Cupboards bare in the Garden of England

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JUST seven miles east of the ancient spires of Canterbury, with its quaint byways, specialist shops and bumper-to-bumper European coaches, lies a part of Kent that the tourists never see.

Down a beautiful country lane, where the over-arching foliage filters the sun and through which are glimpsed views of rolling farmland, there is a little replica of the post- industrial landscape of the North-east - plonked right down in the Garden of England.

This is Aylesham, once the hub of the Kent coalfield but now a backwater bypassed by the main road and most of the amenities of modern life. The 1920s houses are straight out of a Teesside pattern book, the cars on the street have mostly seen better days and male unemployment stands at about 25 per cent.

The local Snowdown pit closed in 1988 and now sits as a cluster of derelict buildings at the bottom of the hill, with roofs open to the elements. The secondary school also closed around the same time, as in a total population of 4,500 people there were not enough children to justify it.

But whereas the colliery will never work again, the school has recently received a new coat of paint and has become an emblem of hope for the community. It has been transformed into the Aylesham Community Project, providing a computer training centre, workshops and business courses and a range of social activities.

It is the brain-child of Derek Garrity, a former electrician and now the manager and trust secretary of the centre, who raised pounds 1.5m in grants to get it established, with the idea of building a future for the village through training in modern technology. "We are just trying to make a difference, but it is very early days yet," he said. "We are trying to reverse a trend that started 30 years ago."

From his vantage point in the community, he sees the access to good, cheap food as a prerequisite for any sustainable renewal. And the current prospects are not good.

"You can get people on training courses, but if at the end of the day they go back to a situation where there is no home back-up, where they are not eating properly, where they are not fit, then you are going nowhere," said Mr Garrity. "The range and quality of food has increased for the general population. But for those at the bottom of the scale, because of their perception of food, or because of the money or shops available to them, their range has actually closed down."

This is yet another example of a "food desert", as defined last week by a former government health chief, who said that the concentration of shops in out-of-town centres has led to a lack of good, cheap food for the poorest and has damaged their health prospects. And this in the midst of the affluent Home Counties.

For those with cars, there are the smart supermarkets of Canterbury or Dover to take advantage of. But for those on benefits, or particularly for the old, they have to make do with what is available at the local Co-op. Again, the now familiar picture emerges. "The poor people have to pay the most expensive prices for bad food - food that's full of starch, sugar and fat," Mr Garrity said.

Elsewhere on the defunct coalfield, however, the opportunities in Aylesham must make it look like a haven of plenty.

The village of Elvington, three miles away perched on the top of the next hill, has a particularly desperate reputation. For years, it is said, the local council has been dumping "problem families" on to the isolated estate to compound the difficulties caused by the closure of the nearby Tilmanstone pit in 1990.

Attempts at reopening the old Miners' Welfare centre, for instance, were wrecked when local youths repeatedly set it on fire.

A 71-year-old former miner stood on the main street and lamented the decline of local facilities, pointing to the boarded-up shop frontages.

"One used to be a butcher, then next door there was a greengrocer, then a fish shop then a general store. And there was a post office and another general store over the other side of the village," he said.

The post office is still there, and a small general store re-opened last year, but the only other food outlet now is a fish and chip shop. Buying anything else involves a pounds 3.50 return bus fare to the nearest supermarket.

"We now have less choice of shopping than we have ever had," added the old man, who has lived in the village for more than 30 years but who did not wish to be named. Being quoted in a newspaper could lead to a brick through his window, he said.

For the old folk of Betteshanger, site of the last pit to close in Kent, there is not even a bus service unless they fancy a half-mile walk uphill to the main road. Otherwise, they are faced with paying more than pounds 7 for a return taxi fare to Deal.

Hettie Guthrie, 77, said the council had given her and her husband concessionary taxi tokens, but they had to pay pounds 8.50 to get those and the tokens would only cover five shopping trips a year. Most of them would go on visits to the doctor anyway, she said.

"If there was a bus service it wouldn't be so bad, but they scrapped it when the buses were privatised. I can't walk to the bus stop because of my arthritis, and then you've still got to carry the bags back," she added.

Her husband, an ex-miner, makes the journey twice a week, and she clubs together with two other pensioners to take a taxi on Saturdays. Even so, the weekly travel bill for shopping alone is almost pounds 8.

There were hopes that a local regeneration scheme might provide the village with a small shop for essentials, but the official view was that there were not enough people there to make it viable.

The community is now looking into the possibility of opening a shop of its own, run by volunteers from the village. It seems that the spirit of self-help that made mining communities strong in the old days is still needed today.

"The view round here has always been that we will survive despite what ever they do to us, or what ever help they give us," said Mr Garrity.

"The thing is never to let them get us down."