Hampshire Day – and the importance of ‘place’

I’ve been enthusiastically marking the first ‘Hampshire Day‘ – established as the 15th July, which is also the feast day of St. Swithun, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral.

The Hampshire Flag

The day is meant to celebrate the diverse culture, tradition and history of communities across what is often referred to as ‘the first shire‘.

It means a lot to me because, in years of amateur sleuthing, I’ve traced my own family history across many, many generations wandering the fields and commons of this one particular corner of North-East Hampshire – Yateley; Eversley; Minley; Hartford Bridge; Elvetham; Dogmersfield; Crondall; Winchfield; Odiham; Hartley Wintney and over to Sherborne St. JohnTadley and Mortimer – for at least 400 years.

Looking out over the nature reserve at Castle Bottom, which is between Eversley, and what is referred to as Hartford Bridge Flats, Hampshire.

As our lives become more ‘virtual’, and there are less opportunities for people to be brought together to physically interact, counties can be one of those things which help us reclaim a sense of ‘place‘, and even rebuild some ‘spaces’, to be human, to revel and grow in the time spent together, and the relationships generated, rather than society becoming further atomised.

My old terrier, Sparky (rip), preparing for ‘take-off’ on the disused runways at Blackbushe Airport, on Yateley Common, Hampshire.

By some coincidence, it is 41 years ago on this same day – 15th July, 1978 – that Bob Dylan performed at Blackbushe Airport, up on Yateley Common where I live.  I was there as an 8 year old, along with a huge crowd estimated to be in excess of over 200,000 people. More details here.

The airport is as much a part of my home town’s sense of place as anything else – I love nothing more than laying in my back garden and listening to light aircraft coming in to land.  But I would never have dreamt that 41 years after Bob Dylan’s concert (alongside Joan Armatrading and Eric Clapton), that the authorities would have allowed part of Yateley Common which hosted it to be de-registered as common land. Read more here.

Common land.

Common land is an important principle, and I am sure there could have been other ways for the airport’s future to be supported or secured without violating this principle.  I am worried about the precedent it has set – and other issues the decision raises.

But for today, I am flying the flag for ‘Hampshire Day‘ – and celebrating the idea of ‘place‘, and our common spaces.  Let’s cherish them, rather than expend too much time or effort in  allowing them to disappear, merely to pretend to recreate them with private, ‘pseudo’ ones instead.

Postscript:  Some important organisations I’d like to share links with –

Civic Voice / Common Ground / Open Spaces SocietyProject for Public Spaces /

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The Hows and Whys of the Hampshire heaths

With the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley, I posted recently about his contribution to a sense of ‘place’ in this corner of North-East Hampshire where I live, which referred to one of his works (“Prose Idylls, New and Old“), and how it described the ‘rough commons’ terrain of the area.

Since that post, I’ve learnt more about another of his works, “Madam How and Lady Why: First lessons in earth lore for children“, where he writes at length about the local landscape, name-checking very specific points on the heaths and commons, and in the woods of the area.

In the chapter titled ‘The Glen‘, he begins;

*You find it dull walking up here upon Hartford Bridge Flat this sad November day? Well, I do not deny that the moor looks somewhat dreary, though dull it need never be. Though the fog is clinging to the fir-trees, and creeping among the heather, till you cannot see as far as Minley Corner, hardly as far as Bramshill woods–and all the Berkshire hills are as invisible as if it was a dark midnight–yet there is plenty to be seen here at our very feet. Though there is nothing left for you to pick, and all the flowers are dead and brown, except here and there a poor half-withered scrap of bottle-heath, and nothing left for you to catch either, for the butterflies and insects are all dead too, except one poor old Daddy-long-legs, who sits upon that piece of turf, boring a hole with her tail to lay her eggs in, before the frost catches her and ends her like the rest: though all things, I say, seem dead, yet there is plenty of life around you, at your feet, I may almost say in the very stones on which you tread. And though the place itself be dreary enough, a sheet of flat heather and a little glen in it, with banks of dead fern, and a brown bog between them, and a few fir-trees struggling up–yet, if you only have eyes to see it, that little bit of glen is beautiful and wonderful,–so beautiful and so wonderful and so cunningly devised, that it took thousands of years to make it; and it is not, I believe, half finished yet.”

For those not so well versed in the area, Hartford Bridge Flat(s) is the long, open , flat area of land, traversed by the A30, and now home to Blackbushe Airport. During WWII when it was first built, it was named RAF Hartford Bridge.  Much of the area is now a nature reserve, home to Yateley Common, and nearby Castle Bottom.

The book is an introduction to the ways of nature (using the ‘fairy’ characters ‘Madam How‘ and ‘Lady Why‘), but for me, it is as much a physical connection with this same area of Hampshire that previous generations of my family would have been roaming at the very same time as Kingsley – in particular, the Vickery family, who, at that time, had lines in Minley, Hawley, Hartford Bridge and Elvetham.  Who knows, some of them may even have stumbled upon each other, although probably not my great, great grandfather Alfred, who was exactly two years old when Kingsley died in 1875. His descendants settled in Eversley, and Yateley.

