England

Grimethorpe: The Brassed Off village that 'refused to die'

Row of derelict houses in Grimethorpe
Image caption Derelict houses in Grimethorpe were demolished to make way for new housing

Twenty years after its pit shut, the Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe is thriving.

When the village, famous for its brass band which featured in the film Brassed Off, heard its colliery was to shut, the best years of Danny Gillespie's life flashed before his eyes.

He had worked at that mine for 36 years and he loved the job.

"When they closed that pit I were in shock, I hadn't a clue what to do. I was just dumbfounded and so were a lot of people," said Mr Gillespie, a burly man whose size belies his gentle way.

He was nicknamed a "pit nut" for the long shifts he used to do when the going was good.

His son had followed him down the pit expecting a job for life too.

As the news broke Councillor Steve Houghton was working at Grimethorpe's engineering site: "People stopped work, looked around, asking what are we going to do, what's going to happen?

"Mining didn't just provide jobs. It provided housing, it provided shops, it provided sports facilities, it provided social care in some cases.

"It seeped through every bit of our bodies, every bit of our veins, every bit of our culture. And when it went it took all of that with it, a whole way of life disappeared at the same time."

The simple fact was that the pit was the beating heart of his community.

Many thought the South Yorkshire village could not survive without it and for a time it seemed they were right.

The rot set in fast. The pit shut in 1993 and within a year Grimethorpe was listed as the poorest village in England.

Those who could leave to work elsewhere got out, houses were selling for just a few thousand pounds and some were just abandoned.

Crime shot up from 30% below the national average to 20% above.

Elsie Smith, whose husband had been a miner and a leading soloist with the famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band, was horrified by the changes she saw.

"It was really bad with drugs. You could see them walking up and down the street. People were really frightened," she said.

Image caption Grimethorpe has seen £164m of public and private investment

"I'd got an old lady across the road, she'd only one door to her bungalow and she barricaded herself in. And then I would see someone coming through the window in broad daylight. They'd been in to rob."

But this village known for its strong community spirit was determined to turn things around.

Mr Gillespie, who had faced the police on picket lines during the 1984 miners' strike, found himself working alongside community officers trying to make a difference.

"We decided enough's enough, druggies weren't going to walk around our street with their heads up high and just laugh at us," he said.

"We started a Neighbourhood Watch and we started reducing crime. My wife kept saying we'll get our windows broken. I said 'Kathleen, I'm not bothered what they do, we need to stop them'."

Mr Gillespie and Mrs Smith say that people standing up to be counted was an important step towards Grimethorpe's recovery.

But it was never going to be enough given the scale of the community's loss and the depth of its downward spiral.

Councillor Steve Houghton took on the responsibility of steering the all-important physical regeneration of the area as chair of the multi-agency Grimethorpe Regeneration Board.

One plan was to simply let the village wither. But Mr Houghton soon realised that would not wash among this proud community.

Villagers wanted the board to create a future for them.

So today Grimethorpe is a different place. That spirit is as strong as ever but wrapped around it now is £164m of public and private investment.

There are new roads linking the village to some of the country's major arteries, about 50 businesses have moved in, including the big online fashion retailer ASOS.

More than 2,500 jobs have been created and 500 homes have been built attracting newcomers looking for affordable well-connected housing.

Barnsley Council battled long and hard to pull together the money to make all this happen and Mr Houghton, now its leader, is proud of what has been achieved.

"A massive amount has been done. You wouldn't recognise that there was a pit there," he said.

"But as I have learned over the years this isn't an end state. This is a constant battle to keep communities alive and keep the economy moving."

Grimethorpe, Mr Gillespie says, "is the village that refused to die".

"It bucked the trend through the sheer determination of those who wanted to see it thrive.

"Unemployment is still high, wages are generally low and health inequalities remain striking. But there is a fierce belief among people here that, even in the grip of a national recession, theirs is a hopeful future."

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