Rural renaissance for a village that refuses to give in to decline
Rural communities across the Westcountry are struggling. But, as Tony Tweedie reports, one is showing the fightback is possible with school, pub and bakery all re-opening
Four years ago, faceless bureaucrats swung an axe and a 167-year-old village school ceased to exist.
At about the same time the village pub closed and was put up for sale.
The village had already lost its shop years before and the post office went in one of the interminable rounds of closures.
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For the villagers of Sparkwell it seemed they were destined to share the future that faces so many village communities in the Westcountry: children bussed to a nearby town or larger village; shopping trips restricted to a weekly or monthly slog around a monstrous supermarket; and as for popping round to the local, forget it.
Sparkwell isn't one of the pretty Dartmoor villages beloved of tourists. It's a mixed rural and commuter community. Despite being only 10 miles from Plymouth, rural deprivation and poverty lurk just under the surface, an ever-present threat.
But there's something in the water in this corner of Dartmoor: dare one say there's a spark in the well? Whatever it is, the locals weren't prepared to see the slow demise of their community. Things started to change.
New owners took over the pub, the Treby Inn, and completely revamped it. And then owner chef Anton Piotrowski won BBC's Masterchef and things were looking up. Just up the road on the outskirts of the village, the Dartmoor Zoological Park had experienced its ups and down as the recession hit the plans of the new owners.
But Ben Mee and his team battled on... and then Hollywood stepped in, bought up the rights to his book We Bought A Zoo and turned it into a film. The publicity – and the cash – helped them turn their plans for the zoo into reality.
And, as things seem to always happen in threes, the vicar of the village church put a message in the parish magazine asking anyone interested in re-opening the school to attend a meeting.
The Rev Frederick Denman – known as Father Freddy to one and all – still smarts from the closure of the school.
"It was a sad and ignominious end to a village school. It shouldn't have been, but the powers that be seemed hell bent on closing it.
"But they couldn't destroy the spirit of the place."
Neither could they have anticipated the lifeline that the Government threw to the village when it introduced the free school initiative.
Nor the determination of resident Debbie Baird who responded to Father Freddy's plea and got stuck in to the task of re-opening a village school – even though she was in the middle of studying full-time for an education degree and had a family to bring up. Husband Garon became, in her words, "chief cook and bottle washer" and the embryonic school team set out on an feasibility study.
The results were good, "so we decided to go for it."
A marketing campaign to prove demand was followed by a 55,000-word, 185-page proposal to the Department for Education. There were 400 applications for free school status, but only 150 were invited for interview. Four officials from the DfE fired questions at the Sparkwell team for three hours. They obviously liked the answers because on July 14 last year the school got the go-ahead.
This month its first pupils in the Foundation and Year 1 classes went to school in the newly refurbished Victorian village school.
The school was officially opened at the end of August in a ceremony attended by almost 200 villagers and children. The big red ribbon across the front door was cut by Masterchef Anton Piotrowski, an old boy of the village school, who said: "I started my dream here 26 years ago when I was a pupil.
"Sparkwell is an amazing village with a fantastic community spirit. It is this community spirit that has enabled this unique school to open and provide the next generation with a fantastic education."
But the community spirit doesn't end there. Since the old school closed, the building had been used as a church hall. Now they have, very happily, lost this facility.
But in keeping with the spirit of Sparkwell, this is merely an opportunity... to build another one. Probably a bit smaller, but it will be, in the words of Father Freddy, "a social space, a coffee shop, whatever. Maybe it could become the post office."
The village has already attracted artisan bakers Dragan Matijevic and Penny Williams. They, with Anton, local woodwork furniture maker Peter Lanyon and Dartmoor Zoological Park, will be contributing to the education of the children at the school.
As headmaster Colin Doctor says, "They'll have fun making bread, but they'll learn some maths while they do it. And then they'll learn marketing because they will go out and sell their bread."
What's next for the village that refuses to lie down? A village shop? Watch this space.