First the toilet rolls disappeared from shop shelves and then Mud Pie Café closed. Group meetings were cancelled, weddings and celebrations took a hit, and workers began to operate from home. Others were furloughed or laid off. It was clear that the coronavirus pandemic was getting closer to home and affecting all kinds of activities. As many people in the village self- isolated and even the church went online it became clear that Covid 19 was a very different and unprecedented situation for Okeford Fitzpaine.
The Lockdown Begins
When the prime minister announced Britain was going into a lockdown the community in Okeford began to operate in a very different way. Fippenny News had no events to promote and very little copy. Instead, a leaflet was produced and hand delivered to every household across the parish with details of support – before the government sent out its letters to vulnerable people. Crucially this listed the new support network set up by Sue Finklaire and other ways to get help.
Sue saw the potential for Okeford Fitzpaine: “It was something that needed doing and I was bored. Mud Pie Café had closed, everything was shut and there was nothing to do. I’m not good at sitting around doing nothing.” A call for volunteers went out and from a village of 950, over 40 people came forward. Given that many people are still in self-isolation for all sorts of reasons, this was impressive.
Sue was also surprised at the enthusiasm. “I set up the group on WhatsApp. When a call comes in the speed at which the responses come in is impressive. Usually within about 5 minutes I’ve got someone who can help.”
As a self employed hairdresser, Amanda Matthews is unable to work at present. She stepped forward as a volunteer. ”It keeps me busy and I do it to help the community.”
One of the first people to take up the offer of help was Sylvia Pierson who has lived in Okeford Fitzpaine for 5 years. Sylvia explained how she got to hear about the scheme.
“I’m really into the village. It’s wonderful. I was talking to a friend and she asked me if I had heard about Sue. I thought off we go – and I rang up.” Sylvia had a variety of jobs for the volunteers from picking up hearing aid batteries to doing shopping. And then she thought of something else.
“I rang Sue and I asked: have you ever had anyone ask if they could get the lawn cut? My regular chap can’t come because of the lockdown. And Sue said she would ask. Well, the next thing I knew – I had 3 fellas lined up to do it!”
Sue spoke about the volunteers who had come forward to cut the lawn: ”Within 5 minutes of the call going out we had several people offering to cut the grass. We now call them the Grass Group.” Other responses have been similarly fast. Sue said: ”Normally, I’ll get a response within 5 minutes. It’s so quick. When the pub had no one to help deliver the takeaway roast lunches on Easter Sunday 11 people came forward to do the job. People want to help.” This is something echoed by Amanda who fits in volunteering with home schooling: “It’s a normal thing to do. If someone needs help you just do it.”
The Royal Oak has transformed into a takeaway during lockdown and demand has been high for the specials and Sunday roasts. There is also a sales table at 3 Netherway Gardens where people can donate plants and buy some back for a good cause.
I asked Sue what had been one of the most surprising moments. “It was when a lady contacted me for help who didn’t think she was entitled to support. I spent a long time convincing her we could help. This is for everyone.”
Other changes in Okeford Fitzpaine include restricted numbers inside the village shop to maintain social distancing. With lockdown more people have used the shop. Vince said: ”It has been phenomenal. Really busy.” Asking what the best sellers are during Covid 19, Vince said: “The meat. We have increased deliveries to cope with demand. Bread, especially Taylors of Bruton bread. And cider. We’ve sold lots of cider.” The shop has even managed to stock highly sought after items such as bread flour and compost. Villagers have also commented on the positive atmosphere in the shop which has delivered groceries to those in self- isolation. Anthea Calcott said: “The shop has been marvellous. They have bent over backwards to do what they can.” Sue remarked: “Vince and Sharne have been fantastic. They have literally put themselves in harms’ way for us.”
On Thursday evenings since the lockdown, Okeford Fitzpaine has become accustomed to the village World War Two air raid siren sounding together with several horns to remind people to clap for the NHS and all the key workers. The village has been treated to two dinosaurs walking the streets whilst maintaining their social distancing, and a bike cam which records people bashing saucepans and clapping. Locals have really come together to make the event memorable.
Sue summarised the experience: “It’s been very uplifting. I knew this was a brilliant village and we are. We are so lucky. People want to help others here.”