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Grand Tour by Elisabeth Skinner MBE – South East of England

Time Published 20 June 2022

“I started my tour on 14 June watching a roe deer sitting on my village green as the sun rose between the hills at the head of the valley.  An hour later the young stag stood up, looked nonchalantly around and grazed his way gradually up the hillside.  Was he the same creature that had got into my garden and eaten a rose bush?  This morning he was perfectly beautiful.

After leaving home at about 9:00am I headed south towards the M4 and then east to Reading. After lunch with a cousin, my destination was Cuckfield in West Sussex where I met Sam Heynes and Celia Price, both students in their first year of Level Five. Celia had insisted on meeting us at Cuckfield because she said there was nothing to see at Upper Beeding where she is clerk.  She had every reason to be envious of Sam’s active parish council at Cuckfield.  The Victorian Queen’s Hall is a handsome building on the High Street which, like the Tardis, is surprisingly bigger than it looks. As a local historian, I had museum-envy yet again – at the back is a beautiful garden designed to be deliberately wild and used as an extension of the Hall’s wedding venue.  Sam then took us on a walk around Cuckfield and by the end of the day I had done over 14,000 steps (5 ½ miles).  We went to see the neat skate bowl where they recently held a popular skate jam (I had to ask what this was).  We saw a stone commemorating the discovery of an iguanodon, two sets of fine allotments, a tiny nuclear bunker, an extensive burial ground, and the battleground of a planning application for a single dwelling at the end of a private road – a road belonging to the parish council.  Cuckfield is a lively village with many assets including evidence of extensive volunteering, and councillors who like trying new ideas.  Sam is enjoying her very busy clerkship.

The following day I took a meandering journey through Sussex villages to Kent and a very fine town hall in Tenterden.  The clerk, Debbie Baines, showed me into the Assembly Rooms and once again I sensed echoes of Pride and Prejudice or Middlemarch.  There was an internal balcony for the musicians and an external balcony for pronouncements and election results.  More astonishing was the lists of bailiffs and mayors over the centuries and a list of town clerks from the 17th century.  I learned that Tenterden is a ‘limb’ of the cinque ports, inland on the River Rother, and that this has ancient implications for ceremonials and traditional events.

On leaving Tenterden I headed for Hythe, one of the actual cinque ports.  The clerk, Julie Abbott, chatted about her style of studying before taking me on a walk around the town.  We started by nipping into the museum – oh dear – beautifully curated by a local man who simply takes an honorarium.  The council is responsible for several huge areas of green space, play areas, parks and sports grounds although some are managed by local organisations and some depend on well-managed relationships with the principal authority.  I was intrigued by the wide military canal built as a defence against the French but which is now the location for some rather special water-borne events.  We enjoyed a walk along the sea front with a welcome cool breeze and where Fisherman’s Beach lived up to its name.

After a quick bite to eat I left the coast behind and turned north to the village of Waltham near Canterbury where Level Five student Tony McCord is parish clerk. Waltham has a fewer than 500 residents, five councillors, and an income of about £7000 of which only just over £2000 comes from the precept.  We were joined in the delightfully cool village hall by two of the five councillors and enjoyed chatting about the activities of the council and the community.  Despite being so small, the parish finds plenty to do.  For example, they are working on highway improvements and are embarking on a parish plan; they ran a hugely successful jubilee event and most significantly, they enabled the purchase of the village hall from a private owner.  This council is extremely good at facilitating things for their community.  Their greatest concern at present is the threatened loss of the concurrent functions grant that they have been accustomed to from Canterbury City Council; the clerk and councillors are honing their negotiating skills.

On my final day in the south east I was back on the motorways south of London to my first stop in Caterham, Surrey, where I met Helen Broughton, clerk of Caterham-on-the-Hill and Chaldon Parish Councils.  We agreed that it was too blazing hot to walk around Chaldon so we chatted over drinks in a coffee shop in town as Helen works from home.  Her smaller council has two vacancies out of seven seats and three of the five sitting councillors have young families and struggle to make meetings.  On one occasion, the council meeting wasn’t quorate and Helen fears losing the skills that they could bring to the work of the council.  This is an excellent reason for returning to councillors attending remotely.

Back on the M25 and then the M4, traffic was moving exceedingly slowly.  Nevertheless, I arrived in Henley on Thames as planned to meet up with final year student and town clerk, Sheridan Jacklin Edward.  I was immediately struck by Sheridan’s calm and peaceful office; there was a laptop on his desk and not a single paper. Sheridan took me down to the parade along the river bank, owned by the council, where we sat in the shade and discussed his dissertation while watching swans flying and Canada geese chasing each other.  He then took me to see the council’s adventure golf course.  This is a remarkable development of an old putting course alongside the parade.  The planting of colourful wild flowers around the new course really strikes the eye; the course was designed with biodiversity in mind, not just because it’s a duty on the council but because the council has declared an ecological emergency as well as a climate emergency.  Even more astonishing were the big models of significant Henley buildings scattered around the course and the models of Redgrave and Pinsent sitting chatting on a bench.  The project cost over £200,000 but is becoming a significant source of income. Finally we returned for a short tour around the impressive town hall which was, like Tenterden, really steeped in history.

I have now visited 43 students in total.  I have no more major trips planned until September but will be visiting a few students within reach of home later in June, and on my way to Edinburgh by train with Level 5 students in early July.  Meanwhile, back to marking assignments!”

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By Elisabeth Skinner MBE. Follow her progress on Twitter – @lisabethski.

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