A great time to attract new people to your Hall

Show notes (summary)

Fiona Sinnott is a former TV and theatre actor who starred in shows such as Jupiter Moon, The Tudors and Les Miserables. Fiona recently moved to the beautiful village of Bennington in Hertfordshire and immersed herself in village hall activity, soon becoming part of the committee. Fiona talks to us about what it’s like being the ‘newbie’ in the village and how this post-lockdown period is a real opportunity for village, church and community halls to attract new people of all ages into their community.

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 17

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. My guest today is a former actor turned social media and marketing consultant, who recently joined a local village hall committee after moving to the lovely village of Bennington in Hertfordshire. Fiona Sinnott has a huge love of the arts and is already helping to introduce some new activities to the community there after everything started opening up again. Today, we’ll be talking about all kinds of things from spreading the community net wider through different activities and what it’s like being the newbie in the village. Hi, Fiona, thank you so much for joining me today.

Fiona Sinnott 00:44
Hi, Johnny. My pleasure. Thanks for having us.

Johnny Thomson 00:47
Now, as I mentioned, you’ve been an actor featuring in TV shows such as Jupiter Moon and the Tudors, as well as Les Miz, of course, it’s it easier seeing it that way, isn’t it?

Fiona Sinnott 00:59
It sure is!

Johnny Thomson 01:01
And then you moved on to helping businesses with marketing and in particular social media, all of which I imagine has stood you in really good stead for what’s undoubtedly the toughest role in the world, being part of a village hall committee. And I mean that in a good way, of course. So tell me a little bit about your background Fiona, because I know, that’s not a Hertfordshire accesnt for a start, and also how you got yourself involved in all kinds of activities in Bennington.

Fiona Sinnott 01:28
Yes, well, yeah, I’m originally from Dublin and I came over to the UK in the late 80s to train as an actor. I had actually already been working in Ireland, but wanted a bit of extra training. Came over and one thing leads to another, you know, you do a job, and then another job and another job, and then you meet a man and then you have a child. And then you move from the great big smoky city out to you know, Hertfordshire and then you gradually, at least in my case, move further and further and further out. And now finally embracing really where I always wanted to live, which is down a country lane somewhere. So as soon as my son went to university, I waved, waved him off and said, right, I’m off, if you need me I’ll be I’ll be in Bennington. So it’s very nice being the newbie here I must say.

Johnny Thomson 02:20
Yeah. And you’ve got yourself involved in in all kinds of activities there haven’t you?

Fiona Sinnott 02:26
Yes, well, the strangest part of it for me was I bought the house last year, and I was abroad and got stuck there. And when I eventually got home after three and a half months of cancelled flights, everything was closed down, the village hall wasn’t operating. We were in the middle of a lockdown and I didn’t know anybody. So I found myself in this gorgeous part of the world, you know waving at people on walks, but other than that not knowing a soul and not really knowing how to integrate myself. And I’m very much of the opinion that you get out of things what you put in, particularly if you move to a small village like Bennington, which has I think about 1,000 people and everyone knows each other and you have to be here 15 years before you’re not considered a newbie. But I wanted to take part, I wanted to help and so I set about trying to do that and that has ultimately led me to a very kind invitation to join the committee and I suppose bring a slightly different energy, some new ideas and some some of my arty background and the social media, reaching out to maybe some of the younger members of the community perhaps.

Johnny Thomson 03:42
And Bennington is, as you say a lovely village and one thing it’s well known for is its famous annual chilli festival as well.

Fiona Sinnott 03:50
Yes, we have the beautiful Bennington Lordship here, which is of course privately owned, but the Bott family very kindly open their doors and their gates a few weeks in the year and they’re known also very famous for the snowdrops in February, where the grass the grounds are just littered with these beautiful flowers. And people come from all over the country I’m told, those that know about such things, unlike myself, who apparently pulled all my poppies up the other day thinking they were nettles. I have a lot to learn, hence the need for the Gardening Club. And the chilli festival, which is also well known every August.

Johnny Thomson 04:31
Have you been brave enough to take part in the chilli eating competition?

Fiona Sinnott 04:35
I watch and I take photographs of people in pain.

