Every Monday, volunteers from St Peters Church have been hosting an outdoor social get-together for young people and families on the green alongside Mampitts Square. Alfred’s Keri Jones went along and heard that the group wants to establish a year-round facility, perhaps by releasing money promised for amenities on The Maltings Estate.
“It’s striking how, by putting up a gazebo to provide a bit of a focal point, people come and hang out. There are lots of people of different ages here,” said Reverend Dr Helen Dawes. We chatted sitting on folding chairs alongside the open-sided pop-up shelter. Volunteers hammered croquet hoops into the grassy space and kids swinging on the rope dangling between the nearby trees looked on, waiting for the action to begin.
“We’ve got a big group of older lads who are chatting to one of our volunteers. There are quite a lot of people playing football. Many younger kids are here with their parents. It has just given them a time to chat with one another. It’s something that probably wouldn’t have been happening otherwise. It’s great to give that opportunity for people to socialise,” Helen enthused.
This busy event was the idea of young mum, and Win Green View resident, Lucy Lines. She approached Helen with her vision of a weekly outdoor social for estate children and families. Following a meeting with fellow parishioners in June, the sessions started last month. The fifth of these events takes place this Monday, 5th August.
“I really felt like there was a need for something on the new estate for the young people. There’s not really anything here, even though there is supposed to be plenty of stuff, which is all being discussed,” said Lucy, referring to what some residents feel are unfulfilled promises for community facilities made by developers and housing associations.
As these weekly get-togethers are held out-of-doors, it is uncertain what will happen when winter approaches, unless there’s a weather-resistant and warm venue available. “We would love to get the Council or whoever to try and get something built, because we can’t carry on through the winter. We’ve only got a gazebo. We need a building and we want it to be on the new estate, rather than over on the other side (of town) where everything is. So far, it’s been greatly received,” said Lucy.
She has investigated available facilities on the eastern side of Shaftesbury, but Lucy doesn’t think that either the primary school or the Guides Hall, which is undergoing refurbishment, address the need for a venue actually on The Maltings estate. “We’re trying to keep it here. Obviously, nothing can be built within a matter of months but perhaps some sort of portable cabin, if we can get the Council to plonk something here, just a small space, would be ideal,” said Lucy, who added that any fixed structure would be used for meetings and this type of social activity.
When Persimmon built The Maltings estate, they were required to hand over a sum of money to the former North Dorset District Council for community infrastructure projects. Developers are usually expected to contribute through this process, known as a ‘Section 106’ agreement. Dorset Council now administers this ring-fenced cash and some residents reckon there is around £500,000 available for estate facilities.
Shaftesbury Town Council has recently committed to consulting locals over how they want the land next to Mampitts Square used. Lucy and her colleagues are keen to explore the potential of a community building here, using that money. “We are intending to meet, plan or discuss what we could do or where we could take it or who we can talk to. Apparently, it’s up to us to decide what’s going to get built here, isn’t it? The residents. Maybe we might encourage something to happen at some point,” Lucy said.
On social media, some estate residents have already expressed their preferred uses for this land. Ideas have ranged from a community hall, to a branch of B&M, a nightclub and a McDonalds. “All of those would be fantastic, as long as there’s some space for us to use. Anything would be good,” said Lucy.
Her group is associated with the Church of England. Not all locals are Christian, though. There are Muslim residents, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons as well as many atheists living locally. So I asked Lucy what she would say to ensure that these residents felt included in the social events and any future community building projects.
Lucy says the sessions are not religious in nature. “If people are asking us, we’re telling them that we are from St Peters. It makes it easier for our liability insurance to be covered under the umbrella of the church. If anything can happen permanently, or on a larger scale, we’re still from St Peters, but we might apply for a grant of some sort. There’s nothing here that says, ‘we’re about God’.
Rev Dr Dawes agrees. “I think the community is about building a place for everybody. We would need to work together with other people and work out what was possible and see what the community would like the church to do for strengthening people’s ties in the newer parts of the town. I certainly don’t think we’d want to come in and assume that we had a right to do anything or that there’s some designated part of any pot of money that would be for churches to use, rather than any other group. It’s all got to be about partnership and working together,” said Helen.
Helen added that the church would ‘love to be involved’ in any new community initiative which catered for the needs of a growing town. “I know the Town Council has been doing a lot to try to listen to people, get their ideas and to see what people would use. I think that’s what’s really critical,” Helen said.
As I spoke with Helen, volunteer John Massink was shouting words of encouragement to a group of young footballers on the green. “I noticed they’re passing better tonight than they were last week. They’re doing really brilliantly,” said John.
He and his wife have been helping Lucy with the Monday events. He turned away from the kickabout to concentrate on feeding kindling into a metal stove. “One of the things I’m doing right now is lighting a fire for the cooked marshmallows, which the kids are loving. They come back for seconds, thirds and fourths. We have to ration them a bit, come the end of the evening,” said John.
He told me that an estate resident visited the event last month after noticing the activity. She had assumed the good-natured gathering was one large family having fun. “It is just like a family. Everybody’s friendly and welcoming. And that’s what we want really. That’s part of why I’m here,” said John.
“One of the lovely things about being out here on Monday evenings through the summer is the chance to chat and to get to know people. Then you get to learn from their wisdom about what would make their community really strong,” added Helen.
Lucy unsealed a big, already-opened bag of pink and white marshmallows, ready for John to put them on the skewers for toasting. “You’re really lucky that these made it here, because they’ve been at my house all week and a few are missing,” laughed Lucy.
She promised me that it would not take long for the crowds to descend when they knew that the marshmallows were ready. “Two minutes. And if the girls behind us catch a glimpse, about ten seconds,” she laughed.
Lucy says that these sessions seem to appeal to children across a wide age range. “We aimed to begin with secondary school, about 11 to 15 years of age. We seem to get quite a few younger ones and their parents come along, which is lovely, and they have a nice chat. Anybody’s welcome really because it’s just a trial,” said Lucy.
While we had been talking, a team of helpers had erected the green gazebo, just as the sky turned grey and dark clouds replaced the sunshine. Luckily, the evening remained dry but that slight weather worry brought home the challenge of arranging an al fresco event in England. “We’re just going to keep coming out every Monday evening to do the same sort of thing. We are planning to go on until the 2nd of September, when school starts back. If the weather is ok, we will continue for a few more weeks,” said Lucy.
The sessions start at 6.45pm each Monday, on the grassy space opposite the Mampitts Square Spar shop. What happens to this social event later in the year is, like the Dorset weather, uncertain.