Living on the edge of a village, could be a metaphor for feeling apart, different, an observer rather than a participant. In fact, I do live on the edge of the Herefordshire village of Blakemere – the last house before the stream which marks the boundary with Preston on Wye. Blakemere is a very small village, a collection of houses and farms held together by the church of St. Leonard which has an ancient foundation, but a Victorian outer skin. (Incidentally, St. Leonard is the patron saint of childbirth and had I known this many years ago, I could have called upon his help in the worst throes of labour!) The church is the only public building in the village and is at the heart of all occasions when the 70 village dwellers are able to meet one another. The regular congregation is small, but the church is packed for the Carol Service at Christmas and is almost as full for the Harvest Festival Service.
Most well supported, however, is the church fete, held in the early summer, which allows an opportunity for everybody to join in, lend a hand and experience a sense of community. Villagers help with serving teas and baking for the tea room, organising games, selling cakes, books, plants and exotic objects on the ‘White Elephant’ stall. Visitors are invited to guess the weight of a large cake, to buy raffle tickets and sometimes to name a newborn foal. The money raised goes to church funds with a proportion given to a local charity.
Apart from the church, the village has no meeting place and for this reason an enterprising idea was born. This was to raise money, from the Big Lottery, to adapt the infrequently-used church to serve the dual purpose of holding services, while also providing a social hub for the whole neighbourhood. The project was named Leonard’s Lounge and a steering group was set up. Advice based on similar projects was available from the diocese and a lottery bid was set in motion. This involved appointing an architect and getting permission from various bodies, such as the Victorian Society, while village residents were invited to fill in questionnaires and suggest possible activities. These ranged from foot-care to book groups, coffee mornings to ‘pizza and movie’ nights.
To general rejoicing, the Stage One Lottery bid was successful and serious work was embarked upon to meet the additional criteria required for the Stage Two application. This meant more financial information including spreadsheets and detailed forecasting as well as more specific plans for the suggested activities, with evidence of support from neighbouring villages. Unfortunately, after collating all this information and sending off a very impressive application, we heard that our bid was unsuccessful, due solely to the small number of Blakemere residents.
Living on the edge of this village plays to my interest in boundaries and borders – the liminal sense of possibility and change. Here on the Welsh Border, the boundaries have altered over time and Welsh Village names jostle with English ones, suggesting a complicated history. I learned recently that my end of the village, known as Holywell, was the refuge for homeless itinerant workers in the 19th century who built their own shanty town on common land and found casual agricultural work with the local farmers. There is something romantic about this recent past – rootless people who made a living through the year, from lambing in the Spring, harvesting in the Summer. cider making in the Autumn and in Winter hedging, ditching, planting and felling trees and chopping firewood. There was a whole family involvement: women and children would pick up the leftover grain, collect pieces of wood too small to sell, while women would spin during the winter months. At that time, there was casual employment all the year around for the Blakemere shanty dwellers in agriculture and forestry and they would have had many different skills. In some parts of Herefordshire, it was possible for itinerant labourers to claim squatters’ rights and build permanent homes on common land, but there is little evidence of that happening here, in the hamlet of Holywell on the edge of Blakemere. I am happy to know that they made their temporary homes here and gave this end of the village a slightly rakish, disreputable reputation. Maybe it is fanciful to think so, but did they create some of these small fields, plant these hedges and trees and dig these ditches? Their legacy feels tangible and their footprints may still be felt in this land.