Johnny Thomson 04:41
Brilliant. And that took place at the end of August didn’t it, so it’s great to see things opening open and you’ve been helping to start up quite a few activities with the village hall there recently too as well, haven’t you?

Fiona Sinnott 04:54
Yes, well I can’t lay claim necessarily to the clubs, but I can certainly talk about that. fact that I, I think I am helping with the communication side of things. And because, you know, I’ve always as an actor was a storyteller essentially, someone who, who understood how to tell perhaps the same story to different audiences, when you come into doing marketing and business development and that sort of things, it’s really not that different. So, I almost couldn’t help myself because I, I recognised where there might be a few areas that I could help with, for example, setting up an Instagram account for the village hall. And that perhaps, it’s very new, it’s only there a few weeks now, but it’s perhaps a good way of putting what the village hall does in front of a slightly younger audience. Making sure that someone who’s 25, who thinks the village hall has nothing for them, discovers that actually, there are some fantastic clubs and activities. It’s not just for retired people. And in fact, when I was house hunting, and Bennington was very much on my radar. But I had two or three criteria. One was a village somewhere beautiful down a country lane, but still near enough to be able to get places. I wanted silence and proper, proper dark, where I could put my hand in front of my face at night and not be able to see it. And I wanted it to be within 15 minutes of a cinema. So Bennington satisfied all of those things. And we have a wonderful Film Club and all of these different activities. And what I did before I settled on Bennington was I visited the village hall two or three times, and just jumped in on some of the classes, came to the Gardening Club, I came to, I think, the Tuesday Club, and very kindly a year later, some of the people I met there still remembered me, and they say we remember you came in and introduced yourself and you just asked what went on here and you wanted to find out how the community functioned and how involved everybody was. And for me, and I think for a lot of people, particularly because the village is three miles down a country lane, you know, it’s tucked away, there is almost everything you could possibly need going on, which is really wonderful.

Johnny Thomson 07:19
And tell me about the photography calendar that you’re involved in. Tell me a little bit about that.

Fiona Sinnott 07:25
Well, that’s actually how I managed to sort of meet people in lockdown and introduce myself. It took me a couple of months to realise there was a Facebook page for the village and after sort of just looking at conversations happening, I was brave enough to then make a post and I asked if they had a village calendar and was told I think there had been one a few years ago, but not more recently. And I said that I really enjoyed photography and I thought it was a great way to bring people together and to encourage creativity and that if anyone in the village would like to send me some photographs that represented village life for them, that I would put together a calendar and that perhaps we could use that as a fundraising exercise, because of course the village hall still has bills to pay, you know, when it’s not functioning and not bringing in that money that it needs. So I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of photographs. And the children from the local school took part. I contacted the head who very kindly the new head of the lovely little primary school here, very kindly arranged for some of the children to set, I think that the youngest we had, I think our youngest photographer was two, you know so we had some, we had some beautiful images sent in and with, along with another local photographer, Georgina, who’s amazing, runs a photography business and she helped me to collate the best images that kind of represented the village. And when I say best, I mean you know, we have some there are some beautiful vistas, you know rolling fields, but there’s also images. One of my favourite photographs is of looking down at the ground of a pair of Wellington boots in a muddy puddle. Because that was taken by a child and for me that represents probably their day. That’s their walk to school or maybe they just got given those Wellington’s for their birthday or whatever the story is behind that photograph. It’s just as much a valid representation of life in the village for them. So we included as much of a mix as we could and had a few montage pages. And Ernesto in the village, which is the agricultural shop, very kindly supported with us with the printing with some sponsorship. And some of the local shops stocked the calendar, which was fantastic, Budgens and our local Londis. Very, very friendly and helpful. And we ended up making, I think in a few weeks, we made £1,500 in a matter of weeks. And what it did for me was, aside from the fundraising, it gave me the opportunity to engage with people via email, because they would send me a photograph and I could ask them a question about the background to it and they’d asked me a little bit about myself. And eventually, you know, we got to the point where we were able to print and begin to deliver the calendars that had been ordered. I had lots of lovely doorstep conversations with people, where I was able to kind of associate who the person I had emails with was and where they lived. So over those few months, it just led to a great project, which was good for the for the whole, but also, for me, personally, really sort of integrated me into the village. And now we’re doing a photography exhibition in a few weeks of the images from the calendar and East Herts Council very kindly have given us a grant towards that. And the Chairman of the Council, Ken Crofton is going to open that for us. And so I hope that it will become an annual event, something that will help to unite and bring people together and actually on the back of the calendar, I think within something like two weeks, somebody had set up a photography group on Facebook. And within a couple of weeks it had over 90 members, which is extraordinary for a village of 1,000 people. So it’s ignited an interest and a love and brought people together around storytelling and photography. And at a time when maybe people struggle to express, to find words to explain what the last year has been like. It gives an outlet, a very valuable outlet, which you know…

