Friday, 04 September 2015

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Alston: A DIY community living the high life in England’s last wilderness

Living in what some have described as England’s last wilderness, you must become used to harsh realities.

Alston view photo
Front Street, Alston

When the weather’s at its worst – with the nearest town 20 miles in every direction – it can be isolated. It also isn’t cheap. Being so far from anywhere else, it is people here who suffer the biggest hit when fuel prices rise.

Yet, perhaps one of the harshest realities people in Alston have had to become used to is that to make things better, sometimes the only option is to do it yourself.

This is a community that was a big society long before David Cameron coined the phrase for his Government – then made Eden one of its trailblazers. Its reputation as a place where people go it alone is growing.

Nationally, some have looked to Alston – England’s highest market town – as an example of a place where people are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure essential services survive.

It is no coincidence that this community has managed to keep things that many others a similar size – and bigger – have long since lost, simply because of residents taking action.

But, speak to people and they will tell you this is not out of any desire to live the good life in one of the most picturesque parts of Cumbria, which paints the perfect picture of an idyllic market town on a bright, crisp January afternoon.

It is out of necessity – the knowledge that if the community doesn’t do something for itself, then there are very few people who will.

Pat Godwin,

“Sometimes the only way to get things done is to do it for ourselves. There are many examples.”

They include bakers and wholefoods’ shops run by co-operatives of businesspeople clubbing together to try to make a living. Then there was the campaign – organised and paid for by the community – that resulted in Alston Moor getting its own snowplough, agreeing a contract to clear and grit roads around Nenthead.

Alston has had its own community ambulance – providing sometimes life-saving emergency cover until professional crews arrive – since the 1950s, although that is now under threat because of new care rules.

The battle for better broadband has also been led by a social enterprise, Cybermoor, which masterminded cheaper and fibre optic connections to the area.

There are also a raft of thriving community groups, including a business association and a partnership working to secure the future well-being of Alston and surrounding settlements.

Remarkably, for a town its size, Alston has managed to retain its own secondary school, Samuel Kings.

And, walking through the town centre, it appears to have everything you would think of for a traditional market town – a functioning town hall, pubs, two banks, a post office and butcher’s.

Pat Godwin, 56, was elected a district councillor in May. She has lived in Alston since 1986, first being attracted to the town from her native north east because of what were then low house prices.

“A lot of people at that time came for that reason,” she says.

She praises the way the town manages to retain the services it has – and hopes they can be built on.

“That is the strength of pulling together. There are lots of voluntary and community groups. We’re a fully functioning small community.”

Of course, that’s not to say that things don’t come with their challenges.

Communications is one of them, although bus services include those into Carlisle – well used by people travelling to work or college or to go shopping on a Saturday – as well as those into Haltwhistle and Hexham.

One of the issues currently being discussed is how to make better use of the community minibus to help more people. Talks are also on-going to create a new community plan.

Pat said: “There are always things you can do to improve a place.

“We need more people living here. There are quite a few empty properties and we would like some more families. This is a great place for kids to grow up

“The challenge is jobs and it would be great if we could encourage some businesses to set up here. ”

Businesses would, of course, love more trade, a factor it is hoped can be built on in the pending community plan.

IT expert Chris Lowthian, 53, launched his business, Alston Digital, seven months ago after being made redundant from the secondary school.

He says things are going well, with his shop providing a service that people would otherwise have had to travel to the likes of Carlisle for.

Chris, who has lived in Alston for six years, agrees the spirit of the town is what makes it special.

“When Alston is under the weather there’s a massive community spirit,” he said.

“Those with 4x4s go out to help those who are stuck, everyone helps clear path with snow shovels and it is nice to be here.

“But that’s Cumbria, not just Alston. People exchange pleasantries in the street, even to those they don’t know.”

Butcher Alan Rutherford, 51, has lived in Alston his whole life.

“It’s getting stuff into the town that’s ever so expensive,” he said.

“Quite a lot of shops have closed for one reason or another.

“But a lot of people have moved into the area and think it’s great, otherwise they wouldn’t come here. People come here on breaks here every year.”

Campaigns on-going in Alston include that over the future of the community ambulance.

Alternatives include a partnership with Cumbria Fire Service on a co-responder team where retained fire crews could provide initial medical cover until an ambulance gets there.

A First Responder team – where locals are trained to offer life-saving care – could also be formed.

A recruitment campaign is continuing to boost retained firefighters, while Cumbria police plans to close the town’s police station as part of a cost-cutting shake-up, with officers using relocating in the town.



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