British Villages Rescue Vital Community Services
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In Britain, rural communities are communities are loosing vital services because of cuts in public spending. Pubs are closing down, and so are post offices and local stores. Many places have been left without a center for community life.
But Vicki Barker reports that some British villagers are taking matters into their own hands.
(Soundbite of church bells)
VICKI BARKER: English villages don't look or sound much more timeless than Appleton. It's a cozy cluster of golden and grey stone houses lying about seven miles from Oxford, near the River Thames. Every week, teams of bell-ringers converge on the ancient church here, drawn to its unusual 10 bells. Inside, local ladies arrange armfuls of white flowers for a wedding.
Ms. JILL SAVINGS: We've got lilies. We've got roses, Alstroemeria, Lisianthus. We've got - the Michaelmas daisy is the white ones, and lots of foliage. Lovely roses, here.
BARKER: If St. Laurence's Church is the heart of this village, just across the street is Appleton's life's blood: its community store.
Parishioner Anna Ford.
Ms. ANNA FORD: It makes an enormous difference, particularly for the older folk of the village, and the young mums, collecting children from the village school.
Ms. LORAINE PAGE: Two pounds and 11 pence, please.
Unidentified Woman: I've got that. Here's two.
BARKER: So big a difference, that, when villagers heard Appleton's convenience store - its only store - was closing down, they took it over themselves.
Ms. PAGE: My name's Loraine Page. I'm here doing my volunteer stint from 11 till one behind the counter. And that's my bit that I do each week.
BARKER: About 100 locals take turns pricing items, checking the inventory, manning the cash register.
(Soundbite of cash register)
Ms. PAGE: One-ninety-nine, please.
Unidentified Man #1: Lovely. Put a penny in the jar.
Ms. PAGE: Thanks very much, indeed. Put it into the little box. There we are.
(Soundbite of creaking door)
BARKER: On the store's bulging shelves, you can find hair ties, razor blades, bread, sugar. In its humming refrigerator and freezer compartments, local cheeses, meats and produce.
Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible) special delivery to London, please.
Ms. JULIET CARTER (Appleton Postmistress): Yes. Okay.
BARKER: In one corner, a glassed-in booth serves as the village post office and gossip central, says postmistress Juliet Carter.
Ms. CARTER: If there is ever a queue, they're always so busy talking to each other that nobody notices.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CARTER: But we don't get many queues, here.
BARKER: Like village stores, post offices are another endangered species on the English rural landscape. Carter kept her job, but has had her hours cut to two mornings a week. But that's better than nothing. With the nearest bank miles away, and local bus services patchy, Carter says her older customers rely on her to cash their pension checks.
Ms. CARTER: I would notice immediately if one of my regulars didn't turn up. So if there was a problem, if someone's had a fall or something, we'd know if they didn't come on their regular slot.
Ms. CAROL BATEMAN: Nick and Sarah have swapped...
Ms. MARGARET READING: Oh, they've swapped.
Ms. BATEMAN: ...with Clyde.
Ms. READING: All right, Clyde.
BARKER: In the store's tiny office, Carol Bateman goes over the week's schedule with volunteer Margaret Reading. A retired IT manager at Oxford University, Bateman serves on the shop's board.
Ms. BATEMAN: The cynics of the village thought that it would only last six months. And now we're 10, you know, nine or 10 years on. And we're doing very well, so much so that we're actually able to give money to local charities, as well.
BARKER: Fired by the success of the store, Appleton has now drawn up a 10-year plan to further strengthen community life, including working to keep the town's special practice open, improving local broadband service and building a playground. And it's become a model for other towns in the area hoping to make their communities closer.
Margaret Reading says she's heard that 214 self-run community stores have opened up in the U.K. in the past decade or so.
Ms. READING: And out of that 214, only five have failed. Well, that's a pretty good rate, I would say, for businesses.
BARKER: The store gets small grants from rural charities when it needs to replace equipment, and it's exempt from commercial property tax. But no government money's involved - just the sweat equity of locals who don't want to see their community die.
For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Appleton, England.
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