Grand Tour by Elisabeth Skinner MBE – Week 2

24 March 2022

“I am discovering the pleasures and the pitfalls of Google Maps! My Google guide took me deep onto the southern edge of Dartmoor for a yoga weekend but failed to tell me whether to use the A30 or A38 at the end of the M5. Fortunately, I knew which road to take. In Bishopsteignton she said my destination was on the left – but it was on the right. In Newton Abbot, too late, she told me to turn right; I tried turning down the wrong road and nearly got stranded in the middle of a set of traffic lights.

These adventures were all part of the second phase of my Grand Tour and I’m loving it. Mark Wells, Town Clerk of Bovey Tracey (Level 4), showed me around their new community centre. Mark was appointed to manage this visionary project – a new-build from scratch. The building houses the town council offices, four offices for rent, and a beautiful modern library and information centre. The library shelves are all on wheels and can be rolled out of the way to create a big community meeting or event space, while another space separated by a moveable wall is the council meeting room with an enormous projection screen.

This wonderful facility for a town of about 8000 residents was part-funded by the sale of a Victorian town hall at the top of town. It was inaccessible, unattractive and uncomfortable. Mark and the new owner showed me the conversion – it’s now a flourishing whisky distillery (which also makes gin). The Town Council will promote the distillery as a tourist attraction encouraging visitors to walk up the hill and visit shops on the way.

At Newton Abbot, Linda McGuirk (Level 4), is a new member of the Town Council’s admin team. I was privileged to see another incredible community facility with council offices, a museum and meeting rooms. Again, a Victorian town hall was sold to help fund this stunning church conversion; the contrast between the modern and the old features of the church (such as the pulpit, the pillars and the ceiling), gave the building real style. And again, the museum’s display cabinets on the ground floor can be moved to create an event space.

Visits 7 and 8 of the Grand Tour were to Dawlish and Crediton on a fine spring day. At Dawlish I walked along the riverbank with Town Clerk, Andrew McKenzie (Level 5) to meet a special attraction – the handsome black swans. An enclosure protected some hand-reared cygnets born a couple of weeks previously, and several species of duck with incubation units full of eggs waiting to hatch. How many town councils become specialists in duck management? We then went to the seafront – remember the storms that destroyed the railway line? Andrew investigated the rebuild for an assignment on the planning system at Level 4. The new sea defences were impressive with a broad walkway between the railway and the sea. The local ice cream with clotted cream that I had for lunch on the way back to the council offices was something else.

In the afternoon I drove to Crediton where the Town Clerk, Rachel Avery (Level 5) showed me an old school that the council now owns. This project is in the very early stages with many questions to be answered before turning it into a beautiful community facility. I learned about the church, the town square, and local industries, but was astonished to discover the factory producing Halls blackcurrant lozenges. The original Hall brothers (best known for their mentholyptus sweets) were my great Uncles who started the business in Whitefield, north of Manchester in the early 20th century. The business and the brand was sold after their deaths but who would have thought that our family business would turn up in Crediton!

Visits 9 and 10 were to Okehampton and St Stephen in Brannel (Cornwall) Okehampton, just north of Dartmoor. The Devon town looked smart in the spring sunshine with two bridges at each end of the main street, freshly painted in blue and gold. Town Clerk, Emma James (Level 4) took the opportunity to show me her progress on two assignments. We discussed tips for making a good fist of the famous ‘Alice’ story on local council law and procedures, and then went out along the main street to look at a scheme for her project management assignment. This was an odd raised stone flower bed which Emma intends to plant with wild flowers providing an attractive entrance to the town.

After an hour’s drive down the A30 into Cornwall, I arrived at St Stephen near St Austell where Parish Clerk, Linda Ranger (Level 5) and her colleague, Ruth, filled me in about this very active parish council which is responsible for eight – yes eight – scattered villages in china clay country. We walked around the centre of St Stephen including a closed churchyard and extensive burial grounds – clearly a hugely significant responsibility. I was really pleased to see so much evidence of the parish council around the village centre. Signs make it clear where the council’s responsibilities lie; the council truck is distinctly labelled and the staff wear branded clothing. Most importantly, before I left, Linda and Ruth gave me a ‘proper’ cream tea!”

Elisabeth is raising money to support a new educational charity for the professional development of parish, town and community council officers. Please visit her JustGiving page if you would like to donate. She has currently raised over £500.

By Elisabeth Skinner MBE.
Elisabeth Skinner's Blog