A New Localism: Hope for 2022?

It’s early morning. I’m sitting at my desk, about to start writing. Then, thirty seconds ago it was announced that in December inflation rose to 5.4%, the highest it has been since 1992. Blimey. Brief pause while I gather my thoughts. Turn off the TV sound. Ah, that’s better. Look out the window: very slightly lighter, but only very slightly. Then crows start cawing from the wood – a harsh sound, but a welcome sign of the approaching morning. Glance across to the television. Now they’re discussing what has come to be known as Partygate – all those Downing Street boozy parties that Boris held during the depths of lockdown a year ago. Apparently about 50 Tory MPs are discussing writing letters saying the Prime Minister should resign. And so it goes on. Brexit, Boris. Boris, Brexit. Meanwhile, dominating the way we actually lead our lives: it’s Covid, Covid, Covid. Plus, of course, a struggling NHS and collapsing, poorly staffed, care homes, all due to under-funding; a decade of Austerity, metres of new Brexit red tape and further labour restrictions. Politicians in Westminster, Washington and Brussels are becoming much harder to understand. They seem to be living in different worlds to us. Of course, I appreciate that we do need them, if only to co-ordinate the fight against climate change and the forces of evil, such as powerful, autocratic dictators; but even so, it’s increasingly hard to feel any warmth towards them.

I find I keep asking myself if I can take much more of this in 2022? And if it’s bad for me, living in a comfortable farm house without a mortgage and a large garden with a self-sufficient vegetable patch, what must it be like for people in rented inner-city flats, without so much as a window-box? No, something has to change and if central government can’t do it, then we must take matters into our own hands. So I sincerely believe that 2022 will see the development of a tendency that is already starting to grow: a new, reimagined form of localism. However I don’t want to confuse the sort of localism I can see starting to emerge around me, as anything to do with ‘local government’ as we used to know it. That was mainly about semi-corrupt councillors and very wealthy developers. Huge (and I mean VAST) housing estates are currently being built around Holbeach. I gather that these houses aren’t advertised much locally and I’m told they are being pitched at residents currently in Essex and around London, where people are looking for more rural locations (and presumably have the money to pay well for them). I can remember when Peterborough New Town was being built, the planning authorities insisted that new housing estates had to include pubs and community centres. But not today. I really dread to think what problems these vast new estates will bequeath us in a few decades. It’s scary. As it is, Holbeach only has very limited school, medical or veterinary facilities. No, the sort of localism I can detect is genuinely home-grown and wonderfully uncoordinated. I first identified it on a Friday. I can’t remember precisely when, but I do know it was a Friday. Let me explain.

Long Sutton market was set up in the early 13th century, at a time when the town’s early medieval prosperity was growing. Today you can see that prosperity immortalised in its church (St. Mary’s) with its magnificent lead-clad timber steeple – one of the earliest and finest in Europe. It’s hard to get your head around such an early date, but the tower was built in the decades after 1200.

The tower and steeple of St. Mary’s Church, Long Sutton. 13th Century.

The market is held every Friday in the Market Place next to the church. At first glance it’s a fairly typical Georgian and Victorian setting, but sadly some of the buildings are very run-down (this can be seen in their upper storeys). The main coaching inn has been empty for many years. Unlike its equivalents in the south-east the town has not been prospering in the late 20th and 21st century and seemed to have been hit quite hard by the recession of 2007-8.  The same can be said for Holbeach, where shops and market traders in the town centre were hit particularly hard by the arrival of a Tesco supermarket. Its equivalent in Long Sutton is run by the Lincolnshire Co-op; it’s smaller, less ruthlessly run and if anything, it actually attracts people to the town centre. I’m happy to shop there; whereas you’ll never see me in the Holbeach Tesco!

The Co-op in Long Sutton, with the Church of St Mary’s in the background. I know it’s no architectural masterpiece, but the shop is in scale with its setting and helps keep the town centre socially and economically alive.

For years local government officials seemed to be trying to kill-off town markets in the area. In Long Sutton traffic was allowed through the Market Place and the number of stalls diminished and the stalls themselves grew smaller. Then Covid hit. The market was closed and briefly moved to a small car park on the edge of the town centre. We both decided to stay locked-down at home and on my last visit to the market I had a word with Dan, who runs the excellent Rout’s of Wisbech fish stall at Long Sutton. I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t buy fresh mussels in winter, fresh oysters in season and wonderful green marsh samphire in summer. Dan also has a wide selection of fresh white fish (cod, haddock, plaice, skate wings, conger eel, Dover sole etc. etc.) and shellfish, including crab (dressed and undressed), cockles and my personal favourite: small brown shrimps. It turned out that Dan was planning to deliver fresh fish to the homes of regular customers during lockdown and he lived-up to his word. Thank you Dan, you made sure that neither Maisie nor I went mad or suffered from malnutrition!

The Bread and Cake stall at Long Sutton Market, with the side of Rout’s of Wisbech Fish-stall in the background.

Every Friday I follow the same routine when I visit Long Sutton Market. First I buy a freshly-baked loaf and rolls at the Bread and Cake Stall. Then I visit Routs Fish Stall, where Dan tells me what’s particularly good that morning. Occasionally he’ll tell me that something wonderful has sold-out. So I try not to get there much after 10.00 AM, but don’t always succeed.

Dan and his wonderful selection of fish.
The fresh fruit and vegetable stall, with stalks of Brussels Sprouts very prominent.

Next to Dan is the largest stall in the market, which sells fruit and vegetables, most of it freshly picked from local growers. There’s always a queue waiting to be served, but there are half a dozen people looking after us, so the delay in never for long. The stall is carefully laid out, with gorgeous-looking bunches of carrots, complete with bushy leaves, and complete stalks of Brussels Sprouts, not to mention potatoes, celeriac and broccoli in open boxes beside the queue. That way, you can carefully inspect what you plan to buy. The far end of the stall is given over to fruit, including bananas, oranges, clementines, apples (local) and grapes. They also stock Seville oranges. Two weeks ago I bought 3 lbs of them and Maisie made 10 jars of her ambrosial marmalade. Stuff Covid!

The flower stall.

If you head round to the other side of the Market Place there is another row of stalls, including the ubiquitous homemade cup-cakes and fudge bars, plus useful things like replica railway signs from the steam age, a man selling watch batteries and another selling crisps and all manner of crunchy, salty nibbles – all very cheap. There’s also someone selling double-glazing, although I’ve never seen him with an actual customer. Still, he’s always very friendly and greets me with a cheery smile every time I pass by.  But chief among all these is the large flower stall at the far end, which sells cut flowers (very good value) and bedding plants for the garden. I often buy two or three bunches from him to brighten winter days indoors. Those flowers have been a godsend during lockdown.

But the good news is that the market is getting busier and word is spreading locally, which is excellent. I also notice that while prices are starting to rise quite steeply in local supermarkets, the market prices remain remarkably low. Talking to the stall-holders, it’s clear to me that they feel considerable loyalty to their customers, many of whom are friends and local people. In return, we feel solidarity with them. It’s so nice to encounter trust and faith in others in these times when suspicion and conspiracy theories seem to rule supreme. The new localism is based on some very old and much-cherished values. We mustn’t let it fail.

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