Looking out over the nature reserve at Castle Bottom, which is between Eversley, and what is referred to as Hartford Bridge Flat(s).

Other mentions for locations on this patch in this book include:-

“All round these hills, from here to Aldershot in one direction, and from here to Windsor in another, you see the same shaped glens; the wave-crest along their top, and at the foot of the crest a line of springs which run out over the slopes, or well up through them in deep sand-galls, as you call them–shaking quagmires which are sometimes deep enough to swallow up a horse, and which you love to dance upon in summer time.”

On Yateley Common at Darby Green, looking back over towards the other side of the Blackwater Valley.

“But what could change a beautiful Chine like that at Bournemouth into a wide sloping glen like this of Bracknell’s Bottom, with a wood like Coombs’, many acres large, in the middle of it?…… and so at last, instead of two sharp walls of cliff at the Chine’s mouth, you might have–just what you have here at the mouth of this glen,–our Mount and the Warren Hill,–long slopes with sheets of drifted gravel and sand at their feet, stretching down into what was once an icy sea, and is now the Vale of Blackwater. And this I really believe Madam How has done simply by lifting Hartford Bridge Flat a few more feet out of the sea, and leaving the rest to her trusty tool, the water in the sky.”

Looking at ‘The Mount’ referred to by Kingsley, from the road outside his rectory in Eversley.

“Water, and nothing else, has sawn out such a chasm as that through which the ships run up to Bristol, between Leigh Wood and St. Vincent’s Rocks. Water, and nothing else, has shaped those peaks of the Matterhorn, or the Weisshorn, or the Pic du Midi of the Pyrenees, of which you have seen sketches and photographs. Just so water might saw out Hartford Bridge Flat, if it had time enough, into a labyrinth of valleys, and hills, and peaks standing along; as it has already done by Ambarrow, and Edgbarrow, and the Folly Hill on the other side of the vale.”

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards Wales.

Reading the text, and seeing the places name-checked finally inspired me enough to take a walk around Bramshill Woods for the first time this week.  I’d always wanted to see the ‘Welsh Drive‘ for myself – the historic, long-distance drove road along which cattle were herded from Wales to markets south of London, and along the route. I had to stop for a while to feel a connection with the track that is still there today, and which Kingsley must have walked himself.

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards the A30.

Very little how, why, or wherefore, but I just felt inspired to go out, and to collect these words together too in one place, since they have helped make this place more particular for me as Kingsley’s 200th birthday approaches.

 

Kingsley – making it quite a place

I don’t pretend to be a serious historian, but I do take an interest in the identity of my local area.  I was born in Farnham, on the Surrey/Hampshire border, and spent the entire 18 years of childhood growing up in Yateley, in Hampshire – the town to which I returned some four years ago at the age of 45.  Our neighbouring village is called Eversley.

The village sign indicates the meaning of the village name is ‘wild boar clearing’, in this case, on the edge of Windsor Forest.

Dabbling in my family history, I discovered generation after generation on my Mum’s side, deepening my roots in this area of North-East Hampshire, through Eversley, Elvetham, Hartford Bridge, Minley, Dogmersfield, Crookham, Fleet, Rotherwick, Winchfield, Crondall, Odiham, Dipley, Hazeley Heath, and north towards Tadley and Sherborne St. John too.  I go back around four centuries, before the blood lines start scattering further afield.

‘Place’ is very important to me, but even with the pride I have in this area of North-East Hampshire, I’ve never felt able to pretend to be able to tap into any great wells of social, political or cultural significance for this patch.  There’s always been William Cobbett, but that’s really over the border in Surrey – and of course there’s always been Jane Austen, but somehow, I’ve always felt she’s had too good a PR campaign, with huge swathes of Hampshire laying claim to be ‘Jane Austen country’, even though she probably didn’t have anything to do with huge parts of it.

Jane Austen’s PR machine has been beating Charles Kingsley’s in this corner of Hampshire for some time – take this sign as you cross the River Blackwater from Berkshire into Hampshire as an example.

That’s why I got so excited when I first heard about plans to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley on the 12th June, with a festival in Eversley – the neighbouring village to Yateley – on the 14th and 15th June.  Kingsley was rector of St Mary’s Church, Eversley from 1844 until his death in 1875, and was ordained in Farnham in 1842.

Charles Kingsley – writer of a diverse range of work; from The Water-Babies, to social commentary and natural history; historian; social reformer (helping to secure child labour reforms); and of course, local Hampshire rector.

I had no real understanding of Kingsley’s true legacy before I heard about the festival (novelist, poet, historian, social reformer, Christian socialist and keen interest in so much more) – and unravelling the various layers to his personality and career have provided an insight into just how much of a significant place Kingsley must have helped Eversley be back in Victorian times.  It has really given me a sense of pride in the relationship between my home town Yateley, and its neighbouring village, Eversley.

