Roots and Pioneers

Chris Gathercole - Part 2

Chris Gathercole Whalley community locale networking Angus Soutar

Part 2 - Pioneering in the local community

Chris was active with Transition Town Clitheroe and, following that over the last several years, he brought about two projects in his home village Whalley: the Whalley Community Hydro and Whalley Forest Garden. Both of these projects feature on our Northern School list of “must see” visits, to the constant delight of those who make the trip.

Chris has had a long and interesting career devising and supervising the care of people with disabilities. He has not been sitting back in retirement and he has caused these two ground-breaking projects to come to fruition. He has now retired fully and moved to Wales, although when last we spoke he was getting exited about starting a rewilding project there.

Before he left for Wales, he was interviewed by Angus Soutar. Part 1 explains how Chris got involved in community activity and sets the scene for the projects in Whalley. You can read it here. Part 2 follows - read on.

At the PDC for Transition Town Clitheroe, 2010
Design team at The Pendle Club, Clitheroe, 2010

Communal Activity For Active Community

Angus: What is Whalley like for community activity?

Chris: There's actually an enormous amount of community activity here. We don't have enough meeting room space for local groups in the village. There is the old grammar school, one or two pubs, the library (now reopened) and the school, also the village hall. All of these are booked up almost one hundred percent of the time. The old grammar school has about 90 groups using it - language classes, local history society, scrabble, yoga, a huge amount of local stuff. Its main source of income is the pre-school nursery and that is a volunteer organisation.

Angus: I know that there are quite a few people moving into the area and do they become involved in community activities too?

Chris: I don't know really, but a lot of them have young families and they have their jobs and they’re busy with two partners working.

Angus: The busy-ness of people - that’s one of our main problems. We see this with our graduates from the Permaculture Design Courses, some of them go on to do very interesting things but there are others who get bogged down and have trouble holding body and soul together.

Chris: But they might come back to it? In five, ten years time?

Angus: Yes this is what we see! But it does seem to be a sign of the times. In my work I notice it. It is much more difficult for people to do unpaid work on projects than it was 10-15 years ago. We have talked about the opposition things and the reluctance to change: and so I want to explore a little bit more about Whalley being fertile ground for new projects to come into place - part of it seems to be the availability of people who have a bit of time to put into a project. Your projects started organically with simple conversations, but how did you see the teams coming together from this initial state? Take the Hydro, how did you manage to assemble the team when you were not an energy expert?

Chris: Pure magic? Networking, that’s the key to so much of this and having conversations with people. But as it turned out, we had five members of the board and they have slightly changed over the time and we have had to recruit other people. In the beginning, it was just chatting. It started off with Wendy, who has moved away now with her husband Malcolm, and she has an interesting email address which is wendybutterfly . Wendy is interested in everything and she said to me why don't we do Hydro? And I said okay what would you like to do? She said, oh no I can't but then Malcolm got into it. Malcolm knew Tim and Tim is an engineer. We needed engineers for this project, we need people who know about the technicalities. Tim has been a stalwart and he’s still with it.

Both Tim and I knew Bill Kembury from nearby Wilpshire. Bill is very interested in carbon reduction and we recruited him. And then Bill recruited Graham . Graham was on the council and he knew how the local council works. That was extremely helpful.

We were all of what you might call a professional background with managerial experience and we were all retired. So are all familiar with how to make things happen. We were happy to move forward and get things done . After Bill Kembury left the board I happened to know Bill Wilkinson who was estates director at Calderstones and he also has an engineering background. He put us off for a few years until he retired and then he joined up with us, which was great because he is an absolute wizard at the technicalities. And also on things like legalities as well. He is somebody who can read a legal document and then he's got it all his brain.

So we all brought different skills to the party and that collection of experience and background and skills came together - and they all complimented each other. It was just amazing really. I only retired from the board about year ago.

Angus: It seems to me that you have a fertile ground here and that's why I want to keep exploring the locality.

Chris: I think that Whalley is not much different from Clitheroe. Things just happened in Whalley because I live here. I started thinking where am I living? It's not very far to Clitheroe, but going to meetings there is just a bit more difficult, whereas here I just walked down the road. I've always had an interest in community, I've had to think about community, doing the work that I did with people with learning disabilities. I was the one going around the North West talking about community living for people who were shut away and isolated, but I was not a member of my local community. I had to get my local community contact second hand.

I had read stuff by the American professor John McKnight (see “Assert Based Community Development” and The Abundant Community ). He did a lot of work with communities and that intrigued me. He would always ask “what is the story here?”. He would talk about a coastal village where I think it was lobsters, they were mainly lobster fisherman, it might have been pollution or new regulations, and this affected the whole community so they had to come together. That was the story there everybody shared. Here the story is new housing. That really brought speople together.

The Britain in Bloom group here is an interesting case. Like most people, I thought “oh they're just putting up hanging baskets and flowers all round the place”, but don't mistake it. There is a bit of that, but more important, the judges’ guidance for the competition is very broad, one of them is about use of local resources so our Hydro gets added in there! Whalley in Bloom have helped with some funding for plants for the Forest Garden.

Whalley Forest Garden started in the summer of 2011 when Chris and Doreen first set eyes on the site. A featureless and degraded field is now a wonderful wild area with rapidly-maturing fruit trees.

Whalley Community Hydro opened in 2014 generating electricity from the flow of the Lancashire Carder as it falls over the weir near Whalley Abbey. At outputs of up to 100kW, the project was managed in its entirety by local people, raising the required finance of around £750,000 through a community share issue.

In future issues, we discuss community activity further, and Chris will cover more specific aspects of the two projects. Part 1 explains how Chris got involved in community activity and sets the scene for the projects in Whalley. You can read it here

Visit to Whalley Forest Garden 2018
Chris welcoming visitors to Whalley Forest Garden

To be continued ...

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