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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Village SOS – Tideswell

Of all the Village SOS projects, Taste Tideswell, in the Peak District, was the only one whose proposal hadn't been kicking around in some form or other for several years.

Indeed the idea to create a new cookery school along with a local food trust mark and a growing programme was thought up by the community as they investigated grants from the Big Lottery Fund.

"Originally we were looking to develop some local trails and information boards, to give tourists an excuse to stay in the village," says Pete Hawkins, who was a local bed and breakfast business owner. "So we were only after about £20,000. Then we heard about Village SOS and the grants that were on offer and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss."

He and others called a public meeting to discuss what kind of rural enterprise could regenerate the community – with ideas ranging from anaerobic digesters to windfarms to multicultural projects in schools. And out that came "a desire to build on what we're good at at the moment – we have a farming area, we have tourists, and we have some local shops we don't want to lose," says Pete. The idea of the cookery school, which could work with the local shops to source ingredients and the local food trust brand which local producers like the dairy and the butcher could use, seemed to fit.

Tideswell chose Tim Nicol, a former Mars employee who had launched food brands in the UK as their Village Champion to help see the project to fruition.

Tim, who had set up his own marketing consultancy, was already helping out with a scheme linking business expertise to voluntary organisations after feeling that there was "something missing" in his personal life. "Village SOS grabbed my attention because I think this central premise of inspiring a rural revival through enterprise is what the whole country should be doing. I do honestly believe – without quoting the Big Society, because Village SOS came first – that enterprise and a businesslike approach can make a positive difference to communities and if I can help, then I'll feel that I've achieved something worthwhile," he says.

After securing the £433,826 Big Lottery Fund grant, the group set about finding premises for the cookery school, and settled on an old showroom area – "full of woodburners and fireside furniture" say Tim – used by a neighbouring shop. But with no expertise in the area, volunteers researched other cookery schools across the country. Tim even contacted the great Prue Leith for advice and went on a couple of courses himself.

"We had brilliant support from people who in effect were our competitors," says Juliet Waugh, now head of operations for Taste Tideswell. "They are much bigger than what we had planned, but seeing what they felt was important helped us really think through the layout for our kitchen."

Anyone who has designed a kitchen for their own home knows the problems, says Juliet. "You have everything installed and after about a month of using it, you think, 'if only I'd put the sink there...' We'd been talking and talking and we'd had everything designed and I was still thinking there's something that doesn't feel quite right. Luckily we managed to get to that 'sink' moment and changed the design right at the last minute."

Though the cookery school, which also boasts a commercial kitchen that can be let out for use by local producers or caterers, and a tiny micro-brewery – called the nano-brewery – is the main commercial enterprise, it was important to the project that they didn't push out any other local business.

"We won't produce anything," says Pete. "We won't produce a Taste Tideswell biscuit to sell because the shops can do that." Juliet agrees. "The ingredients we use at the cookery school we get from the fruit and veg shop. We could go to her supplier and get it wholesale but we'd rather pay a bit more and go to her because she's a local business, and having that shop here is important to the village."

Besides starting the Tideswell Made trustmark which producers can buy into, the project will use the cookery school to fund one of its other objectives – outreach projects. Education officer Michelle Lindley is visiting the local primary schools on a regular basis, making children aware of where their food comes from and encouraging them "to be able to make proper food as opposed to just opening a packet.

"I mean it's not a big thing to make a cake," she adds. "It's about taking away the fear as much as anything."

And she is also hoping for a cooking renaissance in the schools. "Several of the head teachers I have spoken are very keen to see cookery included in the curriculum rather than it being an after-school activity," she says.

Michelle, who was a secondary school teacher in Doncaster before taking the job, is just one of the people Taste Tideswell can now employ locally, meaning she no longer has to travel more than an hour in each direction for work.

And the project team hopes the scheme will continue to grow, enabling more people to be employed, and to keep their talents – and their spending money – within the village.

Tim says what has been amazing is the range of skills that have been unearthed during his stay. "When you look around the table and the group that support us, there are all these little gems of expertise that come to the surface," he says. "We've got legal and PR experts, people who have worked with big business and small business, in the public and the private sector."

His own expertise has also grown, taking him well out of his corporate comfort zone. "For instance I chose granite for the worktops, bought a chiller off eBay and wangled food mixers from suppliers. I have had to discipline myself to get out and talk to people during the day because my comfort zone is behind the laptop, but I get so much more done and feel a greater sense of achievement if I'm out talking to people rather than banging away at a spreadsheet."

He's also had to lay off some of the jargon he was used to using in the business world, he says. "There's something about the character of Tideswell and the Peak District – you don't get away with marketing mumbo-jumbo and bullshit around here; they see through that in a minute!" he laughs. "So it has been straight talking and both feet on the ground."

And beautiful ground into the bargain. "This is a lovely place to come and relax," says Tim. "When my wife comes to visit she feels like it's a holiday – even though I feel she's come to visit me at the office because I can't go into a shop or walk down the High Street without being in my Village Champion persona. Not that I'm complaining; that's the job," he says.

"I think Tideswell is a largely undiscovered place with hidden talents, poorly signposted, and overly modest," adds Tim. "Hopefully the Taste Tideswell project will now have put it firmly on the map and showcased it to the country."

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