I did not feel that I could stretch it to a whole newspaper column, but I was excited during my last stay in Northumberland to notice the first ever investment in improved public services in the 22 years I have lived in my current home. When I moved into my house in October 1988 there was an excellent village shop, incorporating a good delicatessen and a post office, just three miles away. That village also boasted a pub, school and church, while the next village two miles further on boasted a grocer, a hardware store that also had petrol pumps outside, a separate post office, a bank (Lloyds, admittedly a sub-branch only open one morning per week), two pubs, one of which did a rather good steak and kidney pie at lunchtime, and two churches.
The primary school and the church in the first village are still functioning; in the second village the former hardware store now sells newspapers, greetings cards and some basic groceries as well as serving as the post office. It is open in the mornings only, while the one remaining pub opens three nights a week and has abandoned its attempts to serve food. One of the two churches mysteriously burnt down a few years ago, allegedly because it stood in the way of a profitable development opportunity. And that’s it. Everything else has gone.
In short, unless you’re keen on God or have children under eight to educate, you’re pretty much on your own. Small wonder that Mrs H prefers living in Cheshire, where a village boasting a fine selection of shops is only 20 minutes’ walk or five minutes’ drive away.
Why do village shops fail? I have always bought as much as I can from my local ones, and on the rare occasions when I have bothered to compare prices I have never found them wildly out of line with the supermarkets in Alnwick or Rothbury. The moment I despaired was when I was standing in the now defunct one in my nearest village, exchanging banter with the proprietor, and an elderly neighbour of mine walked in.
“Got any UHT milk?” he enquired, in the gruff Northumbrian style.
“No,” replied the proprietor, “But we’ve got lots of lovely fresh milk.”
“Oooh, I can’t afford that,” grumbled the old man, clearly much put out. “Now I’ll have to drive all the way to Rothbury for some UHT.”
To put that in context, Rothbury is the best part of a 20-mile round trip, in a car that probably burned as much engine oil as petrol. One could not help thinking that these costs had not been factored in to his decision-making process.
In short, it’s all been downhill for facilities and services in these parts, despite the fact that new houses have been thrown up here and there, old ones refurbished, and the total local population must surely have increased despite the landed gentry’s penchant for leaving some of their estate cottages empty and gently rotting, rather than renting them out to townies who might object to some of their bloodier traditional rural pursuits.
But not any more. The tide has turned. This morning, on my way back to Cheshire, I paused to take a photograph of this harbinger of the Brave New World of improved public services in the countryside. And here it is.
|Try to imagine my excitement|
Admittedly it’s been closed up with that yellow tape for at least two weeks now. Perhaps it will turn out to have been erected in the wrong place, or merely be there temporarily for a photo opportunity. But maybe, just maybe, they’re waiting for a minor member of the royal family, or one of the local nobility, to cut a ribbon and declare it officially open.
It’s not that much use to me, to be honest. There is a post box nearer to me, a 25 minute walk from my front door (this one will be more like 40). When I was running a serious business from home, and despatching ten or more letters every working day, I wrote to ask whether there was any chance of Royal Mail installing a post box in my own little hamlet. They replied, promising to think about it. Twenty years on they are presumably still thinking.
So why am I excited enough about this one to break my silence of a month? Because of what it represents, of course. In simple terms, it’s A Start.