Community spirit gone? What a load of rubbish!

O come, all ye Womblers: pre-Christmas litter pickers at Barlaston Village Hall

Can-do residents tell Christine Conlin how they’re bringing about a transformation of their village life.

Which place near Stone could this be? Its village hall hosts, among other things, community film nights, themed pop-up suppers, children’s workshops and parties in school holidays and for older residents, afternoon teas.

Where could you have visited 24 private gardens last July for a cost of just £2? Or taken a youngster to a beach party last February half term? Where have residents sat down to a Pie and Prosecco Night, a Bollywood Curry Night or shared a courgette cake and beetroot brownie at a Gardeners’ Gathering?

A Pirate Party on Barlaston Village Green

Still stuck? Well, here’s a clue, and the word is ‘wombling’. As you might remember from the TV series, Wombles are friendly, furry creatures who live in burrows and aim to help the environment by collecting rubbish and recycling it creatively. And did you know, the Wombles are not confined to Wimbledon Common? They also live in Barlaston!

It’s thanks to Barlaston Womblers that the village looks so tidy. Their growing band regularly holds themed litter picks such as The Great British Spring Clean, My Big Fat Birthday Womble (the birthday girl used a gold litter pick) and an annual Christmas costumed Womble to the tune of the Wombler’s Carol!

In the August ‘Pride for the Bride’ Womble, ahead of a wedding at Barlaston Parish Church, Vicar Stewart Jones, who later married the happy couple, helped clear the bridal route. Staffordshire’s Lord Lieutentant Ian Dudson and High Sheriff Pippa Gee, both Barlaston residents, have turned out to womble too, giving the participating children certificates for the ‘Clean for the Queen’ Womble to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016.

The secrets of this success? Support from Staffordshire StreetScene, who provide the litter picking equipment and swiftly remove the rubbish bags and – for the Womblers, cake!

Audience anticipation – films screened at Barlaston Village Hall have included ‘Paddington 2’, ‘Finding your Feet’ and ‘Mamma Mia’

Litter picking needn’t be the soul-destroying business you might think. It keeps you physically active, age is no bar and you form bonds with your fellow pickers. While you’re out, passing drivers will often give you a supportive wave or toot, Womblers find. Putting it simply, picking up litter is a sign of a healthy community.

It was rubbish, recycled with fun and creativity that led to the formation of Barlaston Community Group, the catalyst for regenerating village life.

So how did it start? In 2012 Michala and Andrew Black moved to Barlaston from Ashley, a village with a thriving litter-pick and planting group. Keen dog walkers and self-confessed “compulsive” litter pickers, Michala and Andrew soon persuaded like-minded local couples to join them in their efforts.

In 2013 a Barlaston Parish Councillor, the late Patrick Linehan and Parish Clerk, the late Neil Hemmings, were keen for Barlaston to enter the Best Kept Village competition.

“The move galvanised the village,” Michala remembers. “The Parish Council gave us six litter picks, a local resident donated us hi-viz vests and the Barlaston Womblers were born.”

Barlaston got a BKV Commendation the following year but the village has arguably reaped even greater benefits.

“People who had come forward for BKV were willing to carry on volunteering,” Michala recounts.

The group called an Open Meeting in the Village Hall, where they stuck up a “wish wall” for residents to write their hopes and aspirations for the village. Under Patrick’s leadership, a constituted committee was formed and they set about to turn these requests into a plan of action. Their mission statement is “To foster community spirit by participating in activities that enhance the environment and encourage neighbourliness within the village of Barlaston”.

Any setbacks along the way have been swiftly overcome. In September 2016, two benches on the Barlaston towpath were thrown into the canal. Local residents quickly gathered a team to rescue them, with the help of a passing boat. To quote www.barlastoncommunitygroup.webs.com  

“Let’s all concentrate on the amazing community spirit that we have in Barlaston rather than the mindless actions of a few!”

In March 2016, so popular was BCG’s first pop-up supper that the tickets (£10 for a three-course meal) were over-subscribed by 50 per cent. Organisers were concerned guests would be frustrated by delays in being served.

“We needn’t have worried though,” says committee member Sandie Buxton. “Guests told us they weren’t expecting professional service and didn’t mind waiting. Some of them even came over to help out!”

Last December the Golden Agers’ Christmas Tea Party nearly didn’t happen because of heavy snow. But 70 of the 80 folk who’d booked made it to the Village Hall, and Santa had no trouble getting there, of course. A choir from a neighbouring village had to cancel, so BCG committee members sang carols instead. After the tea, served on the best Wedgwood china, food parcels were delivered to those who couldn’t come. 

Did you know that Barlaston boasts two horticultural heroes, James Brown and Matt Toddington, who cultivate not only their garden but those of their neighbours as well? In Flaxman Close they have created four stunning, separate but integrated plots for their neighbours to enjoy all year round, Michala explains.            

“This truly is community spirit in action and James and Matt can regularly be found sharing cuttings, mowing lawns, trimming hedges and more throughout Barlaston.”  

To find out about more events organised by Barlaston Community Group, or pick their brains for the benefit of your own community, you can subscribe to their monthly online newsletter by emailing barlastoncommunitygroup@gmail.com or visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/BarlastonCommunityGroup/.   It’s a ‘one-stop shop’ full of  messages about lost and found property and animals, items for sale, requests to recommend tradespeople and local job offers.

So what might the future hold? Firstly, even more film nights now that BCG has recently been able to purchase its own projection equipment thanks to a £7,224 grant from the Big Lottery Fund.

Tucking in – a Golden Agers’ party at Barlaston Village Hall.

But in the longer term BCG sees itself becoming less of an initiator and more of an umbrella, nurturing and facilitating other groups as they spring up in the village. The Open Gardens scheme is one such example, mentions Andrew. Excursions might also prove popular – a Christmas shopping coach trip to Liverpool took place on December 4th.

“Another commitment is to increase our engagement and cross-fertilise with existing village groups such as the church, both WIs and cricket clubs,” picks up Sam Taylor, the BCG treasurer and social media administrator. “We’ve set up a village diary on our website in the hopes that everyone will consult and use it, to avoid date clashes when planning village events.”

So why is community regeneration working so well in Barlaston? A key factor might be its population size. From 3,500 residents it’s easier to find a pool of volunteers and enough individuals with a spread of skillsets plus the energy, time and enthusiasm to set up and run voluntary initiatives.

Local government support is also crucial. From the beginning, Barlaston Parish Council has encouraged the BGC, whose litter picking work it praises in the current issue of its newsletter, ‘The Heron’.

But above all, it’s about using a bit of imagination to appeal to people’s better nature.

“We put fun into everything we do, and people respond to that,” Andrew and Michala find. “There’s something satisfying about making a difference. People are naturally good.”