Volume 17 Number 4
Where Community Spirit Takes Wing.
01 August 2004

Mary Lean visits Bergh Apton, and English village which shows what communities can do when they get going.
The Countryside Agency, statutory ‘watchdog and champion’ of England’s rural areas, has been devoting a lot of mental energy recently to developing ways of measuring ‘community vibrancy’. Perhaps its researchers should spend a weekend, as I have just done, in the south Norfolk village of Bergh Apton, a community which positively explodes with creativity.

At first sight, Bergh Apton doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it, apart from the beautiful countryside around it. There’s no school or pub, no cottages clustered around a picturesque green, no high street to stroll along, no geographical heart. Because it started out as two villages, Bergh and Apton, its 187 houses are scattered in clusters linked by narrow country lanes. The church is over a mile from the village hall and the shop.

These apparent disadvantages have helped Bergh Apton to resist the expansion which threatens many rural communities. England is experiencing the reverse of the developing world’s flight to the cities, with net migration into the countryside standing at over 100,000 a year. But there are no new housing developments at Bergh Apton, though many older homes have been extended. This has the upside of preserving the village’s unspoilt charm—and the downside of pushing house prices beyond the reach of young local people. As in most rural areas, most of Bergh Apton’s population is middle-aged or older.

In spite—or because—of this, Bergh Apton’s 420 inhabitants are not short of energy. In 1997, 1999 and 2002, they drew thousands of visitors and raised a total of over £60,000 for charity by opening their gardens as exhibition spaces for sculpture. Between these events they found time to stage a pageant for the Millennium, and to support a host of different societies and projects—including the Conservation Trust (which manages the village’s nature reserve), arts and crafts workshops (a spin-off of the Sculpture Trails), a youth club and the Bergh Apton and District Society (which arranges talks and trips). And don’t for one minute think that this lets them out of running a village fete!

It’s hard to pin down quite what it is that sets Bergh Apton apart from other active villages, but there does seem to be something in the water—or the spirit of the inhabitants—that makes people take initiative for the common good.Take, for instance, the two young mothers who decided to stop moaning about the lack of a mother and toddler group and start their own—the first in the area for 20 years. Or two other mothers who raised the money for the village’s state-of-the-art play area. Or the two brothers who gave up their careers to run the post office—the only one in the five nearest villages—after their parents died.

Take Evie Sayers, who grew up in the village, and with her late husband Tony raised £40,000 to address cardiac risk in young people after their 18-year-old son died of a heart attack. Or Chris Johnson, a painter and decorator who has become the world authority on a crucial World War II battle in Assam in which his father fought.

The village is full of extraordinary people. The Chair of the Parish Council (the lowest tier of local government) spent eight years living on an otherwise uninhabited island off the Welsh coast with her husband and two small children; one of her colleagues was a ports organizer for the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race; one of the District Councillors, who was raised in the local market town, is an internationally acknowledged expert on Korean culture and cuisine.

Then there are the originators of the Sculpture Trails, Pat Mlejnecky, an English teacher married to a Czech, and Maria Phillips, who came to Britain in 1947 as a young refugee when the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. She was awarded an MBE for helping to set up the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in the Czech Republic after the fall of Communism.

If you scratch beneath the surface in any village you’d probably find equally remarkable people. But there’s something at Bergh Apton that encourages them to thrive and work together.

The parish clerk, Lorie Lain-Rogers, traces the village’s ethos back to 1980, when the owner of the Manor House, Major Colin Mackenzie, was appointed as Church Treasurer. ‘He persuaded the Church Council and the Village Hall Management Committee, which had previously run the annual fete in his grounds on its own, to work together to raise funds,’ she says. ‘The first year was a struggle, but subsequently we discovered how much more we could do together than separately.’ The two committees went on to cooperate with the Parish Council in running ‘Welcome’ evenings for newcomers to the village. The experience has formed the base for most initiatives since.

