Living in Lympstone

Don't just moan, do something about it! It's an adage that has served the community of Lympstone well, and shows why it's a worthy winner of Devon Life's Village of the Year award, sponsored by Strutt & Parker

I pulled up outside the school just as Lympstone's future scampered across to an assembly in the village hall. Waiting there to take me on a tour of the village was Peter Acca, Chairman of the Parish Council, Jane Moffat, Vice Chairman, and David Atkins, Chairman of the Village Hall Committee and goodness knows how many other positions, because these people wear more hats than Ascot. It seems to be the general trend here: multi-tasking comes naturally to the whole village. Lympstone is a village that looks after its own.

"We've always had a strong community," Peter told me. He is Lympstone born and bred and knew the village when it was even more traditional. "Like many villages we've lost a lot of shops and businesses that formed its core, but somehow we've never lost the community."

Why that should be is difficult to comprehend because a fair proportion of the village is transient, notably the married quarters of the nearby Lympstone Royal Marines training centre. There is an increasing number of incomers and even the local children move out: the difference here is that they come back.

"Like most youngsters, I couldn't wait to get out," Jane told me. "But when it was time to settle down and raise my own children, I knew I had to come back - as did a lot of my friends - because there is no better place for children. I know exactly where my children are and what they are doing, and if I don't, someone else will and they'll tell me."

A teacher by profession, Jane is heavily involved with the youngsters. The youth club, where we had an initial chat, was a prime example of what a community in tune with itself can provide at a moment's notice.

"Jane is what we call our 'professional blagger'," David told me. "Everything you see here has been donated, even the kitchen. The children themselves helped erect the hut in the 1970s - it was originally an army barracks hut - and Jane brought it back to life with an army of volunteers."

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It was the same with the children's play area. "Three years ago parents were complaining there wasn't anywhere for the toddlers to play," Jane said, "so I told them, don't just moan, do something about it!" Within two weeks Lympstone@play had been set up. Six months later £40,000 had been raised and the playground erected. "We even had 13 volunteers trained as playground inspectors because, by law, playgrounds have to be inspected weekly. Funding is now in place for a senior playground with an all-weather multi-sports surface to follow."

And that is only one organisation in Lympstone. "The thing is, we have a lot of motivated people in the village. There are upwards of 40 societies, clubs and organisations with more forming all the time, so the wealth of expertise and knowledge we can call on is tremendous," she said.

One of those organisations is the local tennis club, which itself has a youth focus. "They have a thriving youth section, with professional coaching, and share their facilities with the school," Peter said. Indeed, one of the school's former pupils, Katie Miller, played for England's junior squad. Another, Toby Ingham, played cricket for the county, and is now one of the youngest members in the village cricket club.

The primary school is a model for what a primary school should be. It is constantly outgrowing its accommodation and has significant levels of academic achievement. Headmaster Tony Priest is proud that Lympstone children "punch well above their weight at secondary school". They recently accounted for 25% of the top group of youngsters taking their Maths GCSE a year early at the local secondary school. IT is also a strong feature. 'Recently each child gave their own Powerpoint presentation, and even I was astonished at the quality of work and the level of articulation."

Without doubt the village's pre-school playgroup provides a solid foundation for school life. "I looked in on the new intake the other day," Tony said, "and there is absolutely no way that children of that age could have those levels of motor skills and coordination without having had first-class attention before they joined us."

The pre-school group is run in the village hall by a team of volunteers (with paid leaders), and although entirely separate from the school, is fully integrated into the school's regime. As a teacher herself, Jane is in no doubt that the active, happy, learning atmosphere and the talented staff contribute in no small measure to the success that children later achieve and to the community spirit they absorb. The school also has close links with the church, maintaining a traditional approach to its activities.

Prime mover in the IT revolution in the school was Chris Carter, who introduced the school's Computer Club and got the children to set up their own website before school websites had hardly been thought of. It now forms a part of his popular village website, which he runs in conjunction with the Lympstone Herald, the village newsletter, produced monthly and delivered free of charge to all households in the village. The Herald is also something of a money spinner for the parish coffers, with paid-for advertisements, soon to be applied to the website. Chris is also the administrator for Lympstone Shop Supporters' Club, one of the village's notable achievements.

A new venture in the village is the coffee shop, Sheares Place. Run by Sarah-Jane Watts, it is already another village institution, with 90% of the clientele being local. Again, Sarah-Jane is an incomer.

