Country & Garden: The Nightingale of Berkeley

Country Matters
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You do not have to spend long in Berkeley, the small country town south of Gloucester, to discover that Shirley Fiamingo is one of the stars of the local scene. Everyone you ask knows her, and everyone speaks well of her. She may be a bit noisy - you certainly know when she's about - but she is warm, and outgoing, and she has made her pharmacy an essential port of call for most of the inhabitants.

Her premises are tiny, and packed with neatly displayed wares from floor to ceiling. Unusually for a dispensing chemist, the shop has a licence to sell alcohol, so that bottles of Drambuie and Benedictine peep out from behind the baby food and cough medicine. The dispensary, at the back, is also small, but spotlessly clean and full of modern equipment. The building, which includes the shop, went up in about 1600, and has former ships' timbers for beams; the dwelling part of the house, behind it, dates from 1760.

The pharmacy obviously caters efficiently for people's needs. Yet what makes the place exceptional is the human warmth which the proprietor and her staff of five dispense. As she says: "We're not here just to put tablets into bottles. We're a community pharmacy, for the people of Berkeley.

"We're here to laugh, to joke, to commiserate, to hold the new babies. Many a time we've sat on the seat in the shop and cried with people who have been bereaved. When you put your arm round someone, it makes them feel a little better."

The pharmacy has been on its present site for 120 years, but Mrs Fiamingo is not native to the Berkeley Vale. She settled here in 1985 when she and her first husband, Brindley Mason, bought the business and moved from Hertfordshire. (Their son Simon now plays hockey for England.) She herself had never trained to dispense drugs: her husband was the pharmacist, and when he died of cancer in 1989, she first hired locums, then took on full time professionals. Her present surname derives ultimately from Bologna, in Italy, where her second husband, Godfrey Fiamingo, has traced his ancestors back to 1307. (His grandfather, a professor of violin and cello, came to England in 1908 from Malta, where the clan was renowned as tapestry-makers and composers of church music.)

Who would try to put such a live- wire out of business? Answer - apparently - the three doctors who have their practice in the health centre a hundred yards along the road.

By the terms of a law dated 1911 doctors are allowed to dispense medicines in rural areas which lie more than one mile from the nearest pharmacy; yet this regulation is still being exploited in many country districts, because doctors receive from their local health authority not only a fee for every prescription they write, but also a bonus of 10.5 per cent of the cost of any drugs they prescribe - a valuable perquisite denied to ordinary pharmacists.

Three years ago the Berkeley doctors applied to the Gloucester Health Authority to dispense in the parishes of Alkington and Stone, a few miles to the south.

They were granted a contract, but never took it up - perhaps because there were fewer than 400 patients in the area.

Then in May 1998 they applied to dispense for the 2,268 patients living in the parishes of Hinton and Hamfallow, to the west and north. Mrs Fiamingo reckoned that if the doctors were awarded a contract, they would take away 40 per cent of her trade and force her to close down. She therefore swung into action, first trying to prove that the parishes in question have been so built up that they are no longer truly rural, but have become - in the ghastly official phrase - "controlled areas".

That campaign failed. Gloucester Health Authority ruled that the parishes are still rural, and the Appeals Authority in Harrogate upheld the decision. She then submitted a fresh application to Gloucester, explaining why she considered the doctors' proposal would be detrimental to pharmaceutical services.

The doctors, also, marshalled their arguments, claiming they could offer a more professional service. They also applied for planning permission to build a new dispensary on a plot next to their surgery, at a cost (it was rumoured) of between pounds 80,000 and pounds 100,000.

On 16 June, the rival claims were weighed by a five-strong panel at an oral hearing arranged by the Health Authority. All three doctors attended, backed by two accountants. Mrs Fiamingo had submitted a petition signed by 950 supporters, and she knew that nearly 100 letters had been written in her favour.

Nevertheless, she feared she was fighting a losing battle: she found the experience of being grilled for two and a half hours in a hot, stuffy room and having her accounts torn apart, so horrible that she came out saying she would rather go to the gallows than face such an ordeal again.

But she had made her point: at the end of the hearing the panel voted unanimously in her favour.

She went home feeling totally drained, and 10 days passed before, last Saturday, she got an official letter saying that the doctors' application had been rejected.

That night there were tremendous celebrations in the local hostelry, the Berkeley Arms, but it remains to be seen whether they were premature, for the doctors have 30 days in which to lodge an appeal. Mrs Fiamingo is by no means triumphant. Rather, she is sad that the row has created such a rift in the town. But she points out that this kind of thing is happening all over the country, that the law is archaic and ought to be changed, and that a fragile rural community such as hers can ill afford such upsets.

Already half a dozen shops are standing empty in Berkeley, and if the much-loved pharmacy went under, it would deal the town a sickening blow.