Lock Downe: Community spirit 'alive and kicking'

Show notes (summary)

Village hall trustee Steve Barnes recalls the incredible community spirit that kept the villagers of Downe going during the worst moments of the pandemic. His heart-warming tales of care and contribution, in an unusual rural location, are a strong reminder that communities everywhere matter. Listen in and feel a little bit better about the world!

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 18

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello everyone and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK is largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. My guest today is based in a slightly unusual village in that it falls within a rural location in the Greater London area, within the boundaries of the M25. So, we’ll certainly be talking about that. Steve Barnes is from Downe and he’s both a trustee of the local village hall and chair of the Downe Village Residents Association. Before he retired, Steve held the position of Head of Open Source Operations at BT. We’ll be talking mainly about some of the incredible things that went on in Downe during the lockdown, and how the community there really pulled together. Welcome, Steve, thanks for joining me today.

Steve Barnes 00:53
Thanks Johnny for that introduction, and I’m pleased to be here with you today.

Johnny Thomson 00:57
Great. So first of all, tell me about Downe Steve. As I said it’s technically a rural village that’s in a place that doesn’t really sound very rural at all?

Steve Barnes 01:07
Well Downe is actually in the London Borough of Bromley within the M25. So people find it rather difficult to conceive of a village within the M25. But Downe is a true village right on the edge of the London Borough of Bromley, comprises about 330 homes, about 1300 people live here. And it’s most famous for the home of Charles Darwin, who wrote On the Origin of Species while he lived in Downe for the last 40 years of his life. And Downe House is Bromley’s top tourist attraction, would you believe?

Johnny Thomson 01:44
Yeah. And how long does it take to get there from the centre of London?

Steve Barnes 01:47
I guess? Yeah, it’s only about half an hour on the train, out to a station called Orpington. We’re actually three miles up the road from Orpington

Johnny Thomson 01:58
And does have that kind of quiet, pleasant vibe that you get in a in a village?

Steve Barnes 02:03
It absolutely has a village vibe. As many people say about villages, everybody knows everybody else’s business. I moved from an urban environment to rural environment and I find it completely different. Everybody says hello to you in the street.

Johnny Thomson 02:17
Yeah. Which is, which is unusual as well being so close to London, because London of course is famous for, for the opposite of that is probably the most polite way of putting it.

Steve Barnes 02:27

Johnny Thomson 02:28
Now, now, I mentioned that the community there really pulled together during the lockdown, Steve. So tell me first of all about the initial impact it all had on the community and how also very quickly, a kind of coordination team was created there to help the elderly and the vulnerable, for example?

Steve Barnes 02:47
Yes like anywhere else the pandemic had a dramatic effect closing everything down. The shops and pubs. People were obviously working from home and all that sort of thing. I guess for us, the first priority was the effects of the pandemic, what those effects were for the elderly or more vulnerable members of the village. Because it’s a village environment, we tend to know quite a lot about, we can always find somebody who knows quite a lot about almost everywhere within the village. So we got together a group of volunteers, and identified representatives for every single road in Downe, and each of those representatives would make sure that the elderly or vulnerable in their road would actually be looked after. So they would knock on the door, check that they’re okay, go shopping for them, make sure that their medications are okay, if not go and obtain their medications for them. We used a combination of local knowledge, people knowing people, we even used the local postman to tell us, you know, where he thought the vulnerable people were because our postman is a very well known site in the village.

Johnny Thomson 04:01
Fantastic. Yeah, so it’s that kind of good neighbourly-ness that happens spontaneously, but what in essence, what you did there was you made sure that that was that was happening and you had all of the intelligence and everything behind that to make sure that nobody was left out?

Steve Barnes 04:18
Yeah, my part was really just to try and bring a few folks together who could carry out that job And obviously look after a road myself.

Johnny Thomson 04:27
And it didn’t stop there did it? I also understand several locals got involved in making some much needed PPE or personal protective equipment, of course, as it’s called?

Steve Barnes 04:38
Yes, you always find people who have skills to contribute. And yes, some of the local ladies started making face masks and various gowns, you know, that could be used by the health services. And we’d either give those away or charge a small price for them for the materials

Johnny Thomson 05:01
Now talk to me about the pubs and the restaurants. Many, many of those across the UK, of course have suffered as a result of the pandemic, but the local ones there really stepped up to the plate didn’t they?

Steve Barnes 05:14
Yes, in Downe, I mean there really aren’t many businesses in Downe, but we are lucky to have two pubs. The first one, The Queen’s Head, obviously the pubs during lockdown had to close the doors to customers. But that didn’t mean to say that they couldn’t carry on serving the community and both pubs were very good at serving the community during this time. Now the Queen’s Head turned itself into a takeaway. So you could obtain your hot meals and you could get takeaway beer in plastic containers, which was very popular.

Johnny Thomson 05:48
I can imagine.

Steve Barnes 05:49
And several times a week they set up a fruit and vegetable store outside the front of the pub so that locals could could get their groceries. The George and Dragon, the other pub, once again, was able to cook and give people meals during the pandemic. But probably one of the most tremendous things they did was that they supplied hot meals to the local hospital, the Princess Royal University Hospital in Orpington, and eventually delivered around about 1,000 free hot meals to frontline medical staff.

