Welsh village that wants to be left alone

Tony Heath on a battle over lottery cash and a new village hall
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The Independent Online
THIS IS not an everyday tale of country folk. For whoever heard of even the most altruistic rural dweller looking a gift horse in the mouth? But that's what the inhabitants of Llanbedr, a tiny mid-Wales village seem to have done. In a display of financial rectitude, generosity and a desire to retain their identity, they are spurning a pounds 180,000 lottery grant for a new village hall.

It was no off-the-cuff decision. The villagers paid the Electoral Reform Society pounds 350 to organise a ballot which, on an 82 per cent turn-out, resulted in 135 voting against with 76 in favour. Deidre Trotman, one of the leading opponents of the scheme is outraged. She lives at Apple Tree Cottage, across the road from the Red Lion, Llanbedr's only pub. "We don't want a new centre that will turn the village into a theme park," she said.

Plans for what was described as an unwanted addition to the village were unveiled in December when villagers met in St Peter's Church, parts of which date from the 14th century. "There was a video presentation, all zooms and that sort of thing. People came away gob-smacked", said Mrs Trotman, aged 52. A proposal to modernise the existing hall, which originally cost pounds 400 and was opened on 26 September 1936, was quickly drawn up by the newly formed Llanbedr Hall Association, which Mrs Trotman chairs. "We've drawn up a business plan that shows the hall can be modernised for pounds 117,000. That's a lot less than the pounds 180,000 millennium money and the matching pounds 180,000 needed for a new building", she said.

The hall has played host to concerts, wedding parties, funeral teas and meetings for more than 60 years. Even on a day when mid-Wales received enough rain to make rivers overflow and cars cough to a halt in country lanes an air of timelessness hung around the stacks of chairs, the sturdy piano and hand-drawn "no smoking" signs.

An early photograph of the Queen hanging on one wall was removed by Mrs Trotman for a spot of light dusting. Mrs Jo Blackburn dismissed as nonsense fears that young people would take flight from the village unless facilities such as the computer room planned for a new hall were set up. "They leave anyway. My four all fled the nest when they turned 20. Lack of facilities? Crickhowell is two miles away and you can play tennis or badminton there. There's a super swimming pool at Abergavenny which is all of seven miles down the road."

The rival committee promoting a new building remains upbeat. Bob Jenkins used to work as an electrician at British Steel's Ebbw Vale plant 10 miles over the rugged Myndd Llangatwg. Retired, he lives in Pontfaen, a newish estate in Llanbedr.

"We've been offered pounds 181,415 lottery money and I can say that the pound for pound matching funding is in place," he declared. Over pounds 80,000 would come from the sale of the hall and land. "We've got to move ahead. That's why we want a computer room. If you don't go for information technology you might as well have a building of timber and canvas," Mr Jenkins said. To which Mrs Blackburn retorts: "What a way to spend money when across the mountain council estates in old mining towns are crying out for cash."

The Reverend Christopher Blanchard is guarded. "As chairman of the existing village hall's trustees I want to listen to all points of view," he said. The opposition he ventured was orchestrated by people not long resident in the area. In rural communities even five years can be a mere tick of the clock.

A grassy spread known as First Horse's Field is one of Llanbedr's landmarks. In the dim past clergymen staged a horse race there to decide which of three parishes should receive the modest tithe. No one knows when the custom was discontinued. And no one knows how today's tug of war will be resolved. A Millennium Commission spokesman ventured: "We still support the project. There are some issues in terms of public support to be addressed. We'll be meeting the proposers for discussions."

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