"We moved in at 9pm one evening," she told me "and when I took the dog for a walk in the morning, at least nine people stopped to say hello. I've never experienced that anywhere else, and everyone is so supportive of the coffee shop, which is great. I wouldn't go anywhere else now."

It was a case of new touching with old, because I was at Sheares Place to meet up with two of Lympstone's stalwarts, Jackie Doak and Bryan Steward, who are intent on keeping an old tradition going: The Furry Dance, which can be documented back to the end of the 1930s when it's thought to have been part of the celebrations to welcome the return of the fishing fleet in the days when Lympstone was a thriving maritime community. Taking place each year on the first Saturday in August, it sees the streets thronged with people enjoying events throughout the day awaiting the dance that starts at 7pm.

"It's the day when Lympstone gets drunk!" Peter laughed. "And it's also a time when Lympstonians who have moved away come back especially to take part," Bryan added. The present leader of the dance, Graham Wills, has been dancing for the last 42 years.

The village shop is perhaps the best advertisement for Lympstone's community spirit. Originally a Co-op, it was to be sold off for residential use and the village butcher, Ken Williams, who had a shop next door, looked at the possibility of buying it but couldn't afford it. So the community formed the Lympstone Shop Supporters' Club and, within a matter of three weeks, had raised a staggering £42,000, which they presented to Ken and his wife, Mary, as a loan at a ludicrously low rate of interest.

'What is even more staggering," Ken told me, 'is that some of the older people have stipulated in their wills that they don't want any money back." The Supporters' Club still provides funds in the form of a £1 subscription every year, which goes towards improvements in the village. The shop has been progressively expanded in the intervening period and now provides a small bakery. There were plans to open a cafŽ until Ken heard about Sarah-Jane's plans for Sheares Place when he resolutely forgot his own.

Traditional or not, Peter refused to be drawn about the 'village idiot'. However, I did come across two of the local 'Nutters'. Keith Barret and Norman Smith are founder members of The Swan Inn's 'Nutters Club', which imposes fines on members for minor misdemeanours, thus swelling the pot for the club's Christmas binge.

'It took us to Porthcawl one year," Keith said. Originating from the Welsh valleys, Keith has now settled here. His fellow Nutter, Norman Smith, is likewise an incomer and, just as with everyone who moves into the village, was astounded at the warmth of welcome. Pub landlord Jo Mockler echoed the sentiment. "I've only been here six months myself, although I knew the village because my mother lives here, but it's as if I've always been here. We were accepted right away."

The Swan is as local as they come; the head chef only lives a few doors away and has a popular following. Indeed, each of the pubs in the village - The Swan Inn, The Redwing and The Globe and, further afield, The Saddlers Arms - has its own clientele. "Athough," said Peter, "it's not unknown for people to work their way around them all in turn of a weekend. The Globe does a special fish and chip night. There isn't a fish and chip shop in the village now, so locals just take plates into the pub and take the meal home to eat." The Swan is unique in that it has a frontage to the street, which is always thronged of a summer's evening.

"I experienced my first Furry Dance as a publican this year," Jo said, "and that was an experience. We had a hog roast outside and it was a lot of fun." The Redwing is the local centre for live music with bands every Tuesday and Friday and, Peter tells me, has home cooking off to a fine art with chef/proprietor Jackie Moir putting on a Sunday lunch "just like mother used to make".

Debbie and Peter Chisman run the Post Office. Incomers again, they bought the place on the strength of their first impressions when they came to look around three years ago. It's a decision that has been vindicated time and again, although they might have chosen a less frenzied profession - I have never seen a small Post Office so busy on a Monday morning. Debbie and Peter are holders of the 'Village Diary', which anyone can consult and annotate when they are planning an event so that it doesn't clash with anything else. And, if you're just in there to buy your daily newspaper, don't bother with queuing - just put your money in the honesty box on the counter!

So, what makes Lympstone Devon Life's Village of the Year? Location, for a start. It's a self-contained little enclave between the main road and the estuary. It has its own railway station on the Avocet line, and where can you find a village of this size that has that? It has its own Health Clinic, it has its own highly successful Brass Band, it provides its own entertainment, but above all it has its people. One for all and all for Lympstone - a small community with a lot to teach the world.


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