The market town that refused to die: Community comes together to save the library, bus service, post office and garage
They do things differently in Hawes — a market town wedged between the rugged splendour of Wether Fell, Fleet Moss and Stags Fell, deep in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
When the post office was threatened with closure, instead of moaning and blaming the Government, they simply opened their own. Same with the library — in 2005 they moved it into the local community office, so they could keep it open five and-a-half days a week, instead of just two.
And the dwindling bus service which, by 2011, had become so sporadic it was barely any use. Residents set up their own bus service, The Little White Bus, to meet trains at Garsdale Station and keep the town linked to the rest of the world.
Even the Wensleydale Creamery is owned by the community. Once threatened with closure and the loss of 59 jobs, today it’s a huge, shiny factory producing award-winning cheeses made exclusively from local milk.
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They do things differently in Hawes — a market town wedged between the rugged splendour of Wether Fell, Fleet Moss and Stags Fell, deep in the Yorkshire Dales National Park
So, naturally, when the Dale Head petrol station recently faced closure, which would have left locals with a 36-mile round trip up hill and down dales to fill their cars, quad bikes and sheep transporters seven days a week, the townsfolk stepped up.
At the start of the month it became the first community-run petrol station in England, run by part-time staff and volunteers.
This must surely make the town one of Britain’s most self-sufficient communities.
One of the driving forces has been Cllr John Blackie, 69, a relentlessly upbeat chap and a hero in Hawes.
‘Hawes people have never taken “no” for an answer,’ he explains. ‘We’re self-reliant, with a good dose of cussedness, bloody-mindedness and the occasional streak of granite. If someone else isn’t going to help us, we’ll just do it ourselves.’
It’s a good thing, because it’s hard to imagine a community more isolated from the rest of the world.
When the post office was threatened with closure, instead of moaning and blaming the Government, residents simply opened their own
Even the Wensleydale Creamery is owned by the community. Once threatened with closure and the loss of 59 jobs, today it’s a huge, shiny factory producing award-winning cheeses made exclusively from local milk.?The Wensleydale cheese it makes has been boosted by its association with the animated character Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame) who loves it
The nearest secondary school is 17 miles away, the area’s four GPs have to cover 600 square miles between them and Hawes is one of only four places in England so remote that they qualify for a five pence government rebate on petrol.
Winters are also brutal — sleet, gale-force winds, floods, snowdrifts and endless blocked roads. ‘You would not believe the weather,’ John says cheerily. ‘We’re used to being snowed in and making do.’
It’s lucky, then, that the facilities here could service a town five times the size (Hawes has a population of 1,137). ‘There’s not much you can’t get in Hawes,’ beams Basil Allen, the 89-year-old fifth generation shopkeeper at Elijah Allen & Son, Purveyor of Fine Foods and Goods.
As well as the community-run facilities there are tea rooms and sweet shops for walkers, and shops for the locals with everything from a butcher to a rope maker (not to mention four pubs). One of the two sets of public loos even won a platinum award in the 2017 Loo of the Year Awards.
When I visited this week (admittedly on a sunny day), I found myself in one of the most welcoming places you could dream of.
Clusters of residents were chatting in the street, and volunteers were stood around a cherry picker working out how to get the Christmas decorations (donated by local businesses) strung across the High Street.
It’s people like John who generate this sort of community spirit, and Hawes is certainly grateful. Wherever we went, people rushed across the road to clap him on his narrow shoulders. Some hugged him and thanked him for saving the petrol station.
Sales at the petrol station, with its community sign flapping proudly, are already higher than ever. In part, this is due to local loyalty — people are coming from all over to fill their tanks and say thank you. It helps that thanks to the rebate, it’s ￡1.19 a litre —cheaper than Tesco
At least half a dozen locals cornered me to tell me how hardworking he is, saying that ‘John IS Hawes’. Which is ironic, given he’s from Hemel Hempstead. He moved here in 1985 with wife Jill and their three children to start a holiday cottage business.
When the Blackie family arrived, things were very much on the wane. Hawes had already lost its 18th-century grammar school and another secondary school in nearby Askrigg was shut down in 1970.
The railway station was lost in 1959 and both the town’s police stations had been closed and converted into houses.?
Things reached crisis point in 1992 when the cheese factory was threatened with closure by owners Dairy Crest, the commercial arm of the Milk Marketing Board (that they planned to move production to a plant in Lancashire only made things worse for proud Yorkshire natives).
‘Without the creamery, what are the children supposed to do when they grow up?’ John raged at the time. ‘Something must be done!’
The anger was widespread. Questions were asked in Parliament and global letters of protest flooded in. John formed the ‘Hawes Rescue Committee’ to try to keep the factory in the town. Dairy Crest accepted a buyout offer put together by workers and a local businessman.
Since then the creamery has gone from strength to strength. The Wensleydale cheese it makes has been boosted by its association with the animated character Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame) who loves it.
In 2013, Yorkshire Wensleydale was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status meaning it can only be made in the Yorkshire Dales, the ultimate vindication of the efforts to keep the creamery in Hawes alive.
As for John, he had acquired a taste for local politics, standing as an independent for Richmondshire District Council and was keen on helping his rural community.
In 1997 — soon after Jill had had enough (‘She couldn’t take to the Dales, sadly’) and moved back to their old family home — John helped launch the Upper Wensleydale Community Partnership.
