Giving - but only to a good cause

It's official: Buxton is Britain's kindest town. Is it the mineral water? The altitude? Or the old people, who spend their non-giving hours fighting over the cardigan rail in the local charity shops?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In Buxton, west Derbyshire, they're just giving it away. I've been to some towns where they wouldn't even give you the droppings from their nose, but in Buxton they give you time, advice, free maps, even money. Last week Buxton emerged from a survey with glory - it was the most generous charity-supporting town in Britain - and it couldn't have happened to a nicer place.

One walks around this Georgian spa town and there is goodness all around. There is fine air and stiff walking, an energetic arts and music festival, grand listed architecture being restored to former splendour.

And of course there is fresh spring water, which now comes in orange flavour, 33 million litres a year produced in big ugly buildings by the railway station.

When you meet people in the street most tell you with some pride that you are now in the highest market town in England. "It's so high," a gasping woman told me as if she couldn't quite believe it herself, "that sometimes I think I really need oxygen tanks." A thousand feet up, nestling in the Peak District, surrounded by the second most visited national park in the world (18 million a year, they say, pipped narrowly by the park around Mount Fuji).

And now comes more good news. It is not hard to find holes in surveys like these - why, only a week earlier another had found that Grimsby was now the economic powerhouse of the Western world - but the market research people at CACI (even its PR company doesn't know what this stands for) have made a fine effort: 26,000 people were interviewed (about 50 of these from Buxton), and it has emerged that the Buxton folk are four times as likely as the rest of us to give at least 50p a week to charity. In other words, more than half of its inhabitants give over £26 a year. The survey also found the most miserly area, which happens to be in nearby Bolsover, whose citizens hardly give a bean. Nationally, people give most to cancer charities, and then good children's causes, and then the poppy appeal.

On Tuesday, Buxton was delighted to be known for more than just its altitude and its bottling plant (which is owned, or perhaps more unfortunately eauned, by Perrier). How did this happen - who put the bux in Buxton?

Most northern people are generous, Terri Boylin told me in her Imperial Cancer Research Fund shop. She said they have a lot of old people round here, and they give loads. There are many elderly people in the shop as I visit, and frantic interest in the cardigan rail. Boylin says she takes about £1,000 in a good week, which is great considering the competition. For her shop is in a street that may as well be called Charity Walk, the main street leading to the baths, and is within yards of shops supporting Help the Aged, Oxfam and Scope. (Scope has ladies' skirts and trousers at half-price today, announced a handwritten window poster that was followed by an exclamation mark, and might be all that's needed to spark off a violent and unforgiving charity war. Next week: a special on big-gussetted men's trousers?)

Scope's generosity extends throughout the street. In WH Smith a woman gave me change for my book token, something book token law forbids; nearby, a tea shop offered the chance to win a grand - there is a free scratch- card game with every hot beverage; at the Buxton Opera House from Tuesday to Saturday there were performances - too good to be true - of the musical Sweet Charity, which includes that favourite toetapper "Hey Big Spender".

At the Tourist Information office Mary Chadwick views the charity survey with some skepticism. But she reasons that if it's in the papers it must be true, just like when they say Buxton is cut off by snow. Not true? Hardly, she says.

Tourism swamps the town. There are about 20,000 inhabitants, but visitors overwhelm them at a rate of at least 10:1. They trample the streets in big boots, take the waters and the shower caps in the hotels, and still the giving locals say: "Take more!"

Buxton needs the tourists, of course. Patrick Brady, chief executive of High Peak Borough Council says that it is not really a wealthy or a retirement town, though he agrees that it is exceptionally high. "The highest market town in England," he says, "and perhaps the isolation has something to do with its generosity - the fact that local charities also do well here suggests its people realise they must share things around and support each other to prosper." And what of Bolsover? "They've been through a hell of a time there, the coal mines closing, no money to spread around, and as they say, charity begins at home."

I struck upon a mean wheeze. I would lose my return train ticket for London and beg in Buxton's Georgian splendour for hand-outs.

In the Crescent I met a man in his early twenties who seemed to know about these things. He was wearing a thick green sweater and army fatigues - charity fatigues perhaps - and had a dog on a string.

"Get a string," he told me. "People here give you more because they feel sorry for the dog. They think `no lead, only string, must really be desperate'."

I said I didn't have a dog. "Tie the legs of your trousers up with string. They'll think you're really cold." This seemed a bit much: rather the poor house than the Wurzel thing. "It works," he said.

What are people like here? "They're friendly, and I think I frighten them, which is good." On his better days, Stringy counted out coins to the value of six or seven pounds, not quite enough to get to Crewe.

I set up shop by the Pavilion Gardens and was very polite. Excuse me, I said, I've lost my ticket, my modem's gone down and I need to get to London. Could they help?

"You'll spend it on beer!" one woman said. I explained my faux predicament again. "Beer!" she said. When this happened again I thought of writing a little sign: "I will not spend it on beer. I will only spend it on delicious bottled water from the local spring."

"He's an alcoholic!" a man said very clearly to his wife as he passed. Others pointed out that a coach would be cheaper than a train, or hitching. "I could walk, I suppose."

"You could do," a woman said, "but it would take you a while."

One man, bow tie and desert boots, said that I should be able to "wash my own face". Most people I approached told me to go to the local police station down the hill.

"Won't they beat me?" I asked, adding: "They would in London."

"They'll help you!"

In the end, after about 90 minutes, I had been given 75 pence. I had already given to charity earlier in the day, and I was about to donate this money too, but then a bitter wind blew in from Bolsover and I found myself pushing it across a counter towards a local lager. And this being Buxton, the barman pulled a generous pint.