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Friday 22 Aug 2014

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Village SOS – Honeystreet

As they stripped out old fixtures and fittings as part of the refurbishment of the Barge Inn in Honeystreet, Wiltshire, volunteers were taken with a dusty old sign they felt sure must have played a part in the 200-year-old pub's past. Keen on renovating it, they put it aside – until one of the project team, Terry Kemp, revealed it was a little more recent, and was in fact his own handiwork.

Terry's was not the only artistry lurking beneath the modern veneer. Bev McEnaney, one of the prime movers behind the Village SOS project to take over and run the pub as a community venture, spotted her own handwriting, put there when she was a pub visitor in earlier days.

The Barge Inn is certainly a creative hub, standing as it does in the middle of an area where giant pictures have been etched on the land in the form of a chalk white horse, and more recently in the fields as crop circles. The crop circle phenomenon had meant visitors, if not from outer space, then at least as far away as Iceland and Canada, had heard of and been to the Barge.

Which was why, when the previous landlords decided to sell up, and fearing the Barge would possibly become just another closure casualty or be taken over by a pub chain with the canal-side meeting place lost forever, Bev and friend Polly called a public meeting to try to canvas support for a community takeover.

"I've always lived in a rural community and I know how important the shop is, the pub is, all the key elements that you need when you live out in the sticks," say Bev. "And bit by bit we're losing them all. The Barge is unique – the building is unique, the setting is unique, the people are unique, and that's what makes it so special. It's not a chintzy thatched cottage pub; it's a substantial building that has been here 200 years and it was important that it was maintained."

Bev and Terry, along with John Brewin, who became the Barge project's chairman, spent around six months sitting round Bev's kitchen table trying to get enough funding to take over the Barge's lease. Then one day, at the end of their tether after numerous rejections, John nonchalantly brought up the Village SOS scheme, and the group applied.

"We didn't get too excited because we'd seen a lot of people before who'd given us the mouth music and then said we didn't fit the criteria, and that is so disheartening when you've spent hours and hours filling applications in," says Bev.

But this time they made it through to the next stage, and were asked to join 27 other projects in Manchester to meet village champions. Though they didn't meet Sandra Bhattia, who was to become their business expert until later, Bev firmly believes fate played a part. "We'd seen several people, but we still hadn't found what we wanted in a champion, and I started to scan the room, and it was one of those moments you never forget," she says. "I looked to my left and there was this lady, long black hair, jeans, sloppy T-shirt, and I just said, 'that's the kind of person we need'. I had no idea if she was with the Big Lottery people, or with one of the other projects." The woman turned out to be Sandra, they were introduced, and partnered up for the next round of the scheme which saw them win more than £434k of Big Lottery Funding to turn their dream of running the pub for the community into reality.

Initially there was a lot of cosmetic work to do on the pub. "When I walked in I could see it had character, but it looked like someone had sucked the life out of it," says Sandra, a city girl by nature who describes her first experience of rural life as "like arriving on another planet in comparison to what I was previously used to. It was like a scruffy old pair of slippers, but it definitely had potential."

Living just outside Honeystreet – she rented somewhere in a village which at least had a supermarket, though was traumatised at finding frogs hopping across her floor! Sandra soon found it was not just the building the project had to restore; it was also the Barge Inn's reputation, which locals agreed had been tarnished over the years. And when she tried to organise a Barge music festival to raise the profile of the business, the legacy of late night noise and a shadier kind of clientele meant opposition was fierce.

A proposal to hold the event in December was scuppered, "at that stage I'd say 98 per cent of the village was against it," says Pete Emery, vice-chair of the local Parish Council.

But with a few tweaks to finishing times and a commitment to stage a fun family day, opposition started to melt away and Honeyfest, as the music event was named, was staged in April, to huge acclaim.

The music event also played a vital part in encouraging younger people, such as 18-year-old Lucy Byrne, to volunteer. "I live in a village where there aren't many people my age, not even a shop, and to get to my nearest town is 30 miles away, so this is something for everyone to get involved in," says Lucy. Though she had no experience, with Sandra's encouragement Lucy found herself helping to organise Honeyfest – which she enjoyed so much she's considering making it a career.

Now the Barge Inn is well on its way to being the way it once was, a smart, family orientated place playing host to locals, barge people and overseas visitors alike. And Bev is adamant that for all the smartening up it has undergone, the spirit of the place remains the same.

"Visually it's different, but energetically it's still the same," says Bev. "At Honeyfest people were looking at it and you could see they are thinking 'wow, how have they achieved that' and for me that was a great big gold star and a tick in the box because for me what's so special about this place is the spirit and the soul of it, that gives it the heart.

"What's amazing is that you talk around the kitchen table, and we would say if we won the Lottery what we would do, and all of a sudden, we've won the Lottery, we've got this money. It's above and beyond for me – it's a dream that I had and we all had. It's a dream, that's become a reality."

And for Sandra, the Barge Inn will leave a lasting impression. "I've learnt that when people unite, when there is a good feeling and goodwill, you can do anything. It's put my faith back in human nature," she says. "When there is a passion and a common goal, it gives you the drive to make it happen. The other day when the event was happening, and the refurbishment had been completed it was magical. Everyone involved had done it for the love of it and that resonated in this incredible atmosphere – and for the first time I felt what it was to be part of a community."

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