Calder Valley community fightback campaign launched after flooding and Covid misery
“We have really struggled this year with Storms Ciara and Dennis in February and now the challenges we face from Covid-19,” reflects Alison Bartram, the owner of Heart Gallery in Hebden Bridge and chair of the town’s Business Forum Committee. “But I am hoping that 2020 will be a bit like a good game of football – a year of two halves with the second half being by far the more optimistic with a better end result.”
Like many organisations up and down the country – and indeed across the world – the impact of coronavirus has been devastating for many businesses in the Calder Valley. But their problems have been exacerbated as lockdown was ordered just as they were getting back up on their feet following serious flooding in February from repeated storms.
Bartram, whose business had to close for several weeks after suffering flooding during Storm Ciara in mid-February, shut again during lockdown and recently reopened on July 4 as restrictions were eased, says: “We were just trying to get some kind of normality back when we had to close for Covid. We have said it has been a ‘corona-coaster’ of emotions. There has been so many to take in, in such a short space of time.”
She says her business has been luckier than some in Hebden Bridge, with pubs that suffered flooding in February only now starting to reopen after not being sufficiently recovered to reopen their doors prior to lockdown being ordered on March 23.
Now, a social media campaign, organised by the Calderdale Cultural Destinations organisation, has been launched. It is designed to support businesses and lift the spirits of the area’s many entrepreneurs and creators to help them turn the corner and enjoy a more positive second half of the year.
The ‘#ILOVE & #IWILL: Celebrate the Calder Valley’ campaign started on Monday and will run to this Sunday with each day having a different theme – covering independent shops, heritage, music, individual towns, culture, food and drink and the outdoors across the week.
People living locally are being encouraged to post about places they love on social media, as well as pledging what action they will take to support that venue or business. The slogan for the initiative is ‘We Rally In This Valley’ – a phrase that those backing the scheme are being encouraged to use as a hashtag on their social media posts.
The campaign is the brainchild of Calderdale Cultural Destinations’ cultural development manager Laura Johansen.
“After the repeated flooding people were feeling very downhearted and then they were hit by Covid,” she explains. “People who were normally very optimistic and positive were just a bit sad. I thought the campaign could provide a morale boost to people who really contribute to our community and encourage people to remember what they have got on their doorstep. We all have a role to play in helping these places survive and thrive.”
While the campaign is new, its slogan is not – with ‘We Rally In This Valley’ being used by Hebden Bridge business owners in the immediate aftermath of the floods.
Johansen says: “We were playing around with some slogans but ‘We Rally In This Valley’ just really symbolises what this is about. None of the others we were coming up with were as good. I asked Alison if we could use the slogan and she said yes.”
Bartram says there is plenty of resilience in the area’s business community – partly as a result of the Boxing Day floods of 2015 that were even more devastating than those experienced this year and which closed her business for over three months – but the additional impact of coronavirus has made pulling together even more vital.
“We’ve got to work together to survive. By that I don’t just mean the business community but also the community in general. In the past, businesses were happy in their own bubble plodding along and doing their own thing. However, our survival – and the survival of Hebden Bridge – now depends on us collaborating and partnering up.
“People staying loyal to local, as many have during lockdown, is crucial. We all have a role to play in the coming months and this great campaign will be the kickstart we all need to support one another and help us not just to survive but to thrive.
“Everyone contributing to encouraging greater trade by promoting each other is the only way small independents like Heart Gallery rejuvenate after Covid-19. Collaboration is key if we want Hebden Bridge to remain the great shopping destination full of small independents that it is known for.”
She says being able to finally reopen her business this month after lockdown has been a joy – but it has come with challenges, with many customers still reluctant to venture back out onto high streets.
“The furlough scheme was brilliant, that was one of the good things the Government did. Without that I don’t think many of us would have survived at all.
“At least with floods, you know what you are up against. We decided to take the Government guidance and opened when we could from July 4 and it was lovely. A lot of regulars came back to visit and lot of businesses in Hebden Bridge said they had the same thing. But we had that initial flurry and then it has fallen into being very quiet again.
“In the gallery we have a real mixture of loyal customers. There have been those who have been desperate to get out and about and do something different and they are generally from the younger end.
“We have not seen as many of our older regulars but they have tended to come in the week when it is quieter. They have been wanting to get out and support businesses but at the same time have been quite nervous about it. Plenty have said that after coming in they have surprised themselves because they have actually really enjoyed it.”
Another local organisation to be hugely affected is Curious Motion, an Elland-based non-profit dance and arts organisation that was set up by Sam McCormick and Susan Burns in December 2019.
As well as being involved in a local wellbeing programme called Welland, part of their work was running dance classes for over-55s from Southgate Methodist Church. As they were preparing to expand their offering early this year, Covid-19 put their plans on hold.
“From about mid-February we started seeing this could potentially be an issue. With dance, people are moving a lot, connecting with each other and it is all about being together. By early March, we realised we weren’t going to be able to carry on much longer.”
They have started online classes during lockdown which they intend to continue permanently, but hope normal sessions may be able to resume within the next few months.
“It has been a complete rollercoaster. To start with, it was completely exhausting. What I tried was not to rush into things too much - there is a lot of the dance industry that went online very quickly but for us we really needed to listen and just reflect as a new organisation to think about how can we enable this and support the community as much as possible.
“So it went from initial panic and exhaustion to a bit more thinking and creative reflection.”
She adds: “We are really keen to support the campaign. Everybody has been hit really hard. Calder Valley has absolutely amazing independent businesses, individuals, artists and community groups. Something that has really impressed me is the resilience and kindness of the community.
“We all have a responsibility to support our community; community spirit is so powerful. If you can get people motivated about where they live, it will do wonders.”
Whatever the positive impact of this week’s campaign, there is realism that the road ahead will not be an easy one for independent businesses.
Bartram says: “It is just thinking about a day at a time at the moment. I’m hoping that if nothing else, people realise the need to support small businesses. Maybe it is time for people to think about where they spend their hard-earned money. I think and hope small independents will be the survivors in the long-term from these events building up a sense of community and place.”
Mask wearing impact still to play out
Mandatory mask-wearing in shops presents challenges for store owners and staff, says Alison Bartram.
Bartram says that as soon as the announcement of the intended change was made, a higher proportion of customers started coming into her gallery wearing face coverings.
But she adds she appreciates from personal experience that not everyone can wear one. “I have told my staff we are not here to police this and we are not in a position to establish the reasons why someone might not be wearing one,” she says.
“I can’t wear a mask because of my asthma and I was shielding for the first three months. You don’t know the circumstances of why someone isn’t wearing it.”
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