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Tuesday 23 Sep 2014

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Village SOS – introduction

Sarah Beeny

Many dream of escaping to a simple country life, but for those who live in rural Britain it is a different story. Traditional industries are in decline and across the land local pubs, shops and farms – the very cornerstones of country life – are closing at an alarming rate.

But what if the locals were able to take matters into their own hands? What if groups of volunteers could be given money to turn their dreams into reality and do something that puts the spirit back into their communities?

Village SOS follows the stories of six villages which were able to do just that with the help of a substantial grant from the Big Lottery Fund (BIG), who joined forces with the BBC in 2009 to create Village SOS, a search for six villages with ideas for a brilliant rural business that would breathe life back into the community.

The scheme attracted hundreds of applicants, all keen to win a life-changing sum to start them on the road to revitalisation.

Village SOS follows the winning enterprises as they set up and start trading with the help of a pot of money from BIG designed to turn the dreams on paper into the reality of a new enterprise which needs the commitment not just of the project leaders, but a whole community of volunteers to survive.

Each of the villages received a helping hand with the arrival of a village champion – an outside business expert willing to abandon their normal life for a good cause and move into the area for a year. But as the UK faces harsh economic times, will all the goodwill in the world be enough to keep their heads above water?

Entrepreneur and property developer Sarah Beeny is on hand in each village to monitor progress and to offer encouragement as the enormity of the task ahead starts to sink in. Creating a new music festival in ten weeks; getting a product range designed and packaged and winning plaudits in three months and building a sustainable village hall from scratch in under a year are just some of the massive challenges facing the intrepid Village SOS projects.

But the villages face an emotional rollercoaster too as cherished dreams are sacrificed on the altar of expediency, community nay-sayers spark nagging doubts and the business experts come to terms with the fact that volunteers are offering everything they can – and it might not be enough.

Each of the projects have different dilemmas. One, created to serve the local colliery in Victorian times, was devastated by the pit's closure in the Eighties. Another, though plagued by juggernauts hitting the walls of houses when the main road ran through it, found the new by-pass left the community feeling by-passed too.

And their ideas for how to tackle their issues varied just as widely. Creating an artisan bakery in a renovated water mill in Wales; starting up a Peak District cookery school and reinvigorating a local pub by a Wiltshire canal side were three of the projects that made the Village SOS grade. Turning an old church into a thriving centre where art sits side by side with heritage and a new library – and boasts the promise of the first cappuccino on that stretch of Roman Road; a new range of gifts inspired by the ancient herbalists of Myddfai and creating a country park complete with a carp lake in a Nottinghamshire mining village were the others.

But they all had one goal in mind – to stop the slow erosion of amenities out of the village, to bring fragmented communities together and to ignite a spark of entrepreneurship which would fan the flame of regeneration.

Village SOS is their inspiring story.

Notes to Editors

Village SOS is set to make an impact beyond the six villages featured in the TV series with a major BBC Learning and Big Lottery Fund campaign to promote rural enterprise across the UK.

BBC Radio 4 will also broadcast a specially written five-part murder mystery, starring Helen Baxendale and written by celebrated crime writer Val McDermid.

JW

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