Pat Mlejnecky sees the village as a pattern of what other communities could achieve if they only tried. ‘People say, “Nothing happens in my community,” but what’s stopping them?’ she asks. When she retired from teaching 14 years ago, she felt it was time to get involved locally. She and Maria organized an Open Gardens event which went through several permutations over the years before evolving into the Sculpture Trail. ‘I have a horror of getting stuck into a rut,’ Pat explains.

They started out with a modest plan to invite six sculptors to exhibit in the village. ‘Then we got bolder and said, “Let’s have ten.”’ In the end about 45 sculptors from all over eastern England got involved—as well as one from Germany. The event takes place over three consecutive weekends: the next will be May/June 2005. ‘When we started people said, “You’ll never get people to work a whole weekend,”’ says Maria. ‘Never is too long a word for me.’

‘A lot of people are reluctant to go into galleries,’ says Pat. ‘They think they are for a certain sort of person. Galleries deaden things. If you put sculptures where there is a play of light on them, in nature, they become alive.’

The trails include an exhibition of art and craft by villagers. Visitors are transported from one garden to the next on trailers pulled by tractors. A story teller leads a ‘tale trail’, and there is usually some craft activity in which visitors can join. ‘Next year someone is coming in from the peace movement to show people how to make origami cranes,’ says Pat. ‘People will put a wish inside the crane they make and hang it on a tree.’

The profits raised from tickets, refreshments and commission on the sale of the sculptures goes to the church, the village hall and other village needs, including the regular arts and crafts workshops and the new play area.

Outside charities have benefited too, refuge for battered wives in Norwich, chosen by vote by visitors to the Trail.

Some 200 of the villagers are involved in the Trail, some for months before the event, others on the day. Groups which in other communities might tend their own patches find themselves working together. ‘We all get something different from it,’ says Pat. ‘I don’t look at it as a money-raising thing. If the spirit isn’t fed, it withers. Then you get drugs, drink, loud music....’

‘The Sculpture Trail is more than works of art in a garden,’ says Kevin Parfitt, who admits he thought Pat and Maria ‘bonkers’ when they first floated the idea. His farm includes a field which is the site of the old church at Apton and its graveyard. ‘There is nothing to suggest anyone lived there, but because they lived they influence us.’

Before the first Sculpture Trail, he came upon RS Thomas’s poem, The Bright Field, which speaks of a field lit by the sun, and continues: ‘Life is not hurrying/ on to a receding future, nor hankering after/ an imagined past. It is the turning/ aside like Moses to the miracle/ of the lit bush....’ At a workshop, the villagers made white figures, which they displayed in the field for the Sculpture Trail. ‘It brought to us all a new dimension on what we see now,’ says Kevin. The field is now known as the Bright Field.

With the collapse of pig farming, Kevin Parfitt has been forced to sell most of the land which his grandfather and father farmed before him. He takes a philosophical view: ‘I can still enjoy my surroundings, whether I own the land or not.’ A Methodist lay preacher, he now sees his role as ‘pastoral care’, although he earns his living as a handyman and gardener. He’s part of a small group which meets regularly to pray about the village and seems to be one of
those men to whom people tell their problems. ‘If I see a need, I can’t walk by,’ he says.

Bergh Apton’s other major project of recent years, the pageant, was the idea of Christopher Meynell, who runs a financial consultancy, one of some 40 enterprises based in homes, farms and workshops in the village. He and his wife, Liz, a painter who shows her work in the village exhibition, offered their field as a venue.

Meynell’s spark was fanned into a flame by Phyllis Ride, a former deputy head of Social Services for Norfolk, and Lorie Lain-Rogers. With Derek Blake, now a District Councillor, and other interested people, the two women set up an archive committee to research the village’s history from 8000 BC to the present day and to write the pageant. This led later to the formation of a Local History Group, to collect and archive photographs, oral memories, farm and other records. Another project is tracking down and visiting the graves of all the men named on the village war memorial.