Johnny Thomson 06:27
Incredible, incredible activity and something pretty special also happened with the local farm there too. I understand there was some much needed funds had to be raised and the community provided some support there too yeah?

Steve Barnes 06:41
Yes. Christmas Tree Farm is a is a famous local farm. It’s a children’s farm, where you can take the young kids along and they can you know, see and pet the animals. Of course, with no income, no paying customers coming in they were they run out of money to buy food for the animals because of course the animals still have to be fed during the pandemic. And so a GoFundMe campaign was raised. I think initially, it was aimed at trying to raise £1,500, £2,000 to pay for food for the animals. People were so generous, they eventually raised over £9,000 pounds for animal feed. So the animals, I think we’re very happy with that result!

Johnny Thomson 07:26
And tell me about the Food Bank as well. What what happened with that?

Steve Barnes 07:32
Yeah, another resident obviously was very concerned about families who were living on the edge during this time, and set up a collection service in the village where people could take along their groceries and other items and then she would make sure that it was all delivered to a local secondary school that was operating a food bank for families that were in need. Another example of the tremendous thinking by residents here about their fellow residents and the families of those residents.

Johnny Thomson 08:07
It’s incredible. Steven, you know, it’s fantastic to hear so many different stories, and so many that just kind of confirm how good old community spirit is clearly far from dead and gone yeah?

Steve Barnes 08:22
The community spirit here is alive and kicking. And just because you’re in the modern age of Facebook doesn’t mean to say that community spirit doesn’t work, it works, you can get these modern technologies to help you generate a fantastic community spirit. I don’t I don’t say Downe is unique in the UK. You know, we’re a village and I’m sure you would find many other villages have similar community spirit. I guess one of the things you’ve been pointing to is the unusual nature of the community spirit and a village life within a London borough.

Johnny Thomson 08:58
Yeah, exactly. You know, and I’m sure you know, if we spoke to most villages, across the UK, they would have very similar stories to yours and, and also unique and different ones as well. So yeah, I would encourage anybody else, you know, who’s got any kind of tales to tell, and also in this period that we now find ourselves in when, when things are opening up, you know, let us know and let’s, let’s share this kind of good and positive message that I think is sometimes missing from from all of this. You know, we get the six o’clock news and we get the doom and gloom and it’s, it’s good, isn’t it to be reminded of the fact that there is a lot of good activity and so on out there?

Steve Barnes 09:42
I think it’s fantastic to realise that there is this community spirit and a willingness by people to pull together during a time of crisis. You know I would look up and down the road as we were banging our pots and pans for the NHS during the pandemic and just you know, express wonder at how people do come together in a crisis?

Johnny Thomson 10:03
Yeah, absolutely. And I guess we kind of grew up at a time where people would talk about all of this happening during the, during the Second World War, and be quite amazed by some of the some of the stories and so on, you would hear. And it’s a bit of a moment in history from that perspective as well. I’m sure people will be talking about this period from a similar similar point of view in the future.

Steve Barnes 10:27
I think there also there are also other things, Johnny, because I spotted now that people value local businesses somewhat more than perhaps they did before. So yeah, you know, buying from your local suppliers or using your local facilities seems to have come to the fore during the pandemic, more so than it did before. And I think that helps with the community spirit as well.

Johnny Thomson 10:51
Yeah. And what about the village hall there as well, Steve, which is obviously an important part of the community?

Steve Barnes 10:56
Yes, indeed, it is an important part of the community. But sadly, I guess like every other village hall, we had to close the facility during the time of pandemic. It is, I’m pleased to say now open again, for business. But of course, like I mentioned with the animals earlier on, the village halls costs do continue, although they were cheaper, we didn’t have to heat the whole hall. It’s not being used. But there’s maintenance and, and other bills to be to be paid. So luckily, we’re able to get a grant that saw us through the pandemic, so that we could keep the hall viable, because as a trustee, you know, that’s one of our responsibilities is to look after the hall for the benefit of the village.

Johnny Thomson 11:39
Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of lessons isn’t there that have been learned from this, like that, in terms of it’s vitally important to support those organisations. And also what you said about the technology, I think, is is very true as well. It’s it’s a useful tool to have now to support community activity rather than I think people in the past maybe saw it as being a faceless thing that kept people away from each other. But it can be used in a completely different way can’t it?

Steve Barnes 12:15
Absolutely it can, yes. And in a positive way.

Johnny Thomson 12:19
Okay Steve, well, let me just say how it’s been incredibly heart-warming here and all about Downe. You clearly have an incredible community there and so I’d really like to just finish by saying congratulations to everyone in the village who’s shown incredible compassion and determination during what must have been the most challenging period of most of our lifetimes.

Steve Barnes 12:43
Yes, thank you. Thank you Johnny. And it’s great to be able to explain to what we did, and as you said, I hope many other villages and I certainly believe that many other villages up and down the UK will have done exactly the same and this is really heart-warming.

Johnny Thomson 12:58
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there will. And thanks again, Steve, for coming on the show, and for being my guest today. And that’s all folks for this episode. Don’t forget about our Wonderful Villages Photo Competition where you could win £1,000 for your village hall and £500 pound for yourself. You can find out more about the competition on a special page on our website. And thanks, of course to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again in two weeks time 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.