Today, it employs 18 paid staff, has more than 40 volunteers and an annual turnover of around ￡350,000, and operates from the same community office which houses the post office, police force and library.
It is a hub of activity, with residents popping in to browse the library’s selection of books, DVDs and audio books; stopping by for a coffee and a chat; or snapping up their tickets to the town’s Christmas pantomime.
Isolated, rural communities like this, where 25 per cent of the population are farmers, can be lonely places. The services provided by John and his team transform lives.
Take the Little White Bus service. It started in 2011 with a clapped out old van, one route — connecting Hawes to the station at Garsdale — and John himself as the driver. ‘I used to run a taxi hire company, so I know a thing or two,’ he says.
Clearly. Today the LWB has a fleet of ten minibuses driven by 53 volunteers and eight part-time staff. They ferry 65,000 passengers every year to train stations, on trips to Kendal, Barnard Castle and Skipton, and they can be on hand to pick up a well-refreshed crowd at Carlisle races. Other remote outposts are even starting to copy the bus scheme.
Angela Williams, who moved here with her husband from Devon barely a month ago, was on driving duty when I arrived at the station.
The town's Little White Bus service has a fleet of ten minibuses driven by 53 volunteers and eight part-time staff. They ferry 65,000 passengers every year to train stations, on trips to Kendal, Barnard Castle and Skipton, and they can be on hand to pick up a well-refreshed crowd at Carlisle races
‘We moved up here because I love the James Herriot programmes,’ she says. ‘The countryside and the people. It’s already exactly as I’d hoped and really welcoming.’
While John is modest about his success and keen to credit his team, he has masterminded endless campaigns. It’s no wonder he has secured between 70 and 96 per cent of the vote in pretty much every local election in the past 20 years.
It helps, of course, that he can call on a dedicated army of volunteers.
Everybody here helps out, often wearing several different hats. Kathy in the community office is also a librarian and occasional bus driver.
Local magistrate Jill McMullon, 58, volunteers in the post office, the library and community office, drives the bus, looks after community-owned work spaces and helps in the petrol station. It’s heartening to know every generation plays its part. ‘One 14-year-old I know has four jobs, and tends his own flock of sheep,’ says Jill.
‘But he’s not unusual. They all juggle jobs — washing up, helping in the creamery, serving in cafes.’ Everyone watches out for the older folk, too, keeping tabs on who’s been seen out and who hasn’t.
Predictably for such a close-knit community, the Hawes social calendar is rammed. There’s everything from cheese festivals to performances by the Swale Singers to Wensleydale’s Got Talent.
Perhaps it’s the bracing air, or the fine food in The Bay Tree Cafe, but they all look good on it.
Basil Allen was born here in 1928, but still turns up for work at 7.30am every morning in his crisp white shop coat to sell handmade pork pies, Yorkshire Gin and local cheese in the shop established by his great-great grandfather in 1860.
In 2005, the residents moved the library into the local community office, so they could keep it open five and-a-half days a week, instead of just two
‘I might stop next year, when I’m 90,’ he says, looking 20 years younger than that. ‘But as long as John keeps going, so will I.’
John’s health, though, is fragile. ‘I’ve had a heart bypass, two bouts of cancer, 60 sessions of radiotherapy, more chemo than I can remember and pneumonia, twice,’ he says.
In 2008, he asked his oncologist what his chances were. ‘He said: “Not much, but if you think positive, you’ll do a lot better than if you mope about looking out of the window.” So I did. I feel a lot better. I bless every day I am here and try to keep busy.’
Sales at the petrol station, with its community sign flapping proudly, are already higher than ever.
In part, this is due to local loyalty — people are coming from all over to fill their tanks and say thank you. It helps that thanks to the rebate, it’s ￡1.19 a litre —cheaper than Tesco.
The community now has three years to raise roughly ￡200,000 needed to buy it outright, but John is not worried.
‘It’s well within our pocket. Next year we’re hoping to put in 24-hour pumps and a credit card reader,’ he says. ‘We can be just as high-tech up here as down South — we’ve got faster broadband than Manchester.’
In many ways Hawes sounds almost too good to be true.
There aren’t even any proper parking wardens — there are a few yellow lines on the High Street, but people seem to leave their cars wherever takes their fancy. Back doors are left open. Schoolchildren are picked up from outlying farms in a community Land Rover.
But it isn’t perfect. The primary school — one of the best-attended in the area — was recently put in special measures. Last year, there was a row with the local bookseller, Steve Bloom, who made the national Press after calling a doctor from Shropshire ‘a pain in the a**e’. He is now selling online.
So John — the patron saint of Hawes — will press on. Next on his wish list is a community swimming pool (his application for lottery funding was turned down in 2004, but he’ll try again).
After that, he’s hoping for an all-weather sports centre and, in his dreams, for the old train line to be reopened. He says he’s fantasising now, but I’d put my money on it.
A day spent in Hawes is strangely unsettling. Not because of the cold, the wind, the acrid smell of coal smoke hanging in the air, or the great dark fells looming above it.
But because it acts as a reminder in our mad, internet-driven, 21st-century world that places like this — and people like John Blackie — with their sense of community, daily kindnesses, bloody-minded self-reliance and extraordinary work ethic, still exist. You just have to look a bit harder to find them.
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