Rural, right?

IMG_3176I’ve been thinking a lot about rural ministry recently. OK, I seldom don’t think about rural ministry. I was at the first (but not the last) Germinate conference a couple of weeks ago. All their emphasis on rural was on multi parish Benefices. And they are right. Except that my patch is undeniably rural. And one parish. Undeniably.  Really undeniably? Let’s check the definition of rural…..

Yes. There’s the issue. There isn’t a decent definition of rural. And I’m inclined to argue that rural is a state of mind.  One of my previous parishes would have been appalled, utterly appalled, to have been described as suburban. It was inhabited by people with lots of money who had moved out of the city. It had pavements, streetlights, and huge houses at the end of gated drives. The attitude of the people was entirely suburban. (Go on, define that.)

Here, we are not on mains gas. At least, not on my side of the railway. We have flats as well as houses, the community is large enough that we can find the skills we need within the parish boundaries. You name it, someone here can do it. And we always know what the weather is doing, because here it affects us. We are a community in which people walk. We have pavements, streetlights (here and there) and allotments. We have drug dealers, prostitution, immigration.  We are a mile long and three streets wide, of inner city problems with added weather and isolation.

We have the very-nearly-chocolate-box thatched cottages…but they are so very green and dank. We have the regular bus service, with queues at each stop. We have the world’s smallest and cutest English Heritage site, with the information board burned out by vandals. We specialise in petty vandalism and domestic violence.  The safeguarding training I went through at school majored not on sexual abuse but on neglect born of poverty, and on the emotional abuse which may follow.

We don’t have Travellors, just people who arrived here and camped a few decades back, and who built houses. We don’t have army….just about everyone who lives here has an army connection and some of them are serving.

We do have bewilderingly intertwined families and clans. We do have neighbours who know no-one in the village. We do have people who hate it being called a village because after several hundred years’ gap it regained Town status a few years back. We have people who’ve moved here because it’s cheaper than the surrounding, prettier, villages; people who arrived here and never left; people who have been placed here by the council.

How big? About 4,500-5,000 people. We are a very small market town – or we would be if the market hadn’t ‘failed to thrive’. We have our Post office, primary school, butcher, couple of small supermarkets, several hairdressers and a tattoo artist who is doing well enough to rent a shop.

Are we rural? Yes. Fields and woods all around, never more than one and a half roads from open countryside. But more than that, community. Once you are plugged into the networks, you are in. And once you are in, that’s that. You are assimilated. A newcomer, but assimilated. As Rector, I’m lucky – there was a place for me to step into, and I only wish I could access the race memory of rectors here because there are times it would be useful. The families and networks matter. The isolation matters (bus fares cost, and buses are tricky of those with several small children or limited mobility). The weather is of importance – it dictates how much coal or wood is burned, how often we need oil deliveries, whether our coats and boots are adequate, whether our food grows or not. If I ask someone to give me an idea for a walk it will start at my door.

The trouble is that no-one expects urban to be uniform. Urban includes the town centre, the high rise estate, the canal side development, the underpass community. Different, cheek by jowl. But rural is full of difference too.

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7 responses to “Rural, right?

  1. I can see your point, having lived in Tidworth (not a million miles away from you in the Eighties). Your town is in a rural setting, with the nearest identifiable cities some miles away. So a rural town is probably appropriate. And a microcosm of the problems that all towns have.

    Our setting is different, urban, but clearly identifiable communities (villages) within an artificially created Greater London Borough. Bexley. We have a Kent post code and telephone number and historically, were a Urban District Council before the amalgamation of the sixties (I blame Labour for this). People live in our ‘village’ as have their families for generations. We too have migration, with clearly identifiable communities from Africa and Asia, but actually, pretty well integrated. We have similar problems, irregular, erratic bus services, but we have mainline rail stations (four) within two miles in each direction from us. But, we’re cut off from mainstream greater London by the lack of tube, river crossings or the docklands light railway, all of which terminate at Greenwich or Abbey Wood. Plans to extend Cross Rail stop short of us and so, we remain, in semi-deprivation, intermingled with the more affluent boroughs surrounding us. I have to say that there are many other areas, much worse off than us. Travel costs for the relatively short distance into London on even a local bus journey are virtual extortion. Buses no longer accept cash, so people have to be entitled to free travel (under 18’s & over 65’s) or purchase an Oyster Card. Using any other form of payment attracts a higher charge.

