: “It’s not a village. It’s a settlement.”
“All villages used to be working villages, more or less self-contained and self-sufficient,” concludes Fort. “That, patently, has not been the case for a long time.” But what his book does demonstrate is that a great many people like to identify themselves with their local areas.
If you think about your locality as a village, then this book will help you understand how to reach out and make it more successful – and your business more successful too. Every village needs a shop. Reading The Village News is also great fun and may help you plan a few day trips on the side too.