What the locals really think of Audlem
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2016 | UPDATED: 20:17 04 February 2018
It’s not just residents who think there’s a great community spirit here - the town has several awards to prove it, writes Martin Pilkington
Any village worried about losing its community spirit would do well to take a look at Audlem, which pretty much swept the board at Cheshire Community Action’s 2015 awards.
‘Villages are in danger of becoming just dormitories where people return from work, shut the door and never meet neighbours,’ says Allan Brown, landlord of The Lord Combermere Inn, leading light of the Audlem Beer Festival, and a member of ASET – Audlem Special Event Team, a group that organises several of the village’s long roster of happenings, ‘We want to avoid that. People actually want to move to Audlem because of its community spirit and everything that goes on. Were we to stop putting on these events there’s a danger of the retail side suffering, pubs closing, the cohesion going.’
The retail provision in Audlem, a village with a population of just 1,658, would be the envy of towns three times that size: it can muster three pubs and the same number of cafes; a small supermarket, newsagent, butchers, dress shop, flower shop, chippy... there’s even a bike shop and a dry cleaner’s. And vitally it retains a Post Office: ‘Without the Post Office it would be so much harder to run our events,’ says Alan Duncan, another ASET member: ‘People meet there and talk, and we get great feedback about what they liked, what worked and what didn’t.’
Andrew Smith is Audlem’s Postmaster, and Audlem District Amenities Association’s 2015 Citizen of the Year. He’s also the Chairman of ASET, and was there when it all began: ‘Typically of such things the idea came about in the pub. In 2000 Hankelow’s bonfire wasn’t going to happen, so we thought “Why not have one here?” After that was successful we continued with it, and decided to stage other things, Proms on the Park and the transport festival. We’ve gone on to great things.’
Proms on the Park quickly evolved into Party on the Park, attended by 2000 or more people: ‘The gates open at 4pm, but people come earlier to breathe in the atmosphere and to get their area ready with chairs and tables,’ says Mr Duncan: ‘It appeals to families from young kids – we had a One Direction tribute band two years ago - to great grandparents. The music starts around 6pm, we have two or three bands, and it ends around 10:30 with fireworks.’
‘Some bring hampers and candelabras – no barbecues are allowed, but they get curries delivered and the fish and chip shop over the road does a roaring trade,’ adds his ASET colleague Catherine Gresty.
ASET’s third big annual occasion is its Transport Festival. On the last Saturday in July more than 300 vehicles from penny farthings to showpiece cars, trucks and buses parade from Hankelow to Audlem before parking up on the village playing field for inspection: ‘Last year we had 34 Harleys – that was some sound to hear,’ says Alan Duncan. Since 2009 water-borne transport has joined the fun in a linked event, The Audlem Gathering of Historic Boats: ‘The transport festival was only road vehicles, and it struck us that the canal was historically important in Audlem, and as a significant tourist draw remains economically important, so it should feature somehow alongside the Festival of Transport,’ says Peter Silvester, who with his wife Chris runs the gathering: ‘The first year we got eight or nine boats, then word got round, and now we have 35, the most that we can accommodate here.’
Those boats come from all over the North West and Midlands, but many guests travel further: ‘We get people from the USA, Australia, Canada... one lady comes every three years from Siberia!’ says Peter: ‘It’s not commercial - no stalls, no sideshows, we charge no fees - it’s done to give something back to the canal system.’
Putting something back was Janet Maughan’s reason for starting up yet another event, the annual RNLI Festival at Overwater Marina, a mile from Audlem via the Shropshire Union Canal: ‘The first was in 2011, it started as a way to raise awareness of safety on the network, and as an RNLI fundraiser – they do flood and inland rescue as well as coastal lifeboats - and it has now become a family fun day,’ she says. With activities like raft and duck races and a wheelyboat to allow disabled people easier access to the water it has proved a hit – like the venue itself, voted 2015’s Inland Marina of the Year.
In January planning is already proceeding apace for the biggest of the village’s major events, The Audlem Festival, a feast of music, poetry and art over five days at the end of May. ‘Sponsors and advertisers help finance it, we need to raise about £16000 - the cost of the acts and performers is roughly £12000, programme printing and ancillary items account for the rest,’ says Ralph Warburton of its organising team: ‘The parish council contributes, and each of the three pubs adds a tidy sum as the festival draws a lot of thirsty customers here. The shops benefit too, there’s much greater footfall.’
Around 80 acts appear in a surprising range of venues, from St James Church to the 13th century buttermarket, an alley off the high street to the wharf, and of course the three pubs: ‘Each pub has an outside stage and an inside stage, says Pete Marshall, another of the organisers: ‘There’s jazz, classical, folk, rock, a capella, performance poetry... a great mix of local acts, all by invitation and carefully vetted for quality first, and acts from further away.’
‘We have a growing number of school-kids playing, it’s a good opportunity for them perform, and to see professional musicians,’ adds Alisdair MacKenzie, who himself plays in several bands during the festival: ‘There’s no charge and no wrist bands and all that malarkey. It’s like a relaxed Glastonbury, but without the mud.’
The organising teams mention how much hard work is needed to put on the events, and the pressure they feel to make the next better than the last. But it pays dividends throughout the year for the entire village. As Allan Brown concludes: ‘We want to continue to have a really vibrant community, and the best way to do that is to get local people out of their houses to celebrate together. And to do it professionally so people from further afield join in the fun - and the spending.’
Audlem’s Successes at the 2015 Community Pride Competition (Cheshire Community Action)
• Best Kept Village with a population between 1001 and 2500
• The Cheshire Community Spirit Award
• Best Community Website
• A ‘Little Gem’ Award for the Millstone outside St. James Church
• The Overall Award as Best Kept Village/Market Town