In just a few weeks, our small village in Hampshire has gone from a friendly but fairly detached group of houses to a tight-knit community of people scuttling about like meerkats (albeit without the close-quarters sniffing), peering over each other’s fences, checking each other out and shuttling food and essential items back and forth between ‘burrows’.
We live in a quintessentially English village in the heart of Hampshire not far from Stonehenge in a leafy countryside “chocolate box” setting. Grateley has a red phone box – converted into a book exchange with the most eclectic mix of reading material – the source of some weird gnome books and Jilly Cooper novels we have at home that my 3-year-old daughter insisted on picking up during a recent walk around the village. We have a local pub, a small train station, a beautiful 13th Century church and a couple of schools. There are about 250 houses spread across the “village end”, the “station end” and the newer development called Palestine. The community is an odd mix – farming families who’ve been in the village for generations, military families many of whom are posted in and out every 2-3 years, commuters who make best use of the train station and the fast line into London, and retired residents. There are small groups and committees such as church-goers and a coffee morning group but the demise of the village shop and the closure of the pub a few years ago left little in the way of a community hub. Thankfully Bernie and Jim came along and have resurrected the Plough Inn, bringing back some of that community life. But we were going to need a central focus and a shared purpose across the entire village to equip us for the mammoth fight we were going to face against the coronavirus.
Just weeks ago, that fight seemed quite far away from our little village. France and Belgium – and my parents and siblings based over there – were already in the thick of it. I sifted through pictures on Whatsapp depicting utter chaos in my brother and sister’s homes as dining rooms were fashioned into offices and school classrooms. My sister described over Facetime – interrupted by the excited interjections of her 9 year old son who thought the Easter holidays had come early – how they were housebound. Their only permitted outings were to be done one at a time to go shopping or to walk the dog. Their golden retriever Daisy had suddenly become mighty popular and already had multiple offers for ‘walkies’ from neighbours eager to get out. The ‘laissez passer’ my sister held up to the camera that had to be presented to the police when they were out reminded me of war time stories I’d heard. My parents in Brussels were still able to go for walks in the local woodland and park, “with picnics and a flask” my ever-prepared and pragmatic mum said, since the cafes were all closed.
What a contrast in the UK where we were all still roaming free, with pubs and shops still open and children in schools. The non-stop news on coronavirus told us the UK was a week or two behind the rest of Europe so surely we had to be next. And it would be soon and probably sudden. Once people had battened down the hatches it would be too late to reach out to our neighbours and community. We had a few days to physically get around the 250 or so houses in the village to spread our plan for a community network. And we had to actually speak to people: those most likely to be on their own and vulnerable would probably not be on social media and were unlikely to trust an anonymous leaflet thrust through their letterbox.
So, like many communities around the country, we set to work: my husband rifled through the large box of disused tech stored in the attic and unearthed a working and reasonably recent mobile phone (although it still felt like an antique ‘brick’ when I started using it!). We re-roled it as our official ‘Grateley Helpline’ batphone. After much wine-fuelled editorial discussion about what we should call our network, we created the imaginatively named ‘Grateley help’ email address.
Richard from across the road disappeared with our sample flyer and reappeared with a huge stack of copies and a large guillotine. A gang of villagers keen to get involved mustered outside the Plough Inn on a soggy cold morning and trekked up every road, boggy path and hidden driveway until we were sure every single house had been suitably ‘door-stepped’, as my old hack colleagues would say.
Emails came flooding in. People were offering help, advice, information. We got an email from Nick, one of the villagers who’d decided we needed a website and, being an IT guru himself, had whipped one up for us overnight. Three days later, we had more than 80 people on the network. People were lining up to offer help with shopping, picking up prescriptions, listening on the phone and anything else that came up. Others wrote in saying how relieved they were they had someone to call on should they need to.
We canvassed the village for skills that might come in useful to others during the time ahead and realised we had retired medical staff, teachers, councillors, delivery drivers, builders, IT experts, and financial and legal experts. We even had a young lad, whose Duke of Edinburgh Award had been all but scuppered by the coronavirus, offering out his services for odd jobs and gardening.
We’ve been able to direct people to advice over the phone about their money worries caused by Coronavirus. We’ve passed on home-schooling tips to parents left climbing the walls with energetic children wielding crayons dangerously close to treasured curtains. We’ve brought in local businesses and touted their growing delivery and take-away trade to help keep them going too. Young Tom is slowly clocking up DofE tasks after clearing the pub car park of fallen branches and leaves. Our telephone network offers an ear to those struggling with the isolation and our resident IT geeks have introduced neighbours to the joys of Zoom and Facetime, linking them up with their loved ones abroad.
In some ways it feels like coronavirus has brought village life to a standstill. It’s all gone very quiet here in Grateley. Apart from the deafening sound of Spring birdsong and the disruption caused by our resident robin redbreast as he hops across our window sills, it is utterly peaceful. Barely a car goes by, trains are rare and the helicopters usually buzzing around the local Army aviation base have gone quiet. Behind closed doors though, there is frantic activity. Like meerkats in their virtual burrows, Grateley residents are scuttling around in an online and phone world of help, advice and mutual support. Every now and again one squeaks, a couple of others poke their heads up, and scoot off to collect and deliver food.
This has been a time-consuming project as we channel everything through one email address and phone number and are intent on protecting everyone’s confidentiality. It got particularly challenging a few days in when I got called up to work on the government’s COVID19 response. The juggling act is made all the more interesting with an energetic 3-year-old who likes to add her own input to the messages we send out.
But the incredible outpouring of support that has circulated across the community, the goodwill and generosity we’ve witnessed across Grateley are a much-needed boost at a time when things can seem pretty grim. And if it means our community of meerkats continue to poke their heads up to check on their neighbours after this horrific virus has gone, something good will have come of this horribly uncertain and frightening time.