new year in cumbria

I spent Christmas with my family. My little sister, who has Down’s Syndrome, made Christmas for us. She spent much of the holiday in a pink, pointed woollen hat, with ear flaps – the kind I imagine a Peruvian wearing. She took my father swimming and me skating (I promptly fell over in the middle of the ice: she didn’t). She took my mother ‘pottering’ – which seemed to mean walking round the post office (I don’t know where she gets the words from). Her delight in presents, the methodical pace at which she opens them, her strong sense of ritual – telling us when we are allowed to eat cake, when to sing carols, her care for cooking – imposed a discipline and tranquility on us all.

I spent the last ten days of the recess, alone, trying to finish some writing, while three hundred miles away the political wheels in London were creaking into action with scandals, open-letters and rumours of reshuffles. I didn’t see anyone on New Year’s Eve but the next afternoon I walked out to Askham, climbing from the ruins by the beck to the pit burials on the fell, turned at the standing stones, and came back along the Roman Road over High Street. Otherwise, I was mostly dealing with correspondence.

Many e-mails protested the actions of powerful companies. Developers were forcing estates into valleys, wind-turbines onto mountains and supermarkets into market towns – against the wishes of communities. The same supermarkets were crushing dairy farmers by paying an incredibly low price for milk. All that is local – from the Penrith Cinema and Wigton’s shops to Newton Rigg – seemed to exist under the shadow of big, national organisations with short attention spans.

The letters and campaigns were almost always compassionate, knowledgeable, and determined. Parishes – or groups of parishes like the Upper Eden Community Plan – displayed an imagination and generosity which would be difficult to simulate in distant offices. And communities care about results: Lyvennet protects its landscape because it loves it; Crosby presses for affordable housing because they need housing for their children. And a hundred brains working together generate remarkable solutions. In Greystoke, in Patterdale, in Mungrisdale, in Alston, in Mallerstang, in Bewcastle and in Morland, communities pressing for broadband – researching, publishing on their website, suggesting new technological and engineering solutions and circumventing legal and financial barriers – are producing solutions which are quicker, smarter and cheaper than any previous government initiative. From Hartley to Penton, lecturers, senior civil servants, lords, farmers, councillors, ex-heads have produced serious and considered proposals for Newton Rigg, without which the site would probably have been closed. It was the communities that saved our community hospitals. And the hundreds who gathered last week to march for the Cinema will – with luck and a great deal of effort – be able to save that too.

But the effort required is immense. In each case communities are taking on giant organisations – public or private – who own the sites, have the financial information, have rigid theories about what should be done. They have out-manoeuvred other communities in the past. Communities must struggle to find out basic information (such as the real size of Newton Rigg’s deficit); study laws and restrictions (such as whether European ‘state-aid’ rules really stop them using public fibre); challenge technological claims (such as how much energy the wind-turbine generates); must relentlessly press officials to act. This is exhausting, risks time and money, and in the process, exposes them to their opponents’ accusations of ignorance and small-mindedness. But if communities are trusted then the compassion, the knowledge and the will-power which they can bring to bear is irresistible.

But the spirit extends further. Last week, I had finished my last Herald article and sat by the fire trying to work out how to defrost my meal (the Aga and the heating had been broken for a week and the electricity had gone off again) when there was a sound like a trapped jackdaw clambering up, slipping down and struggling in the chimney. Then black clods began falling onto the hearth and an acrid smell, like burning yak dung, filled the room. Orange flames appeared behind the mantle-shelf. I pulled off the mantle-shelf – revealing for the first time since 1900 three sepia prints of ladies in Victorian hats, a set of scissors, a penknife and a live pistol round – and poured buckets down the wall.

I was saved by the Shap fire brigade. The firemen had been dragged out of sleep at one in the morning, had located a cottage on a nameless track – which was invisible to any GPS – and then had to abandon their engine and come in half a mile on foot on a narrow icy track in driving rain. But they were as cheerful and calm as though it were a Sunday afternoon picnic. One worked the thermal camera, another pair assembled a pump – which seemed to include a pipe, partly made of Victorian bamboo attached to my watering can. They had the situation under control so quickly that I had nothing to do other than to walk up and down the hill to carry some salt to help their fire-engine off the track. The same combination of compassion, common-sense and energy which we see in communities is often deeply present also in the public sector.


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