WATCH some clips from a BBC series on Kingsley and The Water-Babies, ‘The Secret Life of Books’ – pictured here, a stretch of the River Blackwater. Click on image above.

Kingsley’s friends, correspondents, and possibly visitors:

With Eversley effectively providing the nerve-centre where he was rector, the roll-call of names of Kinglsey’s friends, likely visitors, and correspondence through letters is quite breath-taking, and has helped me see my own ‘backyard’ through a completely different prism.

‘Authors’ (John Stuart Mill; Charles Lamb; Charles Kingsley; Herbert Spencer; John Ruskin; Charles Darwin), pub. by Hughes & Edmunds 1876, ©️ National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

It is likely that this circle could have included John Ruskin (visionary, & critic of art, & architecture); John Stuart Mill (philosopher & political economist); Charles Darwin (geologist, geologist & biologist); Henry Fawcett (economist & statesman) and Millicent Fawcett (campaigner for women’s suffrage); Herbert Spencer (philosopher, biologist & sociologist); Octavia Hill (social reformer); Lewis Carroll (best known as a children’s author); Thomas Hughes (lawyer & politician, best known as author of Tom Brown’s School Days); Frederick Denison Maurice (theologian, and one of the early founders of the Christian Socialism movement); Elizabeth Gaskell (author of Cranford, & North & South); Thomas Cooper (Chartist & poet); Charles Blachford Mansfield (chemist & author); and Charles Dickens.

Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales

Apparently, Kingsley’s sway in the pulpit could pull in audiences from far and wide, including officers from nearby Sandhurst and Aldershot (Blore, 1920).

St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire. Kingsley’s pulpit.

Kingsley’s appointments signpost too just how much influence he must have been able to command.  He was appointed as chaplain to Queen Victoria (1859), and in 1861, a private tutor to the Prince of Wales.  Royal patronage will have helped in his advancement in academic positions.  On Gladstone’s recommendation, with Victoria’s approval, he traded a position as Canon at Chester (1869), for one at Westminster (1873).

Heckfield Place

The front of Heckfield Place, by night.

And just like today, there was Heckfield Place.  Today, it is a source of wonder and speculation, recently snaring the prize as Sunday Times ‘Hotel of the Year’ 2018. and playing home to a range of speakers through ‘The Assembly’ series, such as Dr. Julian Baggini; Viv Groskop and Sir Michael Marmot.  It is inconceivable to think that it did not feature on Kingsley’s radar in some way.

The stunning underground cinema at Heckfield Place plays host to a regular ‘Assembly’ range of talks – I can just imagine a season of Kingsley’s network, back in the day!

Back then it was home throughout Kingsley’s tenure to Charles Shaw-Lefevre.  He was the second-longest serving Speaker of the House of Commons (serving between 1839-1857), who then went on to become Viscount Eversley of Heckfield from 1857-1888.  I’d love to know more.

A bit about the physical place itself

Kingsley wrote of the local ‘commons terrain’  in his book “Prose Idylls: New and Old” (1873), London, Macmillan and Co, and particularly the chapter entitled, ‘Winter Garden‘.  You can find a digital copy of the book here.

from “Winter Garden” – pg 164:  “Grand old moor! stretching your brown flats right away toward Windsor for many a mile – Far to our right is the new Wellington College, looking stately enough here along in the wilderness, in spite of its two ugly towers and pinched waist.  Close over me is the long fir-fringed ride of Easthampstead, ending suddenly in Caesar’s camp; and hounds and huntsmen are already far ahead, and racing up the Roman road, which clods of these parts, unable to give a better account of it, call the Devil’s Highway.”

Castle Bottom, on the edge of Eversley parish – part of that ‘wilderness’ featuring commons, firs and sandy heath to which Kingsley refers.

from “Winter Garden” – Pg 165:  “I respect them, those Scotch firs.  I delight in their forms, from James the First’s gnarled giants up in Bramshill Park – the only place in England where a painter can learn what Scotch firs are – down to the little green pyramids which stand up out of the heather, triumphant over tyranny, and the strange woes of an untoward youth.  Seven years on an average have most of them spent in ineffectual efforts to become a foot high.  Nibbled off by hares, trodden down by cattle, cut down by turf-parers, seeing hundreds of their brethren cut up and carried off in the turf-fuel, they are as gnarled and stubbed near the ground as an old thorn-bush in a pasture.  But they have conquered at last, and are growing away, eighteen inches a year, with fair green brushes silver-tipt, reclothing the wilderness with a vegetation which it has not seen – for how many thousand years?”