Johnny Thomson 12:01
Yes, I was going to say it’s not just about people doing something enjoyable or interesting is it, it really gives people that release that opportunity to express themselves. I’m fascinated by what you said about the child’s picture, you know…

Fiona Sinnott 12:13
Yeah, you have to have an open mind about it, it’s not just about pretty pictures, and some people may just expect to see pictures of snowdrops, but it’s a means for people to express what it’s like for them living in the area, then the sky’s the limit as to what that means.

Johnny Thomson 12:30
And there’s musical activity as well there involving young people?

Fiona Sinnott 12:34
Yes, so we have we’re just waiting for actually this particular club to restart. But there’s a there’s a lovely lady in the village called Emma who’s running a club for babies and toddlers, which is a music group. It’s structured, fun, but structured around, you know, learning. I think she does baby sign language and each child is given a bag of puppets and instruments. So there’s you know, Covid safety and that they keep limits on the numbers, but great fun for presumably the parents as well, you know, a mum or a dad or the carer of a small child who wants to come along and see some other grown up humans and have fun. And yeah, this literally is something for everyone within the clubs and groups going on. There’s barely a gap in the week, literally hardly a gap. It’s constant, which is stunning.

Johnny Thomson 13:32
It’s about spreading that community net wider as you say. And let’s face it, because everyone, people of all ages and backgrounds love music, like to take pictures, like to watch a film. And I guess we all, as you said, we need a bit of this right now as well.

Fiona Sinnott 13:48
Well, if you think about what’s kept everyone going, you know. We talk about Netflix in an offhand way, but actually, it’s all stories, we’re looking at stories of other human beings. We’re seeing our lives reflected in the experiences of other people. And we, we may just be entertained, but we’re also it’s also cathartic. And I think you know if you think about the amount of people that watch soaps, they’re mostly miserable those storylines everyone’s having a terrible time. But it’s actually quite cathartic. If you see somebody else on screen going through perhaps something that touches your own life. And for me, the arts in all aspects of the arts can have an extraordinary cathartic and transformative effect on people’s lives. And it’s really exciting for me to see the embracing of even just the photographic. A little bit of storytelling that we’re doing now. And because I think it brings pleasure and it brings people together and you know, that gives me a thrill.

Johnny Thomson 14:49
Yeah. And it’s helpful for anyone new as you’ve said, in your own experience, you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s not easy is it, but the arts, the film, the music, the photography and so on, it’s something people can feel comfortable getting involved in, but not necessarily feeling like they have to say too much?

Fiona Sinnott 15:06
Absolutely. And there’s no expectation with any of the classes. I mean, I had a chat with one of the ladies the other day who runs I think, four clubs, she’s amazing. And I was I was saying to her, you know, I gather there’s a whist club, you need to explain to me about whist, I don’t know anything about it, you know, and what does the Tuesday Club do, and the table tennis and bowls and all of these things. And she said, you know, anyone can come to anything. And if they don’t know how to play, someone will teach them. And, you know, even with whist to go back to that particular example, that you can, they will put you in a team, but they’ll swap the team every round. So you get an opportunity to meet lots of different people. And I mean, I love the idea of different ages coming together. And I would say like a lot of village halls, they’re probably predominantly, the classes are reaching older members of the community because they’re, if they’re retired, they have more free time during the day. But actually, there’s still a lot of people working from home, there’s still a lot of people working remotely, and to be able to take an hour off or a couple of hours off in the middle of the day, and maybe work a bit into the evening instead. Go and go and you know, join the film club or go and play around of whist or have a quick game of badminton. You know, at the end of the road, passing the lovely village pond and you know the Lordship on the way. It’s a complete win-win for everybody, I think.