Where possible, those acting in the pageant took the parts of people linked to the houses in which they now live. Linda Davy, the Chairman of the Local History Group, describes it as ‘one of the most amazing things I have done in my life’. ‘When we rehearsed, we never got to the end, and we never had the same cast twice,’ she says. On the night, after a torrential storm in the afternoon, the sun shone and everything came together.

The theme running through the pageant was ‘they loved this place’. For Phyllis Ride, born in London but rootless until she moved into the village in 1955, the thought of what unknown generations have contributed is a powerful one. ‘What is it about the countryside of Bergh Apton which has had me in its grip since I came here to live some 40 years ago and which robbed me of all ambition to climb the professional ladder elsewhere?’ she writes. ‘The landscape is no grand statement. The beauty is in the detail.... And I suppose this could be said of its people and its history.’ She ends by quoting George Eliot: ‘That things are not so bad with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.’

For Lorie Lain-Rogers, whose working life has included boat-building, teaching and furniture making, one of the motivating factors is what Bergh Apton can model to the modern world. ‘People have lost their rootedness in creation and their rootedness in community,’ she says. One of her projects is to set up a ‘Green Gym’, in connection with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the three local medical centres and the village’s Conservation Trust, to offer people access to the healing power of creation and of working outdoors.

Bergh Apton is not a particularly comfortable place to live, she points out. Several of the villagers have experienced appalling personal tragedies and ‘there’s not one aspect of modern life that doesn’t at some point touch us’. With the changes in agriculture, several village men have had to find new jobs: one local farmer who once employed 18 people now employs only one.

The village’s creative energy does not always make for harmony. Its newsletter, edited by a British Airways purser who tweaks it on her laptop during stopover breaks, is full of robust correspondence. Villagers differ, passionately, on the siting of the village sign and the merits of wind farms, on fox hunting and the control of rabbits in the churchyard. Many are concerned about the lack of affordable housing for young people, while others are opposed to building of any sort.

Somehow, however, people manage to work together. For instance, Pat Mlejnecky and Chris Johnson disagree fiercely and publicly over shooting and hunting, but Chris still pitches in with the Sculpture Trails. ‘Civilization is a great thing,’ says Pat Mlejnecky wryly. ‘I might want to thump someone, but nine times out of ten I keep my mouth shut. I’m aware that I do upset people occasionally, and I get upset too. But I seldom harbour grudges.’

Part of Bergh Apton’s secret is that its inhabitants are unwilling to take short-cuts. Where other villages might try to by-pass trouble, Bergh Apton is committed to inclusiveness. So, in the debate over the village sign, everyone has been allowed their say—a process which is finally coming to completion after over seven years.

The village is now working on its Parish Plan, an exercise in local democracy promoted by the Countryside Agency. Over 95 per cent of the village’s households filled in the questionnaire, as against the national average of less than 50 per cent.

If people are the building blocks of community, and communities the building blocks of society, Bergh Apton has something to say to the world—about getting different groups to work together for a common purpose, about taking the risks of inclusiveness and of encouraging initiative, about tolerance, forgiveness and quiet diplomacy. Its message is not that these things are easy, but that they’re worth it.

The theme for 2005’s Sculpture Trail will be ‘Cairn’. Cairns are waymarks made out of stones of all sizes, points out Pat Mlejnecky. Cairns—and communities—need both big stones and little ones. ‘The idea is that our village is a marker to show what communities can do when they get going.’

  • 28.5 per cent of England’s population live in the countryside.

  • Most of England’s 16,700 rural settlements have less than 500 inhabitants.

  • Between 2001-2002, 115,000 more people moved into the English countryside than left it.

  • 44 per cent of the rural population of England is aged over 45 (as opposed to 37.7 per cent of city and town dwellers), but only a tenth of people moving into the country are retired.

  • Less than 5 per cent of people in the countryside now work in farming.

  • 31 per cent of England’s businesses are situated in the countryside: 85 per cent of these enterprises employ less than ten people.

  • Two thirds of the population of the UK have access to broadband internet connections: but only 7 per cent of the population of rural villages.

  • Source: The Countryside Agency

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