More of that ‘Winter Garden’ – pictured here in Spring!

from “Winter Garden: – Pg.169:  “I pass through a gateway, out upon a village green, planted with rows of oaks, surrounded by trim sunny cottages, a pleasant oasis in the middle of the wilderness.  Across the village cricket-ground – we are great cricketers in these parts, and long may the good old game live among us; and then up another hollow lane, which leads between damp shaughs and copses toward the further moor.  Curious things to a minute philosopher are these hollow lanes.  They set him on archaeological questions, more than he can solve; and I meditate as I go, how many centuries it took to saw through the warm sandbanks this dyke ten feet deep, up which he trots, with the oak boughs meeting over his head.”

The view from the top of ‘The Mount’ looking back towards St Mary’s Church, where Kingsley was parish rector, and where the festival takes place.

from “Winter Garden” – Pg 171:  “So I go slowly up the hill, till the valley lies beneath me like a long green garden beneath its tow banks of brown moor; and on through a cheerful little green with red brick cottages scattered all round, each with its large neat garden, and beehives, and pigs and geese, and turf-stack, and clip yews and hollies before the door, and rosy dark-eyed children, and all the simple healthy comforts of a wild ‘heth-croppers’ home.  When he can, the good man of the house works farm labour, or cuts his own turf; and when work is scarce, he cuts copses and makes heath-brooms, and does a little poaching.  True, he seldom goes to church, save to be christened, married or buried: but he equally seldom gets drunk.”

The Revd. Peter Ditchfield made note of this when writing a piece for the nearby Arborfield Local History Society.

“… his “Winter Garden“, that great stretch of country through which you can ride fifteen miles on end, wherein flourish great Scotch firs, bright hollies with their scarlet beads, furze patches rich with its lacework of interwoven light and shade, and the deep soft heather carpet, which invites you to lie down and dream for hours; and behind all the wall of fir-stems, and the dark fir-roof with its jagged edges a mile long against the soft grey sky.

He loved to ride through the fir-forests “with their endless vistas of smooth red green-veined shafts holding up the warm dark roof, lessening away into endless gloom, paved with rich brown fir-needle — a carpet at which nature had been at work for forty years. Red shafts, green roof, and here and there a pane of blue sky, while for incense I have the fresh healthy turpentine fragrance, far sweeter to my nostrils than the stifling narcotic odour which fills a Roman Catholic Cathedral”.

More of the barrenness, this time towards Yateley.

Kingsley admired greatly the grand old moor, stretching its brown flats right away towards Windsor for many a mile, and the green wilderness of self-sown firs. “There they stand in thousands,” he wrote, “the sturdy Scots, colonizing the desert in spite of frost, and gales, and barrenness ; and clustering, too, as Scotsmen always do abroad, little and big, every one under his neighbour’s lee, according to the good old proverb of their native land, ‘Caw me, and I’ll caw thee’. “

Two hundred years on

Kingsley died on 23rd January, 1875, and the breadth of his influence was demonstrated by the attendees at his funeral in Eversley, embracing everybody from the servants of the Bramshill Hunt, and the Gypsies of the local common, to Dean Stanley (the Dean of Westminster) to a representative from the Prince of Wales.

It has certainly made me think a little differently, whenever I might be prone to say, “nothing ever happens here”.  Much of his legacy remains to inspire and challenge, or to be explored.  Unusually in such cases, there is little ‘hype’ to ‘fall for’, which is refreshing.

Eversley today has it’s ‘celebrity’ connections – people like Laura Marling coming from the village, or Sky Sports News presenter Nick Powell living there, and former England cricket captain, Andrew Strauss.  But in Kingsley’s day, it is as if he helped connect the place, and open it to a wider range of influences unrivalled today.

It feels like a real privilege to have the programme of events marking the bicentenary of his birth on 12th June taking place on the 14th and 15th June in the field called ‘The Mount’, opposite the church where Kingsley was rector.

The festival features an outdoor opera spectacular (a ‘cantata dramatica’) based on one of his poems (Andromeda); a puppet-show interpretation of his most famous work (The Water-Babies); a play bring Kingsley back to his old parish today (starring Blue Peter favourite, Peter Duncan); a series of ‘Tent Talks‘ exploring Kingsley’s social, political and cultural legacy; a pageant on the theme of ‘child labour’ – and much more besides.  More at ck200.live .

Those ‘Tent Talks‘ feature a range of academics, including one of the main festival curators, Dr. Jonathan Conlin (University of Southampton); Professor of Economic History, Jane Humphries (Oxford); English Studies lecturer Dr. Jane Ford (University of Teesside);  English Literature lecturer, Dr. Alexandra Gray (University of Portsmouth), and Deisenroth Presidential Professor of the History of Science, Piers J. Hale (University of Oklahoma) – plus professional pundit/priest, Giles Fraser.

Any proceeds from the festival go the local school which bears Kingsley’s name, and the charity, Child Hope UK.

I think the bicentenary is a good opportunity to reassess Kingsley’s contribution to the local area.  If we can put up signs welcoming people to ‘Jane Austen country’ as you enter the county, we must be able to acknowledge Charles Kingsley’s rich contribution to this particular corner of Hampshire in some way?

