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Thursday 17 Apr 2014

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Village SOS – Newstead

It was a week that was to change Anthony and Julia Thistleton-Smith's world forever. On one day she was having a 12-week scan and the confirmation that she was indeed pregnant after several years of trying – and just three days later came the confirmation that Newstead had won Big Lottery funding and the couple were moving from Islington, London, to a run-down former mining village to be its Village Champions for a year.

The couple took on arguably one of the most ambitious Village SOS projects, which combines setting up a country park, a new build visitor centre and the establishment of a commercial fishing business all on the one site, plus a music festival. The project secured £434,640 from the Big Lottery Fund for the purpose.

Yet despite both contemplating doing something "worthwhile" after separately establishing successful business – Anthony has an architects firm specialising in environmentally sustainable designs, Jules's marketing firm employs more than 60 people - the couple had never discussed it.

"We both wanted to get out of London, and we get involved in social enterprise or 'business for good'," says Anthony. "Looking back it's weird that we didn't have any discussion about what the implications on the family would be – that might have been helpful!"

What they had seen in the Newstead project was the chance to help a village in genuine need. "Every community has issues," says Anthony, "but the issues here were structural and deep running."

Newstead village was created to serve its colliery, which opened in 1873, and thrived for more than 100 years. But the pit closure was almost the death knell for the community.

"What I hadn't realised before I came here was that for the mining families, they were 'held' by the mine, so it wasn't just that you got a job, you got somewhere to live. If your child was sick they sent round a doctor, if your back door needed painting, it was done," says Jules. "It was such an incredibly supportive environment, that when the mine closed in 1987, not only did these people lose their jobs, they lost everything, literally. Jobs, homes, support structure, even their annual two week holidays to the coast – the whole community went to the seaside together, courtesy of the colliery.

"Some of these people had grown up for generations in this environment so the change was catastrophic. It wasn't just about high unemployment, it left the community devastated. To add insult to injury, any empty housing stock was used to house families with issues from other parts of Nottinghamshire – adding further to those deep structural problems. This was a thriving, prosperous community that had its still-beating heart ripped out – almost overnight."

The miners and their families were a proud and resilient bunch and somehow kept the community spirit alive – though all who knew Newstead admit it was run down and its image amongst its affluent neighbours was at rock bottom.

But it was a proposal to turn the former spoil pits into a landfill site that finally stirred people into action. They won a campaign to fight the rubbish tip, and a community group, Future Newstead, was set up to devise a Parish Plan which would identify the needs of the village. Rural Communities Action Nottinghamshire (RCAN) and a local group called CAST, a project which uses fishing to give confidence, training and qualifications to children at risk from exclusion in school, formed a consortium with Future Newstead to apply for Village SOS funding.

"It's taking the pit tips, the slag heaps, the very thing that's blighted the landscape for years, and turning that into the very thing that creates a brighter future, which has a very nice poetry about it," says Jules.

Key to bringing in the cash that will sustain the park is the fishing business, which CAST members are thrilled about. Project assistant Ashley Day says the project pays so much money out in peg fees to use other lakes that having their own represents not only a huge saving for the group, but the chance to earn money from charging peg fees of their own. As well as a general fishing lake, made from the ponds that were used to wash the coal from the pit, the plan is to run a breeding programme, and to sell fish commercially.

But CAST's core purpose will still remain – it has helped a generation of hard-to-reach youngsters learn new skills. Children in danger of being excluded from school, others with ADHD, are somehow calmed by the simple pleasure of casting a line and waiting for a bite – and they learn environmental skills while doing it, leading to qualifications they may never otherwise have had.

The Newstead Village SOS project also signed up to produce Headstock, a weekend-long music festival which built on Treefest – the community festival residents had been running for ten years. The second Headstock is planned for September 2011, though Jules says getting the first one together in just ten weeks was "one of the hardest things I've ever done".

There was some resentment from a community who had enjoyed the free Treefest for ten years, and suddenly found themselves shelling out for tickets, but Lesley Flanders, who works for CAST, says it had got too much for the volunteers who ran it. "It became a victim of its own success – it became too popular for us to do it properly," she says. "Two weeks after we had finished picking litter on the site we were back organising the next one. Now that it is ticketed we can buy people in to do the stuff we found very difficult, the security side, the fencing, the stage management. You need to bring the professionals in when there are 5,000 people."

The bands playing at the festival also discovered how the community spirit was alive and well, when the WI presented then with a very rock 'n' roll homemade cake.

One of the major problems the project faced was changing the image of Newstead, but slowly and surely its reputation is shifting from a place generally derided to one where people are actually moving in after being inspired by the project, says Anthony.

"They lost that sense of identity and pride when the coal mine shut and it's been an uphill struggle since then," adds Jules. "Over 400 members of this community have created this country park with their own hands – and of course their blood, sweat, and many tears! They've worked so hard because they know they've been creating a better future and a genuine legacy for future generations and the sense of pride and purpose in this village now is huge – we really feel honoured to have been part of that."

The couple too have been inspired, so much so that they have committed some of their own funds to it, and are having to let out the Newstead home they bought. "We didn't do it for the money. We made a lifelong commitment to Newstead," says Anthony, who adds that unlike in London, where traffic is all consuming, it takes longer to walk in Newstead than to drive because everyone stops for a chat.

"It's a hugely ambitious project and that has been a massive challenge over the year," adds Jules. "And the way we're talking about it now is we're building a field of dreams, and it really does feel like that. We've built it – now we're just praying for people to come."

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