Making a difference in South Somerset

IF you read (and believe) half the stuff you see about our part of South Somerset in the newspapers and the glossy magazines, you might think that the people who make a difference have all moved here in the last few years, many of them from London.

The concentration of stars, celebrities and ex-politicians around Bruton has now resulted in that ancient, interesting town being dubbed a “new Notting Hill.”

It’s taken over from Castle Cary which suffered from similar metropolitan media hype a few years ago. Friends who live in both towns are bored with the publicity, partly because it is such empty puffery but more seriously because the main effect is to boost property prices in an unrealistic way.

The famous incomers in and around Bruton include television entrepreneur and presenter Sarah Beeny, fashion designer Stella Macartney, former Chancellor George Osborne and writer, broadcaster and agony aunt Mariella Frostrup. The recent arrivals may or may not have been attracted by Hauser & Wirth’s brilliant gallery and garden at Durslade Farm, or Koos Bekker’s reinvention of Hadspen House as The Newt country house hotel and gardens. There is no denying that they have brought a lot of media attention to the area.

The proximity to a railway station and easy access to the A303 trunk road have also helped, and the area can now boast a wide range of eateries and gastro-pubs, including one of the region’s top restaurants (the newly Michelin-starred Osip, in Bruton).

Our town – Wincanton – cannot compete with Castle Cary’s gorgeous golden stone, or (so far, thank heavens) Bruton’s celeb status, but it is interesting, historic and has lots of fascinating old buildings. It has also had its own crop of incomers, who are credited by some with reviving its fortunes. One celeb suggested, in a newspaper interview before she even arrived, that she was going “to sprinkle a little magic” over the town. Other recent arrivals have brought some creative verve to the town centre and, in one case, rescuing a long-empty building.

The idea of famous or wealthy incomers reviving the fortunes of a town is largely nonsense, of course. Castle Cary, with its beautiful old buildings, always had a lot going for it, not least because of a policy of not allowing supermarkets in the town. Bruton had a relatively affluent and highly educated population, thanks in part to two public schools and a highly rated state secondary school.

The revival of Wincanton is almost entirely due to the energy and commitment of independent retailers in the town. They are the reason that those of us lucky enough to live here have weathered the pandemic and the lockdowns better than many in larger urban areas – not incomers, whether they are looking for “the good life,” promoting veganism or selling 1990s festival-style gear with a rather head-spinning nod to Frida Kahlo and Indian gmysticism.

During the first lockdown, one of the first to organise deliveries to anyone who was shielding was the owner of the greengrocers and wholefood shop, an energetic entrepreneur who has transformed a slightly rundown shopping arcade into a beautiful greeen space, and who grows or sources locally as many products as she can.

All our local shops that could stay open adapted quickly to the new way of life, whether it was the butcher taking payment over the phone, while a younger friend collected our shopping, the bakery expanding its stock and organising sensible queuing outside or the pet shop delivering to your door,.

The bakers also stocked milk, flour (at a time when supermarket shelves had been stripped bare), loo rolls (ditto) and basic veg, offering a simple, convenient shopping experience

When we got low on our favourite bread flour, the deli owner ordered some for us, and all the shop-keepers got used to one person shopping for two or three different households, willingly separating till receipts. Little things make a big difference.

The pandemic, the lockdowns and the resultant economic mayhem will leave a lasting mark on all our lives. There will be no return to “normal” – at best there will be a “new normal,” which may include far more people working from home, less traffic in town centres and office blocks converted into affordable town centre housing for the people we now know are key workers.

Individual communities will have their own memories and legacy of Covid-19, both good and bad. In this area, one of the good legacies will be Castle Cary’s lockdown book, The Cooking Pot. Growing out of Cary Cares, a community group formed at the start of the pandemic to help people in need, the book is a collection of recipes and stories from professional food writers and chefs, cooks, food businesses and domestic cooks. All profits go to the Castle Cary Parish Charity which helped to finance Cary Cares.

For most small towns, the best legacy will be the twin benefits of maintaining close neighbourly and community connections and supporting the independent shops that helped us when we couldn’t travel to bigger towns or out of town shopping centres.

Fanny Charles