References:

George Henry Blore; ‘Victorian Worthies – Charles Kingsley’ (1920);

Charles Kingsley; Prose Idylls, New and Old (1873)

Norman Vance: Artist biography of Charles Kingsley;

North Craven Heritage Trust, Journal 2011; ‘Charles Kingsley, Christian Socialist’

 

Better connectivity could mean trams and light rail

In the summer of 2018, I got volunteered together with other local residents in helping to create a neighbourhood plan for our local area – Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore, in Hampshire.

My specific area of interest is ‘Getting Around‘, whether that is transport in all its shapes and sizes, or provision for those of us on the pavements.

In the course of our deliberations, a number of people have looked longingly at places which have improved connectivity using light rail, trams or guided buses.  We were going to look into the subject, hoping to include something of an aspirational nature in our plan, thinking the idea would be a bit ‘Alice in Wonderland‘.

Blackwater Station, on the North Downs Line, Hampshire.

Imagine our delight when we discovered that we had been beaten to it. There have already been studies in 1991 (about bringing local railway lines and a new interchange hub station with the London Waterloo mainline, as well as additional ‘community stations’ in the Blackwater Valley of which we are a part), and reports in 2002 & 2003 (which make reference to plans for a ‘Mass Transit System‘ for the Blackwater Valley), with the possibility of light rail, trams or guided buses connecting the likes of Aldershot, Farnborough, Camberley, and Bracknell – making the possibility of much better connections with places like Yateley, Fleet, and Farnham with new interchange stations.

You can keep up-to-date with the work we are doing on our neighbourhood plan here and the post which contains full details on all of those studies can be found by clicking here.  I think it is well worth a read, although I would say that!

Tramway de Gand. Credit: Claude villetaneuse (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While these might seem like long term aspirations, hopefully considering the wider strategic context for transport planning of the ‘Blackwater Valley‘, and previous work that has been done in this area for improving connectivity should provide grounds for including aspirations, if not our own specific policies, in our own neighbourhood plan.

 

Making connections

A recent independent inquiry – Civil Society Futures – published its report in the middle of November, called “The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society,” which said that civil society must up its game, or risk complete irrelevance.

I usually abhor acronyms, but it came up with one – PACT – to describe the process of change it says needs to occur:

* Power: argues power needs to be shifted so that everyone is involved in decision-making;

* Accountability: organisation must be more accountable to communities they serve;

* Connection: civil society must build broader and deeper connection within and between communities;

* Trust: organisations need to put effort into building and earning trust and ensure they are behaving in line with their values.

Top (L-R): Yogesh, Sue, Charlotte; Middle (L-R): Wilf, Mel, Di; Bottom (L-R): Camilla, Luke, Paul. Members of the ‘Getting Around’ subject group, bringing a variety of experiences from across the community.

It’s for reasons very similar to this that I’ve joined other residents where I live since July to be part of the process of building the new neighbourhood plan for the town – Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore, in the district of Hart, which is in the North-East corner of Hampshire.

I’m co-leading the subject group (members pictured above) which is looking at issues to do with ‘Getting Around‘ – that’s anything to do with being a pedestrian, with cycling, with using public and community transport, and of course, driving in its many and varied forms.

I’m on a bus… making connections.

We’ve just posted the latest update on our group’s work, entitled ‘Making connections‘ – click here for more – as well as all the previous posts here.

You can find the main website for our local neighbourhood plan here.

Neighbourhood planning will never be the answer to all the issues anyone has in their local area, but it can be a useful start – and what we’ve found as a group of residents is that, as an excuse for starting to have those conversations about issues, and engaging with the processes in the local community, some of those dynamics to do with power, accountability, connection and trust start to move.  And who knows – we might finally get that bus to Fleet we’ve waited so long for!

Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, usually in Service Updates, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

Resist!

Over the last few months, I’ve had cause to concentrate my focus on the theory and practice of turning protest into power, to an extent that I probably haven’t done since the mid-90s. The campaigns-related side of public relations, and best ways of developing effective strategies are obviously things which have dominated my time as a communications practitioner, and then in teaching in around ten years as a lecturer on the subject, but I’ve been reflecting enough of late to feel the urge to post my thoughts here.

It began after reading ‘How To Resist: Turn Protest Into Power’ by Matthew Bolton (2017: London, Bloomsbury). This post would have remained a simple book review. I didn’t realise that I had failed to type up the notes I had made on the book, but in the intervening period, I managed to get embroiled in the democratic process more than I had intended. I’m now co-leading a group of local residents where I live examining issues connected with “Getting Around” as our local town council look towards developing a new neighbourhood plan) – as well as finding myself leading a very measured protest against the axing of a community bus service, so I may as well bring these three things together into a single post on the theory and practice of ‘resisting’.

And back in the middle of October, I had the added benefit of attending the launch of the RSATeenAgency’ which provides further scope for reflection on some of these themes.

