The split personality of Strensall, York
Bill Hearld visits a thriving village on the edge of York that's home to hundreds of soldiers
You could say Strensall has a split personality. It is a thriving village with the population of a small town on the edge of York; it is a curious mix of old and new as well as old and young; and it is divided three times by the York to Scarborough railway line, though it lost its station in 1930.
It lacks nothing. It has three grocery shops, a village post office, three pubs, doctor's and vet's surgeries and a pharmacy. It has the largest primary school in York, a community library, chip shop, hairdressers, takeaway - oh, and a huge army barracks.
Strensall is a sprawling settlement with its ancient heart, now known as The Village, surrounded at both ends by huge but attractive housing developments. That means a trip to the shops in the main street is normally not a walk but a drive.
Some of the older residents think enough is enough and that the village is in danger of being over-developed. Yet it is an ideal dormer village for York, which is why the daytime belongs to the retired while the younger families earn their living in the neighbouring city. Evenings belong to the teenagers who congregate around the shops and at the playing field beside the busy village hall.
A rowdy element has recently been tamed by the introduction of a street drinking ban. Strensall's newest pub, The Six Bells, got its name from a village competition which was won by the then vicar who came up with the name because the parish church has - yes, you guessed it - six bells. He won a holiday of a lifetime in the Caribbean for his trouble.
Apart from pubs, there is plenty to do for the 5,000 civilian population, which is swollen further by hundreds of army personnel and their families at Queen Elizabeth Barracks. The village hall was originally an old army hut which was bought by residents when it was hauled back from Egypt after service in the Suez crisis. Villagers replaced it 20 years ago after receiving a series of grants and raising funds themselves. Today it is home to martial arts, a Masonic Lodge, adult education, toddlers' keep fit classes, indoor bowls, the WI - and Monday night is bingo night.
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Meanwhile, the army is doing its bit for Strensall. Lynette Nelson is the Army Welfare Service's community development worker and it is her job to make sure the soldiers and their families are happy.Much of that work involves making sure they are integrated (she calls it community cohesion) into village life. Not an easy task, she admits, but progress is being made.
'The world is full of miserable people. Why let them take over?'
At Hurst Hall on the camp, she organises community events for forces families and civilians alike. Playgroups, yoga, family suppers and family learning, primary school and baby care and other events mean that as many as 2,500 people pass through the doors every month. 'We don't want to be segregated,' said Lynette. 'We want everyone to be able to interact together.'
Strensall is home to the Army Medical Centre which trains part-time territorial soldiers, mainly NHS doctors and nurses, for action in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. They are taught how to set up a field hospital, with or without electricity, and how to deal with wounds and injuries associated with war. At weekends, the army population is boosted further by young cadets who come to train and practise on the rifle range on Strensall Common, a huge area of heathland popular with dog walkers and hikers. Birdwatchers visit for the great spotted woodpecker, long-eared owls and spotted flycatchers. You walk down Strensall's main street to the disconcerting sound of rapid rifle fire in the distance.
But some say the heart of the village is the post office, especially with a character like Richard Horseman behind the counter. He is renowned for his good humour and admits: 'The world is full of miserable people. Why let them take over?' He has been postmaster for 21 years and loves it: 'It is a great place to live and everyone is friendly. And they use the post office, otherwise it would have gone years ago.'
You can't get far in Strensall without someone mentioning Dennis Baxter either. He is the former village postman who can always be seen out and about, tidying up the war memorial or the community playing fields. 'I am a parish councillor and tidying up is one of my duties,' he says. But he is also known for helping older residents, driving them to hospital or doctor's appointments and doing DIY jobs in their homes. 'I like to help the older folk,' said Dennis, who is 79. 'Okay, I'm getting on, so some of them might be younger than me. I just like to keep busy.'
Village hall chairman John Scott and parish council chairman Peter Jesse feel there is an affliction of apathy creeping through Strensall. But they are hoping some young blood will eventually take an interest in community affairs. 'We have a strong community spirit here, but we need more younger people to get involved,' said John. 'I know many people look to York for their activities, but we have so much going on in Strensall.'