Why my sense of community is not dead - Christa Ackroyd

This week I want to talk about community. You know, that old thing we have lost along the way.

That sense of belonging and, yes, of caring about where we live and those we live beside that has, in most people’s minds, gone forever. It is true that when I was growing up everyone knew everybody.

With four police officers living on our street as children we got away with nothing. ‘I’ll tell your mother’ was enough for us to stop throwing a ball at a neighbour’s wall and the chances are they would because they spoke to your mother on an almost daily basis.

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It was the days of walking everywhere, to the shops, to school or to the bus stop for work. Men would doff their caps – it still gives me the greatest pleasure when rarely I see old-school stalwarts do the same. Women would gossip over garden fences while pegging out the washing and children would knock on each others doors to see if friends were ‘coming out to play.’

Christa AckroydChrista Ackroyd
Christa Ackroyd

And play we did, often unsupervised and for hours upon hours upon hours. ‘Come home when it starts getting dark’ was the only restriction. And everyone who passed anyone on the streets would add a cheery good morning as they passed by.

More often than not they would stop for a chat which was inevitably frustrating when you were a child with ants in her pants just desperate to get to where they were going. But it was a reminder that the world didn’t revolve around me and that a few kind words cost nothing.

As children we would take up the whole pavement with our jumble sales selling unwanted playthings for a penny or two. We would make rose petal perfume, set up a little table and sit in the sunshine, selling little, but chatting away happily.

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And the hours we spent chalking our hopscotch grid, playing skipping with a washing line or elastic twist with a length of knicker elastic, while the neighbours sidestepped us with a smile is still is a vivid memory.

Times, though, have changed and most would say not for the better. Would you really let your children or your grandchildren venture out alone to the nearby cricket field, playground or local ‘rec’, as we did ? Of course not and if you did you would probably be reported to social services for poor parenting.

Would we really walk miles to the shops stopping and chatting to neighbours on the way? Probably not with a car in the garage and too much to fit into our busy lives.

But that doesn’t mean community has gone or isn’t as vital and life enhancing as it always was. It is just that we have to work harder at building it these days. I won’t bang on about the Brontë birthplace in Thornton because you have heard enough about it, for now at least.

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But what happened last Sunday when we opened for one day only before the builders go in for a much needed refurb has my soul singing this week. And nothing you can say, nothing you can, do will make it stop. Almost a thousand people queued in the sunshine to see our little house.

There was a brass band playing, tea and cakes donated by the wonderful Regal Foods in Bradford and tears shed (by me at least) when young children, some of them just toddlers, stood beside our famous fireplace beside which greatness was born dressed in their bonnets and capes and placed flowers in a vase for Charlotte’s birthday some 208 years before. But it was not that people came. I knew they would. It was the sense of community they shared.

Some came because they love the Brontës. Some lived just up the street but had never been inside the house. Others had come back to their own place of birth to relive cherished memories. But as they queued, chatting away for more than an hour to enter into the humble home, it was apparent that shared sense of community and passion for the past and how it can influence the future was born again.

The night before, when I have to admit I was weary for a number of reasons, I travelled to Barnsley to host a fundraiser for my beloved Barnsley Youth Choir.

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When I first became aware of them they had a little over 200 members. Now 700 children sing their troubles away each week while enhancing the lives of each other in a town that in the past perhaps had little to sing about after the demise of the coalfields.

Now, not only is the senior choir the best in the UK and among the top five in the world, but they have created a community from all walks of life from toddlers to teenagers and beyond. No one is turned away because they can’t afford the uniform.

Not only that they are given the best opportunity in life to experience the joy and camaraderie that being part of a group of like minded individuals can inspire. Their singing is sublime but more importantly their ethos is life changing and life enhancing for both those who sing and those who listen.

This year 76 of them will travel to South Africa to sing with choirs who share the same sense of community through song. And their lives will be better for it. And ours. Yes they work incredibly hard as does the team of 40 volunteers and choirmasters who lead them.

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But what a start in life they are being given to show that in bad times and in good by coming together they can achieve great things. It gives them a sense of belonging , which is all community really is, and us the joy of sharing their joy.

And if ever you doubted that from little acorns mighty oaks will grow let me share the latest news from Barnsley Youth Choir.

They, along with the council and huge support from those of us who who believe change only happens if you fight for it, have just been awarded a major grant from the levelling up fund (as has the Brontë birthplace) to take over the former historic courthouse in the town.

There they will create NAVE, the National Academy for Vocal Excellence which will not only become their headquarters but will attract choirs from all over the country and indeed the world. Barnsley is singing again because a group of visionaries decided it could.

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And I am in awe and always will be of their dedication to their young people and their communities. Just two examples from across Yorkshire of hundreds upon hundreds of groups and thousands of people who believe community doesn’t just happen, it has to be fought for, nurtured and created. One of my favourite films of all times is Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner.

You may have seen it too. On paper it’s as corny as Kansas; the man who creates a baseball field for the ghosts of past players to play one last game.

I slightly misquote the famous line from the voice who urges him on: “If you build it .. they will come.”

Because it is true. Two unconnected events this week have reminded me of that. Community is not dead. If we build it.. they will come .

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