Grand Tour by Elisabeth Skinner MBE – North & Wales

26 September 2022

My plans for three visits on September 19 were undone by the Queen’s funeral so on Tuesday 20 I headed from Gloucestershire to Stafford where I met Lisa, the County Officer of the Staffordshire Association of Parish Councils.  Lisa is almost at the end of her first year at Level 4 and has recently been promoted from her initial role as Training Officer at SPCA.  We discussed her studies as the deadline for submitting draft assignments for comment is approaching, and then Stacey arrived from Eccleshall to catch up –  Stacey studied Level 4 but decided not to go to the higher level.  Lisa took us on a gentle walk around unparished Stafford to see some of its fine old buildings and the park.

By lunchtime I was in Nantwich (Cheshire) where I chatted with the Town Clerk, Sam Roberts, and checked that she was making good progress on her Level 5 assignments.  Sam showed me around the attractive Civic Hall where staff were cleaning up a sticky floor after a rather rowdy event the night before and putting out half a dozen table tennis tables for the afternoon’s activity.  By the time we came back from a tour around the town centre, ping pong was in full swing.

Next stop was Knutsford where the Town Clerk, Adam Keppel-Green, is studying Level 6.  Adam is a trainer for CiLCA so we discussed how that was progressing before heading for a prearranged meeting at the town’s heritage centre.  Followers of this blog will already know that I am deeply envious of anything that resembles a local museum but this corner of Knutsford is a real gem.  Most significantly, it contains the Millennium Tapestries, incredible needlepoint wall-hangings behind glass cabinets in a temperature-controlled room.  I met two volunteers who explained how local people did the stitching to create pictures of their own houses and a whole range of local features.  Entire families and local schools contributed to this massive community project.  One resident took the lead on design and bringing the component parts together into three seamless panels.  There is a book to go with the tapestry listing every individual who contributed.  I was then told a horrifying tale of woolly bears and a wool eating grub that presented a few challenges, but the tapestry is a breath-taking achievement and well worth a visit.

Adam took me to the offices via some very strange structures designed by a man in the early 20th century who, according to the heritage centre volunteers, liked sketching ideas for buildings but had trouble working with architects.  The Town Council now owns one of these eccentric buildings and hopes for Lottery funding to help with much needed renovations.

I ended the day in Stockton Heath, a densely packed urban village squeezed between the Manchester Ship Canal and the Bridgewater Canal near Warrington.  I met Parish Clerk, Lara Jacob (studying at Level 5) who took me on a short walk after dinner. This was the first time on my tour that I had been shown around after dark!  I was introduced to some local features, including the war memorial with fine hanging planters just across from a swing bridge taking a busy road over the Ship Canal.     Lara explained how the people responsible for the bridge proposed closing it for nine months without consultation and actively refused to listen to the views of the parish council.

The following morning we took a pleasant walk around Stockton Heath’s biggest open space.  We mused over a still glorious patch of wild flowers sown in the summer by the parish council but causing enormous upset to one nearby resident.  We then came to a small lake, once again causing conflict between strong-minded individuals as the council tried opening up glades on the edge of the lake so that biodiversity could flourish.

My next destination was in Flintshire, North Wales, where another Level 5 student, Sharron Jones, took me on a whistle-stop drive around the three communities of Hawarden, Broughton and Bretton.  I was struck by the enormity of the area covered by her community councils – a complete contrast from compressed Stockton Heath.  Furthermore, the differences within her communities were extreme from the extensive Airbus site housing many massive buildings and a tarmac runway, to the decorative Victorian building in pink sandstone that houses the impressive Gladstone Library.

Back in the car, I headed south, weaving back and forth across the Wales/England border to Oswestry where the clerk, Arren Roberts, had a real treat in store.  Within minutes I was strapped into a rickshaw and biked around the town while the driver explained how the cycle hub worked.  Click here for more information.  Arren knew I would be impressed as the scheme hits so many environmental buttons that I often discuss.

We met up with Arren near the Old School, a project taken on by the town council.  This is an extremely old building – by reputation the second oldest school building in the country.  It needed some TLC and cried out for improvements to the café facility; the council recognized the importance of the venue as an attraction of the town and accepted the challenge.  Needless to say, we enjoyed tea and cake while checking on assignment progress.

After an overnight stay in Montgomery, my last destination on this trip was Newtown in Powys where Ed Humphreys, studying at Level 5, is clerk.  The strong message from this visit was how much can be achieved if the council works in partnership with others in the community.  Although it seems there is always someone willing to grumble in the background, there is a strong creative energy at work in the town.  After a quick tour around the civic building where Ed works, we visited the Reuse and Repair Shop, a project facilitated by the town council where the first repair café event had recently been held.  Ed then showed me Broad Street – resurfaced and planted up to create an attractive ‘green’ environment; in this case the council had worked with Welsh Government funding and Powys County Council.  At the top of Broad Street was access to over 120 acres of fine parkland alongside the River Severn.  Again, the town council worked together with Open Newtown, a community-led social enterprise, to create land for festival events, play areas, a cycle hub, and a brand new community building that was almost ready to open to the public.

After another welcome cup of tea I was back in the car and heading home with Google maps taking me along rural roads and narrow lanes south from Powys, alongside the Shropshire Hills, through Herefordshire and back to Gloucestershire – much preferred to the M5 and M6.  I have now visited 60 students with plans to see at least three more in October and just two or three from the total of 67 who might be out of reach.

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

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