I’ll begin with the book, as it had been on a pile of purchased, ‘yet to read’ titles by my bed, but circumstances conspired over the summer to make it even more attractive to read. With Brexit weakness and incompetence being displayed by our political class; Austerity-fuelled policies serving to deprive citizens of meaningful innovation or control over public policy, and a series of gigantic moral outrages such as Windrush and Grenfell, I know from my experience, and that of my peers that we have never felt so in need of political solutions, but equally, never so emasculated by the paucity of quality on offer from our party political system.

Having been involved to some degree in campaigning during my professional life too (only to feel let down by the bastardisation through a thirst for votes of some of the original campaigning ideals of the ‘community politics’ approach I had been introduced to as a teen by the Liberals), this new book tantalised me.  It is penned by Matthew Bolton, who has been at the heart of the Citizens UK movement, and as such, is able to call upon lessons from practical campaigns (and wins at that) such as for the Living Wage, particularly on campuses of specific universities, for their cleaners, and for contract cleaners at HSBC.

The book is full of valuable lessons, such as the need for anyone embarking on any campaigns to do a ‘power analysis’, not just of structures, but of people, not just external to the campaign, but within it too.  Also, the need to ask oneself, “What can I do in my everyday life to affect this?” – it might not just rely on megaphones and banners.

Indeed, if I had any criticism of the book (and I don’t really), it would be that I would like to see more dedicated to this last aspect, as well as the time/attention given to the flair with which  we can try to trip-up wrong-doers who might have excessive power. I’d maybe like to see as much attention given to the leading by example stuff, which I think probably has more scope in a tired and cynical age.

So, what other signposts for us? The importance of relationships – of the human aspects in our lives, in ultimately achieving change.  For example, activating word of mouth. In addition to power analysis, other priorities for Bolton are listening (what do people care about? What is their self-interest? How do they frame issues?); the need to constantly look out for potential team members; the importance of honing your story; and looking at both internal and external action as different priorities.

Once you get the ball rolling, numbers will ultimately be important – a critical mass. Networks and word of mouth are the best way of achieving this, and those direct relationships. Direct, broadcast shortcuts might be attractive, but they are no substitute.

Activity to achieve this, more often than not, must be meaningful (not gimmicky), yet enjoyable.

Bolton does propose some ideas to help with ‘tactical innovations’ in delivering campaigns – a phrase I picked up from a discussion I heard on a BBC World Service show (an episode of ‘The Real Story’), about whether protests have had their day, in the light of the ‘blimp’ during Trump’s visit during the Summer of 2018. It was coined by L.A. Kauffman (Direct Action and the Invention of American Radicalism), who argued that you often need such devices merely as ‘troop motivators’ during bleak times. Also on Ritula Shah’s panel were David Graeber, Dana Fisher, and Fatima Shabodien. You can listen to the show by clicking here. I thoroughly recommend it.

Click through to listen to this discussion on Protest.

He suggests widening the net – finding ‘unusual allies’ – it is from these connections that you will be successful in synthesising ideas, contributing from a wide range of experiences, so as to discover surprises, turn heads, and find those creative tactics and campaign content. Bolton offers some ultimate tips to campaigners:-

* look after yourself/pace yourself; * ask yourself what you really care about, to best identify motivators; * stop doing some things; delegate others; * weave social change into your life, to make it more effective and fundamental; * do it as part of a team; * be strategic; make a plan; * take control of your schedule, and ensure it includes one-to-one conversations; * find time.

Bolton ended with an iron rule – never do for others what they can do for themselves. I don’t always practice what he preaches, but I do see it’s importance.

This is important. It’s where I came in. It’s what that ‘community politics’ thing was supposed to be about, but politicians liked doing things ‘to’ people, because it helped them collect votes.

This should be about showing people how to do it for themselves – and the thrill of the transformative effect for themselves and the community when they do. Otherwise, we will be back to square one very quickly.

I’m not at all sure that there is much hope – but we have to be optimistic that it is worth a try – and willing to laugh at the absurdity of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Using Slinkachu-style models as a consultation tool for qualitative research in local community cafe, Cafe 46.

Being in that frame of mind, and having read ‘Resist‘, when I saw that the Town Council group on my local patch working on creating a new Neighbourhood Plan earlier this summer, as a way of creating a shared vision for our town, and providing an ‘additional layer of control’ over development decisions’ were having a public meeting, me and a friend went along.

We came away, having ‘stepped up to the plate‘, volunteering together to co-lead the subject group looking at transport and traffic issues.  We already felt we had made a difference by getting agreement for its focus to shift to “Getting Around” so it can look at issues for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and users of public & community transport too, as a one of the best ways to solve issues for drivers stuck in jams and looking for a parking space.

