“On Wednesday 18th May, I met three Level Four students, Gail Robinson, Nicola Webster and Hayley Burns. Unusually, all three work for councils where they have lived for many years and feel a strong sense of belonging and ownership. Nicola and Hayley, and maybe Gail, actually work where they grew up. This is in contrast to many clerks who prefer to live well away from the community they serve.
Gail is clerk to Terrington St John in north west Norfolk between Kings Lynn and Wisbech. She showed me round the village centre and pointed out a controversial water course well-hidden under nettles and other greenery which locals want the council to tackle. Gail is also preparing to negotiate with the Methodists for the purchase of their redundant church hall as the community has no hall of its own. To reinforce these two major issues, a neighbour to the hall popped in while Gail and I were discussing the Alice assignment on local council law and procedures to press home the points about both the ‘ditch’ and the hall.
I then enjoyed a long drive over true Cambridgeshire fenland with its flat vistas and huge, wide open skies to the pretty, traditional village of Hilton near Huntingdon. Even before I discovered the hall, a Victorian school building, I met several ducks just wandering gently across the lane and a village green that stretched as far as the eye could see. I parked by the hall and went for a short walk before meeting Nicola. Nearby cottages, the church, a large house and many mature trees just oozed history but the real discovery was the 17th century grass maze. It is a registered historical monument originally created by a young man to celebrate the reinstatement of Charles II – and now the parish council is required to look after it. I spent a delightful half hour or more chatting to Nicola on a seat alongside the maze. She told me the story of a local disagreement about the jubilee beacon ten years ago and then outlined the village’s plans for the jubilee in the few weeks’ time.
Next stop was Huntingdon itself where Hayley is responsible for events. We discussed her progress on assignments and then I learned about the pensioners’ lunches that she regularly organises with a special lunch planned for the jubilee. The town hall is extremely grand and overlooks a fine market place surrounded by more buildings brimming with history. This is the home of Oliver Cromwell while Samuel Pepys also went to school in Huntingdon (I’d always thought of Pepys as a Londoner). The Town Clerk of Huntingdon is, of course, Philip Peacock, the Society’s President. Philip showed me round the Town Hall with its assembly rooms, the mayor’s parlour and old courtrooms. The main assembly room has huge portraits of Georgian royalty on the walls, one of them by Gainsborough. In my mind’s eye, I could easily see well-to-do young people dancing and socializing under the watchful eye of older generations as described by Jane Austen.
There was a thunderstorm overnight, so for the last day of stage two of the grand tour there was a freshness in the air. Well before 9.00 am, I met up with Ramune Mimiene, the clerk of Buckden just south west of Huntingdon. Here the Parish Council works very closely with a community trust that owns a large site with playing fields, the village hall and social club and a newly restored lake. The two organisations play to their strengths in providing the community with a variety of services. The village of Buckden has achieved some successes with its neighbourhood plan but needs to keep alert under significant pressure for more houses and a solar farm – developers are keen to ignore the flood plain of the River Ouse that passes alongside the village.
An hour later I was in Northamptonshire at the parish of Earls Barton where final year student, Roise Smart is clerk. Rosie and I met for coffee in the village centre and chatted about plans for the jubilee, a regenerated sports facility and her dissertation. Rosie is looking at the challenges facing women who become councillors and hopes to come up with some recommendations for improving their experiences.
As I write this, I am home again after a 10-day tour that took me to the far east coast. I have had a wonderful time meeting up with 20 more students (now 36 in total) and I have learned about 20 very different parishes from tiny Hilton to massive Lowestoft. The students are approaching two deadlines in remarkably good spirits – the submission date for their assignments is June 9th while simultaneously most of them are organizing jubilee events for the weekend before. We may have to be generous with extensions.”
By Elisabeth Skinner MBE. Follow her progress on Twitter – @lisabethski.