If you have a dog, you will understand that they become part of your family.
Charlie, our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is now ten years old and had a rather grim diagnosis at the vets recently. Charlie has heart disease and his health is slowly and surely in terminal decline. It was not a shock to us, as we have noticed for ages and his breed are not expected to live much beyond his age, but it is still hard to see him getting slower by the month.
Charlie has been a faithful friend of the family, our children don’t remember a time before we had him and I will miss his company on my lap in front of the TV when he does eventually leave this world, even if he snores loudly!
I am sitting in my study today and had a random thought - Charlie is a bit like a metaphor for our villages as it feels sometimes like they are in terminal decline. After all, all of our commnunities contain relics of a ‘golden’ age that was lived by our direct predecessors. Post Offices, pubs, butchers, hairdressers were all community spaces that have been lost in a relatively short space of time. In some of our villages, the Church is the only public space we have left. Of course, It’s not just our problem, this is a national issue. The most recent statistics I can find are from 2008 but they show that :
95 per cent of village halls are struggling to stay open
27 village pubs are closing a week
800 village shops are shutting each year
400 garages and filling stations are closing each year
100+ churches of all denominations are closing each year
7 rural schools are shutting annually
This is of course, only part of the picture. The amount of people volunteering to do things has also decreased at a notable rate. The Office of National Statistics reported last year a 15 percent decline in hours volunteered between 2005 and 2015. Volunteers are valued at £14.43 an hour, and it is estimated that the UK has therefore lost £1 billion in help between 2012 and 2015. As the person in charge of one of the biggest voluntary organisations in our villages, this statistic is huge in two ways:
Firstly, I can testify that it is getting harder to get volunteers. For example, Wookey Church Hall is one of the 95 percent of village halls struggling to stay open. Our small and dedicated committee have raised enough money for some serious improvements but more are needed. We are currently not able to take on any bookings for the hall as despite advertising for a bookings secretary for the past month nobody yet has stepped forward. This is a common issue, trying to attract volunteers to help out with the tasks that are needed to keep these places open and running.
The other thing that occurred to me when I found these statistics is just how much those that do volunteer contribute. At that hourly rate, our church groups offer thousands of pounds a week of their time and I feel humbled and overwhelmed just thinking about the size of generosity offered! The reality for me is that we are fortunate in that our churches are growing, but we still rely on a fairly small base of dedicated people to get things done.
Of course, it is not just churches that face the challenge of attracting volunteers, the scouting group for example recently revealed that they have 51,000 children on their waiting list as they simply do not have enough people to help run the groups. They are trying to plug a gap of 17,000 volunteers in order to provide the groups that they currently offer. Voluntary groups all over the UK are finding things hard at a time when cut backs to essential services mean that we need these organisations more than ever before.
Just like my dog Charlie, we are watching a slow, painful decline and we should lament their demise because it this is not progress at all. Once we lose these connection points in our villages people get dispersed into local towns. That means we stop bumping into each other and we stop talking to each other in our communities. If this trend continues we will be lamenting the time when we had any amenities at all, and our villages will just become nice housing estates to live in and nothing more.
We have talked about getting a new dog in our family. They won’t replace Charlie but it will a new dog for a new era in the Clarke family life. Discussions continue about what type of dog it should be, whilst we try to do it out of listening range of Charlie, as my youngest daughter does not want to upset him! In our villages, we cannot go back what we once had - but we can be upset and fight for that sense of community.
That means getting behind, and supporting together the few things we have left. Schools, pubs, shops, coffee shops, village halls and of course.. churches! Lets get out , use them and volunteer a few hours to help those businesses and facilities stay open and halt the decline. Lets get involved in as many groups, initiatives and organisations that take our interest. We need to meet and work alongside each other, because what we have in common is each other and living in one of the most beautiful parts of our country.
What do you think?