Playing their part

Carole Varley meets three of Fleet's clubs and societies who each have a special part to play in the town's local community

Small company, big Players

“It’s nice to bring decent theatre to the people in Fleet,” says Brenda Culverhouse of the Church Crookham Players. Brenda should know, for she’s been treading the boards there since the group was founded more than 40 years ago in 1967.The group started off  “very humbly”, she explains, by putting on short plays and sketches in the local church – something, which, of course, they are still happy to do today.  However, when the group later moved to a bigger venue in Fleet’s Memorial Hall, they discovered they could play to packed houses, even “have them hanging from the rafters,” to use Brenda’s words. And when she says decent theatre, Brenda really means it, for the Players will stage everything from restoration comedy and Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, to more challenging contemporary drama. “We do get some raised eyebrows occasionally,” twinkles Brenda, “It’s nice to show that we are capable of doing that.”Today, there are some 25 members in the company from a wide cross-section of the community. “We have couples in their early 20s and 30s – who keep us all very much in touch with what’s going on in the village – to those who have been with us many years and are, like me, getting a bit long in the tooth,” quips Brenda. “We have survived because we are small,” she adds. “Every single person is vital. There is no time or space for egos here. And we’re so lucky with the people we’ve got. They really work their socks off for us.”The company stages two major productions a year and also hold play readings, workshops and regular social activities.  “We are a big fish in a little pond and, for us, it works. We do have a good reputation, and quite a following,” says Brenda proudly.

Fleet of foot

We’ve all seen them at festivals and fairs up and down the country, but who are the people in the ribbons with bells that perform our national Morris dance? Well, in Fleet there are 18 of them (plus four musicians) and they come from all walks of life, from teachers to laboratory technicians, pharmacists to environmental project workers, according to the appropriately-named Wendy Morris, who is ‘the Squire’, or the leader of side (team of Morris dancers). Wendy has been dancing for 23 of the 25 years that Fleet Morris has been in existence.Sides can be either all women (as at Fleet), all men, or mixed. The variety doesn’t end there, either, because there are lots of different types of dances, from the Cotswold Morris and the Molly dancing of the Fens to the sword dancing of the North East.“Nobody really knows the origin of Morris dancing,” admits Wendy, “although it is thought that it may have grown out pagan ceremonies to drive away evil spirits.”

Fighting fit

What they all do know, though, is that it is an extremely effective way of keeping fit. “It’s very good aerobic exercise. We have people of all ages here [mostly between the mid-30s and the mid-60s]. Anyone can do it so long as you can walk and have a good sense of rhythm... and humour,” adds Wendy, who explains that her husband is a bit of a “Morris baiter”. Despite that, both her sons were Morris dancers and her daughter has played for the side. “Quite a lot of families do come and get involved and watch,” she says. They meet once a week, at this time of year mostly to practise for the warmer months, when they are back high-stepping round the pubs, competitions, fairs and festivals, raising “quite large sums” of money for charity (this year’s beneficiary is a children’s hospice).  “You meet a lot of interesting people doing this,” says Wendy. “It’s a way of life I wouldn’t have had without the Morris. It’s also a lot of fun. Then there is the social aspect – getting together with friends. It does weave its magic.”

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Hands across the pond

Once upon a time, Fleet Urban District Council bought a pond that the Ministry of Defence no longer wanted. But what to do with it for the best, they knew not – and this is when the Fleet Pond Society was born – “to preserve the pond and improve facilities for local people,” in the words of society chairman Colin Gray.The society was formed in 1976 and Colin, who joined in 1982, now works with the other 480 people who also regularly give up their time and energy to maintain the site, conserve the heathland and wetland areas, reed beds and marsh habitats. In September and October, for instance, volunteers gave up 605 hours of their time to the project. As a result, the pond area is now home to muntjac, roe deer and badgers, some 250 varieties of fungi, 1,500 types of plants and some 2,000 species of ever-changing visitors, such as insects, reedwarblers, siskins and cuckoos. As Colin says, “There is always something to see as different species move in at different times of year.”

Pond life

Lots of different types of people, too, benefit from the pond’s attractions, from the early-morning and lunchtime joggers and dog-walkers to pond-dipping schoolchildren and weekend picnickers. The volunteers, too, comprise a diverse group, and come from “all ages, all walks of life”, says Colin. Most regular users of the pond are members of the society, and this not only includes locals, but also employees from the nearby business park and, increasingly, corporate members. “The pond also acts as a focus for a lot of social contact,” says Colin. “People stop and talk there. It brings people together. It is something they can relate to. It is so much part of their lives. It’s almost like their own back garden. People often call me up to say that they have just seen a duck with a broken wing, for instance.”Although called a pond, at 21 hectares (or 52 acres), Fleet Pond is actually Hampshire’s largest freshwater lake and the society’s biggest headache today is finding the �3.5million it needs to dredge it, since it is silting up fast. “We can’t expect the council to find that sort of money,” says Colin. However, with the can-do approach so typical of this society, no doubt the volunteers will come up with something, since nothing yet has so far failed them.