Village at war as factions vie for control of co-op: A rural idyll has been disturbed by a soap-style battle over the local store. Ian MacKinnon reports

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AS A PICTURE of rural gentility, the North Yorkshire village of Grosmont appears to be perfect. Ageing, stone terraced houses line the steep streets dropping off the moors. Steam engines clatter across the manually-operated level-crossing that bisects the main street. The co-op shop, reputedly Britain's smallest independent, has stood on the same site for 126 years.

Yet all is not what it seems. Beneath this idyll a bitter dispute has split the village. The rift is so ingrained that warring factions speak of one another as agents of the devil.

Not that the trippers who amble through the Grosmont Co- operative Society Ltd store would spot anything amiss. Only the notice in the window urging members to buy the new, updated version of the society's rulebook (price pounds 1) might give a hint to the source of the discord.

In essence, opinion among the co-op's 400 members - who pay pounds 1 to join and reap profits in dividends - is divided over how it should be run. A pounds 6,500 loss in the last financial year and failure to pay a dividend for the first time that anyone can remember concentrated minds on what was to be done to prevent it going the way of scores of village stores across the country.

One camp, led by Dave Prescott, the society's treasurer until June when he was voted off the committee in the first elections in more than 60 years, called for cuts in stock levels and tighter control of margins to improve profitability.

The other, with Joan Mallory, shop manager of four years, in the vanguard, demanded that she be allowed to run it as she chooses. For the moment this faction, with a retired farmer, Yeoman Williamson, as treasurer, is in the ascendancy after the dissidents were voted off the committee or resigned.

It is a situation that Mrs Mallory is not unhappy about. 'They want me out because I'm doing well. But I fought 'em and I won,' she said. Claims of victory may be premature. Mr Prescott, a railwayman whose signal-box butts on to the shop, and his camp are regrouping while they await the year-end results in September, and the subsequent committee elections in December.

Their recent setbacks, though, have not prevented them engaging in guerrilla tactics. Twenty signatures were gathered and an extraordinary general meeting called last month to discuss the sacking - or redundancy, depending on your viewpoint - of Tina Alcock, the shop's only other full-time staff member, ostensibly to cut costs.

'It's absolutely crazy to get rid of staff in the middle of July when the shop is at its busiest,' Mr Prescott, 64, said.

To present a united front at the extraordinary meeting, the committee met at a hall beforehand to plan its strategy. But word got out. 'The woman who runs the pub was out in the phone box calling everybody,' Mrs Mallory said. 'We were going to the hall in ones and twos so that they wouldn't notice. But some of them were outside in the bushes listening. They stooped that low.'

The extraordinary meeting, with about 40 members packed into the room, was apparently a heated affair. 'The slanging that went on,' Mrs Mallory said. 'We were called the Methodist mafia. It was nasty.'

Mr Prescott said: 'I'm not suggesting that people were using four-letter words or anything like that, but there were strong feelings of dissatisfaction about the treatment of Mrs Alcock.'

However, Mrs Alcock still found herself out of work. Many opposed to the move suspected it had more to do with an earlier police investigation into alleged discrepancies in till receipts. Mrs Alcock refused to comment, but her mother, Ann Shaw, said: 'My girl is honest. There's no question of her dipping her fingers in the till.'

Indeed, neither detectives nor the society's auditors, who carried out a special pounds 5,000 audit, found anything amiss.

But Mrs Mallory says she received a letter from a relative of Mrs Alcock in the wake of her departure. 'I will do everything in my power to bring down you and your partners in grime,' it warned. 'The battle may be lost, but the war is still to be won. Yours Contemptuously.' It was passed to her solicitor.

The 'grime' remark was no slip of the pen, but a less-than- subtle reference to cleanliness since Mr Williamson began helping as a volunteer, though his wife, Jean, the society's chairman, pointed out that he had passed a hygiene course.

'It's just that he's been a working man all his life.' But one local said: 'He's a farmer and his nails are all cracked and dirty and he's serving the cheese. Half the village won't go in there anymore for that and other reasons.' It is disputed that this amounts to a boycott, but many of the former committee members committed to saving the shop perversely now take much of their custom elsewhere. Beatrice Jeffries, next-door neighbour to Mrs Mallory and definitely not on speaking terms, is said to be one. Indeed, according to Mrs Mallory, Mrs Jeffries goes rather further. 'She has even offered . . . to give lifts to people to shop elsewhere.'

Another who resigned her committee seat, Daphne Crisp, 64, is also reluctant to cross the threshold. 'It's very unpleasant. Now when you go in you're lucky if you get a smile and it's only one person causing the trouble, Mrs Mallory. It's a shame. Everybody was so happy in there before she came.'

By contrast Ann Shaw, 49, admits she never went in much even before the dispute. 'Her and me just don't get on, but I'm not alone in that,' she said.

However, Mrs Mallory gives as good as she gets. 'These people are just evil. It's the devil. Evil is everywhere. They're just jealous of my success,' she said.

'They want me out. That's why they wanted me to resign as secretary. They even wanted me to stop going to the committee meetings so that I wouldn't know what's going on.'

The hidden agenda, Mrs Mallory is convinced, is that Mr Prescott wants to take over the shop through the North Yorkshire Moors Railway because he has seen how much money there is to be made. 'Dave Prescott and his lot have meetings in the pub in Beck Hole a couple of miles away and get a cab back.'

Conspiracy theories are something of which Mr Prescott keeps clear. 'It's true that some from the railway go to the pub on Wednesdays, but only because the Theakston's Mild is rather good,' he said. 'But if I mentioned the idea of buying the shop to my boss, he'd jump in front of the next train that came through the station.'

But even he acknowledges the absurdity of it all. 'They are filming that Heartbeat programme up at Goathland. I keep saying all they have to do is leave the cameras running down here, edit it and they'd have a great soap opera with a bit of Dallas thrown in for good measure.'

(Photograph omitted)