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How do you decide which is the best village of all?

Richard Hollingum looks at the competitive business of ranking rural idylls…

Many years ago I was involved in my village’s entry to the Village of the Year Competition.

I remember that it involved finding lots of evidence of how our village worked, what made it tick and what sense of community was there being generated. I had only recently moved into the village and this was a good way for me to find out about the village life as well as helping promote it as a possible winner.

Jump forward a decade and this year I was pleased to be asked to become a judge on the Village of the Year’s successor, the Best Village Competition (BVC). It was great fun, meeting lots of enthusiastic villagers, seeing lots of beautiful villages and appreciating what a lot of lights we have in Northamptonshire tucked well away, deep inside our bushels.

The awards are organised in conjunction with Northamptonshire Action with Communities in Rural England (NACRE) and despite the name change, the competition essentially remains the same. Villages have to present themselves in as best a light as possible, covering a number of different themes:

Village Life
Community Life
Children & Young People
Older People
Environment & Sustainability
Information Technology

The themes are guided by questions and lists of things to consider. The application forms are designed to assist in the reflection of the community and not to provide hoops for villages to jump through.

Village Life is all about the sort of activities that go on, such as clubs and societies that meet, fetes and dances, scouts and music. In fact any sort of activity that involves villagers coming together. Mind you, its all very well organising these things but how does the village know something is on? And if you are new to the village, what advice and introductions are given to you?

Beyond these social activities, entrants are asked how well does their community contribute to its better and greater good? How does it support community activities, such as getting people to hospital, raising funds for a major work, providing facilities or access to facilities for children and young people.

You have probably got the idea by now. The job of the team putting together the application is to know how the village works, what its strengths and weaknesses are and can explain and demonstrate to others how these feature in plans. The applications are submitted and then the judging starts.

Judging is great. We get to see villages in a detail that we may not have if we had only driven through them. And its great to learn about the number of coffee shops popping up in churches, the work to plant wild flowers on the urban-style verges, the pride in the community, what it stands for and what it does. You learn about the closure of the village shop or pub and then of the enthusiasm of villagers aspiring to set up their own community one in its place. And you learn that the village is not only just the place, nor only just the people but it is the way the two work together, for the now and for the future.

You also get to see the unusual. Apparently the only ecclesiastical stained glass window featuring a smoking person is that in Great Cransley’s church, showing Churchill and Roosevelt on a sofa having a chat and a smoke.

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The overall winner of the BVC this year was Moulton (pop 3454), a village that scored well on each of the categories. It could be said that Moulton has a number of advantages over Little Brassington (pop 401) as it is very large, it is on the outskirts of Northampton and thus has a lot of things on its doorstep. However, many other villages a fraction of its size scored better in some of the categories, it just happens that this year Moulton came out on top. Last year (2017) the winners were Blisworth (pop 2867). The year my village was involved, Creaton won (pop 500).

The population issue is taken into consideration at the start as villages enter according to their size category. 2018 it was under 500, 501-3000 and 3001-6000. The winners of each category automatically have a chance of becoming the Overall winner as well. There is also an award for newcomers. The winners this year were:

Large Village: Moulton
Medium Village: Weedon Bec
Small Village: Rothersthorpe
Newcomers: Kilsby

All the winning villages are thriving and energetic. They have lots going on that involves all parts of the community and the community is proud of the village.

The judges visit to Moulton was packed with discussion and meeting lots of different people doing lots of different things. We were met in their new community centre by Jane Austin, the Executive Officer and Parish Clerk, Gina Bech and Mary-Jane Brown, Moulton Community Connector.

Mary-Jane had the responsibility of showing the visitors round the village: we visited a residential home that has a lot of volunteer support, were shown round the primary school, looked in at the church and ended up at the allotments. Deciding what to show judges is always difficult as there is only a limited amount of time available in the rules for the visit. Moulton wanted to showcase the health and well-being side of things, something that the village has been working hard on for a number of years.

Mary-Jane says that this emphasis has grown naturally out of what was already happening the village “there were several great classes and groups going on – we’ve just connected them even more.” Moulton also wanted to give a good overview “We wanted to show a good cross-section of the community” says Mary-Jane “and as the Community Connector it was really easy for me to connect with the school, the allotments, all the places the judges visited.”

On top of this we were given the village welcome pack prepared for new inhabitants, and had our own walk round the centre of the village. Whilst placed on the edge of Northampton may be seen as an advantage it does bring a number of difficulties, not least of which is maintaining that village feel and experience and the need to retain its own identity.

At the other end of the scale, small villages work equally hard at maintaining that village feel, that sense of community, sense of being a community. Nothing can unsettle that idyllic village life yet bring out a strong community spirit, like the closure of a pub or shop, or the encroachment of large box-shaped warehouses complete with lorries and lights. Each village is different. Each village is unique. And it is these things, this individuality and this ability to deal with whatever life throws at them that makes villages great places to live in, to visit and to celebrate.

But what about the effort? Why enter the competition? For Mary-Jane and her colleagues at Moulton, this was easy: “We are really proud of what we have here in Moulton. We have a vibrant community, we have a lovely new community centre and we work closely with so many different groups. We wanted to show how much we love the place.” But it was not all about being self-centred. “We wanted to highlight to the rest of the County how wonderful our village is, but at the same time we wanted to be an example to other villages, particularly regarding setting up a community hub and organising a Good Neighbour Scheme.”

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Has it been worth it then? For Mary-Jane and the others in the team and for the people of Moulton, the answer is a resounding yes. “It has given a lot of people a pat on the back. There are so many people working hard to make the community of Moulton a great place to be, that this tells them that it is really worth it.”

Until the awards night, the names of the winners are a closely guarded secret, known to only a few. The celebrations start with a light-hearted photography quiz to see who can recognise the more obscure views of their village and then proceed to the awards themselves.

“We were all really excited on the night” recalled Mary-Jane. “We hoped that we would win the Large Village category and we were very happy when we did. However, when we won the Overall Winner category we were so proud. Not proud for us but for all the people of Moulton who do so much for the community – all the people that make Moulton a great place to live.”

The Best Village Competition is being renamed for 2019, and is to be sponsored by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and supported by NACRE. Details about the next competition will be being posted out to parish councils in the next month.
If you think your village should enter the 2019 competition, contact your parish clerk or Rebecca Breakwell at NACRE on 01604 825884 or email Rebecca at rebecca.breakwell@northantsacre.org.uk.

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