How people power is reviving rural life

Their only shop had closed down. So these villagers started their own. Oliver Bennett reports
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At the village green at Ascott-under-Wychwood - a handsome village in west Oxfordshire, population 420 - is a sign bearing the legend: "Fancy playing shop? We always need volunteers". Around the corner, outside the village shop in question, there's a chalkboard outside saying: "Go on! Treat yourself to a croissant!" Not too unusual in this relatively prosperous part of the UK, you might say. But the Ascott village shop is no mere deli, more part of an experiment in "community retailing".

Since the 1990s there has been a gradual increase in the number of volunteer-run shops, with the purpose of keep villages alive against the backdrop of rural decline and the march of the supermarkets. It's good news, considering the ageing populations; the disappearing pubs, shops, buses and post offices. Just this week English Heritage launched its Heritage Counts 2005 campaign, lamenting "the pressures that are threatening its [British rural life's] long-term survival". According to a doomy litany of 2003 statistics from the Countryside Agency, 75 per cent of rural parishes have no daily bus service, 598 rural post offices went under during the year, 78 per cent of settlements do not have a general store and 72 per cent do not have a small village shop.

"We hear about these losses all the time," says Elodie Malhomme of the Plunkett charity for self-help in rural societies, which has joined forces with the Village Retail Services Association (ViRSA) to spearhead a campaign called Rural Revival. "When these places go, they are usually transformed into domestic dwellings. And once that happens, it's difficult to put them back." Villages then become dormitories, and their inhabitants drive to ring-road supermarkets in nearby towns.

The Rural Revival campaign is aiming to stem this tide, and, when alerted to closing shops, to promote an alternative: volunteer-staffed stores that "help people to help themselves", as Malhomme puts it. There are now more than 150 community-owned shops in the country, run on co-operative principles that aim not for profit, but to reinvigorate village life. They are mostly groceries, but there are post offices among them. So attractive is the concept that this Thursday sees the first National Community Retailing Conference, designed to show how such shops can help restore the fortunes of rural Britain.

Hence the Ascott village shop, and its croissants. Inside, I meet Kathy Pearce, a villager and volunteer who has been with the project since the beginning. "We're just coming up to our second anniversary," she says. "We're going to celebrate with a supper on Saturday night."

Before Ascott village shop opened, the village had been without a store for five years. The original village shop closed in 1998. "The gentleman who ran it died," explains Pearce. "Then adjacent farmland became vacant and a developer moved in." At the planning stage, the villagers raised the issue of the need for a shop and, in consultation with the developer, a space was built into the new terrace. It was a shell, but a group of volunteers started work. "We got planning permission in March and opened in November," says Pearce. "We paid for electrics and plastering, but most other things were done voluntarily: plumbing, shop-fitting and decoration." This, in restful greens, was done by Pearce herself. The facia outside with its date - "Established 2003" - was written by a neighbour. It was opened in November 2003 by the actor Sir Ben Kingsley, who lives in nearby Spelsbury.

Two years on, volunteers are still arriving - the shop gained three more last month alone - and their number is now up to 24, with three people now on wages. "It's been a learning curve," says Pearce.

Ascott's shop is highly agreeable. Far from the usual stack-'em-high warren of boxes and garish promotions, it is more like walking into a living room that happens to sell things. There's masses of space, a chair for customers to sit on, a splendid wooden floor, halogen lights, and Pearce's decor. In the window is a stack of the local freesheet, The Ascott Grapevine, and even a bit of window-dressing: an old set of scales bearing gourds and fir-cones. The shopping baskets are made of real wicker. There is even a visitors' book. Leaflets advertise local poetry. Indeed, it's so inviting that that you actively want to spend time here. "Someone walked in and said, 'Why aren't you doing something with all this space?'" says Pearce. "But the customers love it."

Most of the people who enter during my visit are known by name, and the shop's to-ings and fro-ings speak of a village that is far from a sleepy retirement zone. "When I moved here 23 years ago the village was a little like that," says Pearce. "Now there are plenty of younger people. There are commuters here but there are also working farms. It isn't a second-home type village, or particularly touristy."

The stock strikes a note between necessity and luxury. "We have to keep a balance between the basics and the deli-type things," says Pearce. The prices don't seem bad, although Pearce did have a customer recently who asked why an item was expensive. "Our margins are so tight and we can't compete with cash-and-carries or supermarkets," she says. "But I told him that if he bought several items his bill would flatten out. For instance, our fruit is cheaper than it is at a nearby supermarket and our crisps are £1.69, whereas in Waitrose they're £1.99. Plus it probably costs about £4 in petrol to get to the supermarket." There are also environmental benefits to local shopping, and it keeps the "food miles" low.

On this bright autumn day, the counter is being manned by Jackie Pegram and Marilyn Lewis, both wearing the shop's uniform of natty green aprons. There is a notice board; not on the window ("That looks messy", says Lewis) but by the counter, and featuring local services like Emma's Ironing and intriguingly, the Chadlington Balkan Dance Circle. The shop sells cigarettes, but on a pleasant wooden shelf rather than a garish plastic showcase - part of a no-logo aesthetic engendered by the volunteers.

The shop was helped with grants from the European Union's Leader Plus initiative, via West Oxfordshire District Council. "We don't make a huge profit but we now make enough to pay three staff for 10 hours each a week," says Pearce. Around half the villagers own shares. Some of the 24 volunteers have full-time jobs, but Pearce insists that everyone takes their commitments seriously. It's an economic model that has roots in the co-operative movement, and isn't so far from a genteel version of anarcho-syndicalism.

One of the main benefits of Ascott-under-Wychwood's village shop has been social. "It makes people talk to each other more," says Pearce. "It has really bought people together."

Rural Revival Campaign, www.ruralrevival.org.uk; The Plunkett Foundation, www.plunkett.co.uk; ViRSA Community Retailing Conference Campaign, www.virsa.org; Ascott-under-Wychwood's website, with information about the village shop, www.ascott-under-wychwood.org.uk

Why every village should have one

* Community village shops are not just about shopping. They provide a social hub for the village and an informal support network - for elderly people and mothers with young children, for example.

* A village shop will reduce the number of journeys that villagers have to make by car, thereby helping to protect the wider environment.

* They can serve as a drop-off and collection point for other services, such as prescriptions and dry cleaning, which is helpful to those with limited access to transport.

* They can be an outlet for local produce which is not usually available in supermarkets. Using local suppliers and contractors is good for the local economy and the environment, as goods travel only a short distance.

* For advice go to www.virsa.org

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