As the return of pubs, holidays and haircuts hails the beginning of a new normal, life after lockdown in Shropshire’s rural communities is sure to bear a lasting reminder of the coronavirus pandemic and how it brought people together.
From collecting prescriptions and delivering food packages, to lending a listening ear to a lonely neighbour over the garden hedge, through these dark times the very best of humanity and community spirit has shone through – and in no place brighter than Shropshire.
Parish councils, churches, WIs and village hall committees have all had their part to play in keeping their communities as safe and well-cared for as possible. Isolated, but together.
“Those of us involved in planning and organising things over the past three months have been amazed at the generosity and positivity shown by local residents,” said Condover Parish Council chairman Edward Marvin.
“Individuals in particular, rather than specific groups, have really made an effort to look after their neighbours and to think about their communities.
“We have never been short of foods supplies, offers to volunteers or resources generally.”
The parish council, like so many others across the county, took the lead in coordinating volunteer efforts, and was swamped by offers of support.
Councillor Marvin said: “We have organised essential food supplies, prescription and medicine deliveries and helped prepare a pop-up shop.
“We have overseen the development of three community web pages and managed the development of communication systems throughout the parish.
“As a result I feel we are better prepared for future crises and more confident about possible outcomes.”
It was a similar picture the other side of Shrewsbury, in Bomere Heath. Parish council chairman Dan Harmer said: “Self-isolation became a key feature at the start of the pandemic, but with it came the problems of getting basic essential items for those without help.
“Neighbours and friends began to support one another, but the parish council realised that there was a need to coordinate a wider support network to cater for the whole of the parish.
“Councillors Martin Speak and Jason Buglass utilised our website, Facebook pages, radio, and local contacts to reach out for assistance.
“The parish council was able gain the support of over 50 volunteers across the parish in a very short space of time. To ensure that the message got out across the whole of district that there was a support group to help those in need, the parish council used leaflet drops, banners at key locations and posters.
“Coordinated by email and a ‘hot line’ manned by Councillor Shirlie Briers, the Support Group quickly got off the ground shopping for essential items and collecting prescriptions from the local surgery and pharmacies. The service proved to be invaluable for many residents.”
Landlords and shop owners, while facing uncertainty over the futures of their own businesses, did not think twice in offering help to those most in need, with many, like the Horseshoes Inn in Dorrington, offering free meals to those unable to pay.
New services also sprung up at a rapid pace. The pop-up Condover Village Shop appeared in Harley Street, with a pay-it-forward scheme in place to allow residents to help out those who may be struggling, and Dorrington Village Hall opened every Monday to provide villagers with emergency supplies. The parish council oversaw the Parish Support Co-ordinators, who delivered prescriptions and supplies to those who could not get out.
Bomere Heath parish councillor Colin Stockton became the council’s point of contact with Prescott Surgery, while three Bascurch residents took up voluntary roles driving patients to appointments.
There have been challenges, like making arrangements to allow shops to take payments from shielding residents, but all have been overcome.
Helping people cope with the loneliness and anxiety associated with the lockdown has also formed an important part of community responses.
Bomere Heath parish councillor Shirlie Briers said: “There are lots of people out there who just appreciated a kind word having been scared but are so grateful of our support and a weekly phone call.
“It has been nice for me personally to work with people of other faiths whose only concern, like my own, is the welfare of other people, making sure that they realise we are there at the end of the phone in cases of loneliness and isolation and to put them in touch with like-minded people that can also support them.”
Councillor Colin Stockton meanwhile signed up to become a Macmillan ‘telephone budy’, something he hopes to continue after the pandemic.
In Condover, the Parish Support Co-ordinators also provided telephone advice on anything from benefits to business support.
Another major challenge for parish councillors has been the swift take-up of new technology and ways of working.
Councillor Marvin said Condover Parish Council, Condover Parish Neighbourhood Plan and Dorrington Village Hall Committee had all held several virtual meetings during the lockdown which had been described as an “improvement” on face-to-face meetings and had seen improved attendance.
He said: “It’s not entirely clear if we will do parish business any differently in the future but our experience will certainly motivate us to consider alternative ways of delivering services and communicating with residents.”
Councillor Harmer said home working and video calling had enabled Bomere Heath Parish Council to continue essential business.
He said: “The parish council is made up of a diverse group of people, many of whom are shielding themselves. However, the parish council has been motivated and keen to continue to represent our community wherever possible.
“As chair I am unsure how the future will look for the parish council. We will require some sort of face to face meetings in the future, to elect new members for example.
“Facilities like video conferencing and virtual meetings may bridge the need for shorter extraordinary meetings or planning meetings, but as for the normal parish council monthly meeting, there is nothing better than being able to come together in a room and have the discussions face to face.”
Shropshire Councillor Lezley Picton, who represents the Tern division which includes Bomere Heath, said: “I am continually surprised and delighted by the resilience of my parish councils, for them it’s business as usual.
“They continue to look out for their communities and most have taken to virtual meetings like ducks to water.”
Shropshire Councillor Dan Morris, who represents Burnell ward which includes Dorrington and Condover, said: “Within days of it becoming obvious just how disruptive and serious the Covid-19 virus was, community groups were springing up all over my ward.
“Parishes like Condover which are larger and more resourced grew into more formal groups very quickly.
“Shropshire Council put together community reassurance teams to assist the teams and provide focus points for key questions, but essentially it was people on the ground in the communities that looked after themselves.
“Pop-up shops and food banks appeared quickly and lots of volunteers put their hands up to say they would help out with food and medicine deliveries.
“More widely all Shropshire councillors across all political persuasions swapped information, leaflets and advice – for example I remember speaking with Castlefields Councillor Alan Mosely, the Labour group leader, where we swapped information and help.
“It was obvious that this wasn’t a time for politics and more a time for the whole of the county to act as one.”