My own personal motivation was having to surrender my driving licence a few years ago due to my neurological condition, I discovered just how woeful public transport has become. Despite being the second largest town in our district/borough, we have no bus connection to the largest town (despite it being only four miles away), no direct bus connection to the mainline London Waterloo railway services, and the last bus back from the nearest major town leaves there at 8.50pm!

Some days I have a real ‘high’ about the possibilities the process gives us, and just what level of innovation may be deliverable.  On other days, I am down in the doldrums, worried that it all might just be a toothless paper exercise (I have bad experiences of public sector ‘consultations’).  I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in between, and I just have to manage my expectations – but if you don’t take part, you can’t shape things.  In addition, as well as the formal process of creating a Neighbourhood Plan, the whole thing means conversations are happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen; the seeds of other campaign ideas are being planted; and networks are being created in the process, so it’s a valuable thing in itself for that reason, if nothing else.

You can read blog posts on the specific journey of our ‘Getting Around‘ group of the Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore Neighbourhood Plan in our beautiful corner of North-East Hampshire at https://ydf-np.org.uk/getting-around/ .

The regulars on the free community bus facing the axe by Sainsbury’s.

I mentioned those days when I am in the doldrums.  One reason I had good cause to be reminded of why the clouds can often obscure my optimism is when Sainsbury’s recently announced with no notice that they were axing a valuable community resource – a free shopper’s bus which takes many older people, and disabled as well as other members of the community to a local superstore (Watchmoor Park, Blackwater Valley Road) otherwise inaccessible by public transport.  Many of these people are not on the internet either, and the Stagecoach contracted bus delivers passengers right back to their doorsteps with their shopping.

The reason I felt so down?  A little research on my part in the neighbouring council offices (Surrey Heath) unearthed the fact that Sainsbury’s were legally obliged to be providing the bus service as a condition of them securing planning permission for an extension to the store back in 2004!  Despite this, Sainsbury’s have felt able to ignore this, and no democratic scrutiny or enforcement has stopped them from doing so.  Hopefully, an intervention from me, with support from fellow passengers and a local councillor will get the wheels of legal enforcement moving by the local authority – but it may be too late to stop an interruption to the service on which many rely.  If the bus does end, despite my success in navigating the system and getting the supermarket’s ‘collar felt’, I will find it difficult to have any faith in shaping future planning policies, if I’ve just seen a historical planning condition which affects so many people woefully ignored!

Still, it has been a good example of putting some of the lessons of Matthew Bolton’s book into practice – particularly with regard to power analysis, and the importance of relationships. Yes, posting on Facebook groups, photo-opportunities, yes, but some of the most valuable insights were about talking to the people affected by the issue, and understanding the real heart of the power when it comes to the problem.

I’ve already combined a lot of things into this post, but I will touch on one other.  I was lucky enough to attend the mid-October launch of the RSA report “TeenAgency” on how young people people are changing the world, and how best to support them in their efforts to make a difference in their communities.  It deserves a post in its own right, and I will hopefully get round to doing so in  due course.

Panellists Ruth Ibegbuna (founder of the RECLAIM project in Manchester, and now of the Roots Programme) and Sam Conniff-Allende (founder of Livity, and now author of ‘Be More Pirate‘), together with some particularly powerful contributions from young people on the panel made strong points about the need to have ambition and imagination in supporting youth-led social action, and rather than accepting ‘tokenism’ which creates ‘special panels’ with a place for a young person reserved on them, we need to always question where power lies, and be prepared to help mentor young people to support them in building networks for themselves, and busting open established power structures, because it will probably benefit us all in creating a more open, transparent, supportive and dynamic society for all, not just for young people.

I was lucky enough to go along to the launch of the report with a few friends:- Ed Mather (the director of Yateley Sixth Form, at my local comprehensive, Yateley School); a good friend, Luke Buckland (who is co-leading the subject work I talked about earlier on our local Neighbourhood Plan), and a best friend who is soon to take up post in an exciting new academic leadership position when a powerhouse brand will take all its prestige and head-turning ‘clout’ and use it to make new moves in higher education.  We’d arrived after only having just met-up with one of my first bosses, Sir Simon Hughes, who has recently been installed as the new Chancellor of London South Bank University.

These networks, built from the friendships you assemble along the path you tread in life’s rich tapestry can also form the basis of some interesting partnerships, and the germ of some creative ideas when you campaign.  They need to be celebrated, nurtured, and above all, shared with a new generation.  One point which came out powerfully in the ‘TeenAgency’ event is that there are some people who are born into classes with these networks ‘ready made’, or bought, courtesy of private education.  The rest of us must make common cause to overcome that advantage of others – and often, it only takes a knock on a door, or a simple request to get that access shared.  We need a bit more solidarity!

And perhaps I need to write shorter posts! I’ll return to some of the more specific issues I’ve in bite-size form in future posts.  Thanks for bearing with me!

 

Stepping-up

I’ve just come to the end of 18 months volunteering with Citizens Advice Hart.  When I was first retired off from work with my neurological condition, I at least wanted to ensure I was still contributing my recent PR experience (and dare I say it, professional skills) to a community cause.