Johnny Thomson 16:36
So that’s the key message isn’t it really? Use things like music, theatre, photography, sports, as you’ve said, and so on, just to get more people involved in activities young and old. And whoever’s new in the village too. And use social media, as you mentioned, of course, as well.

Fiona Sinnott 16:52
Yeah, I mean, use, you know, social media for me, at least in my work, I know, some some companies wouldn’t necessarily agree. But for me, social media is not a place you broadcast from, it’s not like a it’s not like a television, it’s more like a telephone, it’s a place you have a conversation. And it has to be two way. So if you want to reach everybody in your community, and outside, anyone who’s interested in what we’re doing, you have to go where they where they are, it’s like being at a party in a house, you’re going to find a certain group of people in the kitchen and other people gravitate towards one another in the spare bedroom and someone else in the back garden. And with the setting up the Instagram account, you know, that’s going to where perhaps the slightly younger members of community hangout, and just letting them know gradually what’s going on what’s happening. And hopefully, that they won’t assume that what’s going on at the village hall doesn’t apply to them.

Johnny Thomson 17:48
And as you say it’s two way isn’t it? Rather than kind of simply broadcasting what’s happening at the hall, it’s an opportunity to ask, what would you like to see?

Fiona Sinnott 17:57
Absolutely, listening to what people want. Adapting. And you know, that they very quickly invited me to join the committee and for no other reason, I’m sure that they needed, it’s always welcome to have an extra pair of hands. But I know that I do bring a particular skill set and experience, which is different to what most people have. I spent almost 30 years as a working actor on television and theatre and, you know, my background even with my family is one of growing up around the theatre. So I do understand about community and bringing people together. And the power of storytelling to do that is profound.

Johnny Thomson 18:42
And it’s an opportunity right now for village halls, isn’t it? Let’s face it, there’s been a bit of an exodus from the big cities. You’re an example of that as well. So it’s a pretty good time to refresh activities and attract more people in.

Fiona Sinnott 18:55
Yeah, and I think people are sort of reviewing their work life balance and, you know, we realise sadly with the amount of people that have been lost, friends and family over the last year, there’s almost no one who hasn’t been touched by the pandemic. And it’s certainly I’m sure with others, but with me, it’s made me want to really squeeze every ounce of life I can out of every day. And I work from home, and that can sometimes be quite lonely. So to have a community on my doorstep, that I can be part of is a lifeline and I hope for other people as well, because we’re all better together. And at the end of the day, nobody, nobody lies on the deathbed and says I wish I’d worked more. You know, it’s the time spent with other people that’s so valuable. And this is a really lovely place to live. So I look forward to more of the same.

Johnny Thomson 19:53
Brilliant. Well, it’s been lovely chatting to you. And obviously we’re hoping with all of this photography going on that you’re going to have some pictures for us for the for the Wonderful Villages Photo Competition too?

Fiona Sinnott 20:04
Oh I, you’d better bet we’re going to have some competition for the other village halls. Yes, well I hope so I’m going to be encouraging our photographers who will hopefully send us more images for this year’s calendar to also send some or all of those images in for you for your for your great competition. So yeah, we’re gonna have a go.

Johnny Thomson 20:25
Well if you think you can beat Bennington, remember to get your entries in as you could win £1,000 for your village hall and £500 for yourself and you can find about more, more about that on a special page on our website Fiona as I said, it’s been great talking to you. Good luck with all of the new activities and keep enjoying life in Bennington, you never know I made see you the chilli festival next year.

Fiona Sinnott 20:52
It would be a pleasure. Thank you for having us.

Johnny Thomson 20:54
Do you know something I’m not good with chilies at all. I could pretend and do the macho thing and start talking about how I once devoured a few Scotch Bonnets after a Madras curry or something, but it would all just be lies. It would just be lies at the end of the day.

Fiona Sinnott 21:10
No, me neither, not not so great with the hot stuff, but I’m happy to look at other people in pain. It’s very amusing.

Johnny Thomson 21:15
Fantastic. Anyway, on that note, that’s all folks for this episode. Many thanks to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for supporting our podcast and whose services you can discover more about villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hall Master who also make our podcast possible and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. Thanks again Fiona for being our guest today. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, churches and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. So if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.