Campaigns to keep small communities vibrant

Although Woodstock is home to Blenheim Palace, it was local community spirit that saved the town (Peter Barritt/Rex)

(Peter Barritt/Rex) Photograph: Rex Features

Although Woodstock is home to Blenheim Palace, it was local community spirit that saved the town 

This May, as the sweet, brackish smell of sun-warmed mudflats permeates the air, Whitstable, a small town on the Kent coast that’s best known for its oysters and whelks, will be welcoming poets, novelists and philosophers to its literary festival, WhitLit. Debates will be held on diverse topics, ranging from whether or not we have entered “fifth wave” feminism to why many people find poetry difficult. They will be hosted in pubs, lecture rooms and community halls, and will no doubt continue on the beaches’ sharp shingle, under sunsets that inspired Turner. 

This will be the festival’s second year — the first was done on a wing and a prayer, but “lots of people turned up”, says its director, Victoria Falconer. “The audience was kind, thoughtful and interested.” 

These days, you’re at risk of being nothing but a half-deserted clone town unless you have your own currency, arts festival or, at the very least, “ban the plastic bag” campaign. WhitLit is only one of dozens of events and festivals recently launched in small towns and suburbs, including Woodstock’s Night of a Thousand Candles and Crofton Park’s Croftfest. 

“It’s a rebellion as much as it is a celebration,” says Adrian Lochhead, who organises the Penrith Winter Droving, now in its fourth year (winterdroving.uk). Its name is a celebration of the time when the Cumbrian town was a key stop-off for farmers sending their livestock south. It’s ever so slightly pagan and wild, but behind it is a hard-edged marketing message. 

“We’re a small town, but we’re a product just like anything else. We’ve got to compete with the power of the internet and the supermarkets, or else we die,” says Lochhead, who is director of the Eden Arts development agency. “We need to redesign what happens in the high street so it’s more than just a financial transaction, so that people coming here think, ‘What a brilliant little town.’” 

Between 2007 and 2011, about 25,000 high-street stores closed across Britain, leading to boarded-up facades and town centres dominated by betting and charity shops. A 2014 report by Verdict Research found that while online sales had increased by 75% in the previous four years, high-street sales were flatlining. 

The difference between a buzzing, thriving place to live and a district in decline is often a small group of committed locals. Take Woodstock, in Oxfordshire, a delicious butter-coloured stone town: despite being home to one of the UK’s most popular attractions, Blenheim Palace, it was condemned as failing by surveyors a few years ago. Now it has the annual Woodstock Live music festival, a Christmas festival, Night of a Thousand Candles, and even a branded jute shopping bag. 

“The key is localism,” says Colin Carritt, a Woodstock town councillor and chairman of Sustainable Woodstock, an environmental action group. “We have a ‘ban the plastic bag’ campaign, which is environmental, but it is all linked with helping our economy by encouraging people to shop locally.” 

In conjunction with Sustainable Woodstock, local traders have formed an energetic forum, Wake up to Woodstock, which helped turn the low-key Christmas lights switch-on into Night of a Thousand Candles, and has created other attractions to pull in visitors. The traders have even clubbed together to employ a PR agency, a move that a few years ago would have been unthinkable (wakeuptowoodstock.com). 

“The first Thousand Candles year, I spent hours filling tealight holders and asking traders to put them outside their shops, not sure whether everyone would want to join in,” says Chris Baylis, chairman of Wake up to Woodstock and owner of the Real Wood Furniture Company in the town. “It is now a wonderful, magical event with mulled wine and chestnuts, attended by hundreds of people, and it helps bring people into town the month before Christmas.” It’s constant hard work, though; Baylis says it is “a never-ending battle” to keep people coming into the town. 

That it works as well as it does, according to Carritt, is a sign that Woodstock is a fairly affluent town with a core of motivated people to work hard for it. “It’s not exactly a yearning for ‘the good life’, but people here are prepared to stand up to encroaching globalisation, which is killing less robust communities.” 

Crofton Park’s ‘Our London village’ shopping bag

Crofton Park’s ‘Our London village’ shopping bag Similarly, in Crofton Park, a once forgotten corner of southeast London, a wave of young professional families exiled from unaffordable inner London is bringing energy and enthusiasm, setting up businesses and getting involved in community life. “We’ve even got a netball team now,” says Jane Martin, who has lived in Crofton Park for 27 years. “We won the last tournament we played in, and have had to close our waiting list.” 

Helped by an active website (croftonpark.com) and local traders tweeting away to each other, Crofton Park now has a branded shopping bag with the tagline “Our London village”. It also hosts regular mini festivals and has a new community garden. 

“When we were threatened with a new supermarket, everyone opposed it,” says Martin, who writes for the website. “London has this reputation of being faceless and unfriendly, but look at all the small former villages and we’re working hard to keep our identities going.” 

While towns and communities with a buzz about them are certainly attractive to buyers, there’s a fine line between healthy “gentrification” and an area pricing itself out of its character, says Simon Smith, of the London estate agency Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward. “Brockley for example, next to Crofton Park, was always a vibrant little community, but when prices in the capital rose and you got flats going up from £300,000 to more than £500,000, it nearly lost the community feel and had to work hard to keep it going. 

“Bankers who leave home at 6am and don’t come back until 8.30 in the evening aren’t the kind of people who are going to contribute to music festivals, craft fairs and fun days for children.” 

This is the key for Penrith, too. Adrian Wilkes-Green, of Wilkes-Green and Hill estate agency, says it has maintained its individuality precisely because it doesn’t attract commuters who treat it as a dormitory town. “But we have to keep fighting all the time,” he says. “We’ve got five supermarkets surrounding us, and it’s a constant battle to retain that individuality.” 

If a town can find its own spirit, then it can tap into inner strengths it never knew it had. “My childhood memories of Whitstable are in shades of brown and grey,” says Victoria Falconer, who grew up in the town before moving to London for 13 years after university. 

The seaside town has stood firm against the waves of supermarkets that have tried to get a foothold in the long, thin high street. It supports two independent bakers, as well as several butchers and greengrocers. When Network Rail recently tried to cut down trees on the town’s railway embankment, the chainsaw operators were met by three middle-aged women who had padlocked themselves to a tree. 

Julie Wassmer, a local author and TV screenwriter whose novel The Whitstable Pearl Mystery is published this month, says it helps if there are a few idiosyncratic characters in a community, along with an underlying rebelliousness. “Historically, this is a quirky old smuggling town with a reputation for being anti-Establishment. Our traders have bravely stood up to excessive rent rises. And when our Crown Post Office was threatened with closure, we stood up to that, too.” 

Happy shoppers 

Flax eco bag

Flax eco bag (Smilesafox/Getty) 

■ Choose a bag logo that encapsulates the character of your town or festival, such as WhitLit’s book and oyster design. 
■ Local artists may provide designs free of charge: this was the case for the Woodstock “SusWoo” tree logo or the Crofton Park logo, which features five local landmarks. 
■ Engage local schools with a “design a logo” competition. 
■ Choose a sturdy Fairtrade bag that will last for years and that people will actually want to use. Offer two types: the tough, stand-up-on-its-own one and a softer bag that can be folded up and stuffed into a pocket. 
■ Be smart on price. Sturdy jute bags with a logo will cost about £1.70 to produce; don’t charge more than £2. Try thecleverbaggers.co.uk
■ Encourage local traders to promote the bag over plastic ones. Start a Twitter campaign linked to your community website.

Source: The Sunday Times 29 March 2015

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