Building communities in community buildings


Not every village has a close social life – Adrian Fisher describes how one Dorset village is successfully strengthening its sense of community.
St Nick’s Cafe

One of the wonderful things about the recent jubilee was that local activities and celebrations continued for four days. It was a once-in-a-thousand years event, and it was incredibly special. Seeing some of the same local people day after day at various events nudged relationships up a notch or several.
It is often said there is more direct social interaction in villages than in cities or their sprawling suburbs. Part of the reason is the open land around each village. It makes every person in every household more relevant, just because they are there. So we look out for them a bit more – if we don’t there is always the risk that no-one outside the village will. What really helps in a village is to gather, regularly and frequently.
A pub is one way, but because it’s open all hours, all week, there is not quite the same sense of gathering everyone together at one time, regardless of who they are.
Something like a darts night is great, but only if you are keen on darts!

A regular meeting
The ratio of village halls to houses in Dorset villages is remarkable. There’s a village hall in most villages, sometimes in a village with as few as 166 houses. Village halls are a great social resource, but they can tend to feel more institutional than a homely pub run by a keen landlord. Nevertheless, when there’s no pub in the village, some village hall committees have started holding a monthly Pub Night, which helps create a must-attend sense of occasion.
And of course there’s another building nearly every village has – the church. Churches have character and attitude in spades; and as one of the oldest buildings in the village they are typically very central. A Sunday church service can lead to a social gathering place over coffee afterwards. But with falling attendances and often only monthly services, these occasions may be less regular now that clergy can be stretched to cover anything from a four-parish benefice to as many as eight churches.

St Nicholas’ in Durweston is serving a new community purpose outside regular services

A new way
However in Durweston every Thursday from 8.30 till noon, St Nicholas’ church is transformed into ‘St Nick’s Cafe’, with up to 60 people dropping in during the morning. About 150 people went along on the Thursday of the Jubilee weekend. The cafe was a instant hit and has become a sustained success. Parents come in before or after dropping off their children at the school (next to the churchyard); others come in at much the same time each week.
Ideas arise, are discussed and the extra people needed are roped in. New events and activities are planned and carried through. The original idea for the Blandford Film Nights, run by the Blandford Welcome Group, was proposed to Duncan Kenworthy and the late Roger Graef in September 2021 at the St Nicholas Church parish fete. More than 200 people had turned out, and again it was a great success.
One newcomer, Alan, is seeking to move from the Home Counties to Dorset. He had heard of the community activities in Durweston. On the Thursday morning he visited, he was utterly bowled over by what he found. Smiles were everywhere; longstanding fellow villagers were greeting each other with warmth and joy. Someone began singing in the kitchen. He said he had never come across anything like this before, and is now eagerly seeking to find a house locally.

New communities too
Refugee Ukrainian families also gather at St Nick’s, finding a place to speak to others in their own language, and to discuss their shared refugee situation. Vira, a Ukrainian teacher of the English language at high school and college level, told me that the warmth of welcome and desire at a personal level to help had been immensely impressive. But at the government level, less so. The one recurring theme among Ukrainians is the difficulty of finding work. After all they have been through, it is crushing not to be able to do something useful. For Vira, the prospect of having to spend years replicating her qualifications before doing what she is immensely proficient at doing, teaching English to Ukrainians, is soul-destroying. It’s not as if we don’t have lots of Ukrainians all around us, who desperately need to master English before they can get a job (as Irina, a proficient beautician, discovered when seeking work at beautician businesses in Blandford).
St Nick’s Cafe is a remarkable success story, which has already transformed the life and spirit of Durweston. Let us hope that other villages can do something similar and build on the strengths that village life can offer.


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