This Citizens Advice Bureau dates back further than the Yateley portacabin - but demonstrates its vital role over the years.

This Citizens Advice Bureau dates back further than the Yateley portacabin of the 1980s – but demonstrates its vital role over the years – more here.

Citizens Advice has always been important to me since they helped my own family in the mid 1980s, when they were based in a ‘portacabin‘ behind the Royal Oak pub in Yateley.  Since then, their recipe of free, confidential, impartial and independent advice, combined with campaigning on those issues which have presented themselves to those organisation with regularity has become more important.  With a widening gap between rich and poor, and Government relying more on austerity as a strategy, Citizens Advice has as good as become the last stop-gap for those at the sharp end looking for help and support.

I know most people have ever increasing workloads and time-pressures in their working lives, but the contribution I have been able to make in the last 18 months has underlined just how much we can all make if we were able to volunteer just a small amount of time to local charities, community organisations or campaigns.

Dealing with life's transitions - like having a baby. Photo taken at Ewshot Recreation Ground.

Dealing with life’s transitions – like having a baby. Photo taken on steps of the slide at Ewshot Recreation Ground.

I was excited to be able to bring my 18 months to a close by producing a postcard-led volunteer recruitment campaign, “Change a Life – One Step at a Time”.  It featured scenes which utilised Slinkachu-style street art, which I photographed in locations throughout our largely rural area, to help bring a district to life which many of our residents were unaware of.

Dealing with life's transitions - like bereavement. Photo taken on the steps of Odiham War Memorial.

Dealing with life’s transitions – like bereavement. Photo taken on the steps of Odiham War Memorial.

The scenes each illustrated a different ‘life transition’ which the charity is likely to help local people, so that potential volunteers can get an insight into the kind of work they could help with.  Previously the charity had found it difficult to get permission to share examples of case studies, and this overcame that problem.

The local newspaper – the ‘Fleet and Yateley News & Mail‘ were so impressed, they gave us a full page feature on the initiative.

Citizens Advice Hart's "Change a Life - One Step at a Time" campaign in the "Fleet and Yateley News & Mail"

Citizens Advice Hart’s “Change a Life – One Step at a Time” campaign in the “Fleet and Yateley News & Mail”

The full campaign was explained in this blog post.

It had social media extensions on Instagram and Pinterest, and the postcards are designed to be used regularly as banners on Twitter and Facebook.

It has been a real thrill to work with staff and fellow volunteers to help spread the word on the local Citizens Advice.  When I first began, I helped show how media relations works, and how the potential of a story can be properly unlocked.  They ended up on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, in the pages of the Spectator magazine and in the local media too.  As well as helping them embrace social media, I then worked with the trustees on pulling together a full communications strategy.

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The biggest thrill was embracing some of the best practice from of the best agencies I have had the privilege of engaging with over time to run a session with the team of 30 or so volunteers to help unlock the true nature of the charity’s communication problem – and how to overcome it.  We were able to see how some solutions directly led to changes in service delivery – and changes in how we thought about how the service might work in the future.  It also helped volunteers and staff see how PR is about much more than press releases, but can actually help the organisation keep a focus on improving relationships with people.  And it helped put them in the driving seat of the analysis stage of compiling a communications strategy.

After 18 months, I had to remember that I was retired off for a reason, and will be concentrating on that for a bit.  But in the meantime, I just wanted to pen a post recommending that as many people as possible – whether they are PRs, marketers, lawyers, accountants – whatever, volunteer their time with a local charity, community organisation or campaign for change that is dear to them.  Some ‘CPD‘ schemes include volunteering as part of their structures – but it’s just a great thing in it’s own right!

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Fun Palaces come to Yateley

Saturday 1st October 2016 sees the Fun Palaces weekend – ‘an ongoing campaign for culture at the heart of community, with an annual weekend of arts and science events created by, for and with local people.’

funpalace

This year, my home village of Yateley’s library will be hosting a Fun Palace event – and I will be sharing the delights of ‘Slinkachu’ style street art photography with those who come along.  We’ll be encouraging people to use my figures, and try their hand at it amongst the books and shelves of Yateley Library, to see what they can come up with.

Here’s a few ideas with books I had lying around the house, to demonstrate the kinds of things you can do amongst the shelves on the day.

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If you’ve never seen much about ‘Slinkachu’, this is a useful link to read more.  And you can also see how I’ve helped the local Citizens Advice Hart make use of this approach to photography in their campaigning on their blog.  They will be launching a new volunteer recruitment campaign using ‘Slinkachu’ photography in the coming weeks.

I love the central manifesto of the Fun Palaces movement:- “We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.  We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a fun palace.”

The common good!

The event is from 10.00am-4.00pm on Saturday 1st October at Yateley Library on School Lane, and my Slinkachu stuff will be running from 12.00noon-4.00pm.