    Home ownership is high,but social housing occupation is also high, with no spare capacity and little genuine building going on. When it becomes available is is over subscribed and off poor quality in some places. Private land lords charge high deposits and high rents for good property or bad property, they literally have tenants and potential tenants over a barrel, and they seem inclined to exploit the market for all that it’s worth. So we do have local homeless, who are transported as far away as Thanet in Kent for temporary accommodation in B&B, away from kith and kin, schools, doctors and local services that support them, having to try to find suitable provision for themselves where they are ‘dumped’.

    I’ve no doubt that we are no better or no worse than other urban villages, but the concentration of poverty in several sink estates has been challenged and one large one has been demolished to be replaced with low level, housing with flats, 80% of which will be social housing (for a change).

    Unemployment is relatively low, but there are a hard core of people who find it difficult to find employment for a whole variety of reasons, despite quite good community based employments services being available to support them. They are also the ones who suffer from ‘sanctions’ under the current government policies and are also among the customers for the Bexley Food Bank, along with many of the relatively low paid. There is a high level of casual employment around, which contributes to the uncertainty about longer term employment prospects. Much of the traditional industries, based around Woolwich Arsenal and other heavy industry are gone replaced with modern high tech industries, which need fewer, technically trained employee’s, most of whom seem to travel from outside the borough.
    The local economy is dependent upon the service sector. There are local enterprise zones and incentives for new business, but these are relatively short term, and are resented by existing businesses who are paying full business rates, while seeing start p competitors enjoying rate free years before they pay on a graduated scale. Good relationships can be soured by such issues.

    I think that I’m actually moaning that our situation is as bad or as good as anywhere else, but have allowed my thoughts to run away with me. Never mind. It is what it is. 🙂

  2. And is very much depends on which part of the UK you live in as to how one defines rural, for example living in the Highlands of Scotland where the nearest town, to access large shopping centre facilities is almost 50 miles away and to get to another church in the group is a round trip of 42 miles then rural has a different understanding, but if we look at how people can access facilities and services, how easy is it to get to places where there are essential services, how often is it possible to get to places via public transport then it isn’t always necessarily about distances. However if rural is defined by lack of mobile signal and lack of ability to use a sat nav to get you to the correct house then, well here is certainly rural!

    • Oh indeed, rural on a different scale. The mobile signal/sat nav accuracy and dare I add broadband tests are all plausible ways of exploring what’s rural too, has given me food for thought, thank you!

  3. Been meaning to respond to this excellent post for some days. Thank you for putting into words one of the things I’m trying to get my head round in Old Basing. Soooo close to Basingstoke we can see it and hear it, and the mainline trains run right past the church. Yet, there is a bus only once and hour before 6pm, no Post Office, and lots of largely arable farming. It does cute and thatched (complete with it’s own regional, huge, spider variant which insists of living in the church too), and historic (longest siege of the Civil War with re-enactment visits regularly) as well as having a patch of 1990s town overspill housing, though it isn’t really affordable for the young of the parish who wish to return! It has some local shops and receives praise for it’s butcher and bakehouse as well as it’s pubs. I am slowly finding the indigenous population via it’s incredibly active community societies and church life, but largely because we have to bury them, and those that moved there in the 1950-70s expansion have forgotten to leave. One of our recent widows has never been into the Town Centre 2.5m away! I’m guessing at a population of 2000 but my training incumbent doesn’t know, so I guess a visit to the Parish Council is in order.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that it thinks and works like a rural parish because it has far more in common with other rural parishes locally than the town parishes, but it certainly isn’t like the Highlands of Scotland, or a small rural town.

    Variety is the spice of life, but it makes identifying the nuances of the problems in the community a bit tricky to identify, and even more difficult to address I suspect. You’ve been in your patch about a year I think, so I’m wondering what the tricks are that you’ve found to ‘hearing’ your community? (I’m thinking of things other than the basics of talking to people and occasional offices).

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