Cockfield: A village pulling together

Three very different villages have made it to the final of the county stage of the national Calor Village of the Year Competition.

Karen Hindle

Three very different villages have made it to the final of the county stage of the national Calor Village of the Year Competition. Before the judges announce the winner Karen Hindle visited Cockfield.

You can always tell you have arrived in west Suffolk. There is a sudden change in landscape, properties and general ambience.

You have arrived in the chocolate box part of the county.

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And Cockfield is no exception. The verges are neat and tidy, the houses are all well-maintained and there is not a single piece of litter to be seen anywhere.

This is a village set in the heart of the Suffolk countryside teeming with wildlife.

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“People talk about wildlife, but here it is all around you. There is a place for it and there is also a place for keeping things well maintained and we like to keep our village looking neat and tidy and well kempt,'' says parish council chairman Robin Morley, who was brought up in the village.

Of the three villages it could be argued Fressingfield is the most traditional in that it is reasonably small and self-contained. Elmswell is large but compact despite its size.

But as you arrive in Cockfield you are given a clue to its complexities. A road sign announces you have entered the village only to later find another sign directing you to turn left to Cockfield.

In terms of acreage this is a very large village but given it has only just shy of 700 people on the electoral roll and 850 souls all told you get some idea of just how spread out it is.

You spot a house then over the rolling hills you see another perched on top of a hillock.

There are sections where the houses are huddled together and there is a vast 10-acre green but it is one of eight altogether so you are never quite sure whether you are in the middle of the village or not.

You might think that this would prevent an outsider from identifying the heart of this village but to me the people are the heart rather than a geographical point on a map.

Here most people have to overcome the geography to present a cohesive unit.

If you were to walk from one end of the village to the other you would cover the best part of four and a half miles - with some challenging (for Suffolk) hills in between.

So what the good people of Cockfield concentrate on is bringing everyone together.

And they do this in a number of ways, but one of the most innovative is the brainchild of farmer David Hodge, who has converted a redundant farm building into a computer room.

Twelve computers are housed in the building which serves as a technology school for anyone who wants to learn about computers.

He said: “We often joke about it, but we caught the computers when they fell off the back of a business which was upgrading and they would have ended up being thrown away.

“We will want to upgrade as soon as we can, but they have served a very useful purpose.”

The classes, which are free to all, can cover any topic at any level.

They are conducted by computer expert Neil Ashton, who gives his time for free.

Robin said: “That is one of the things which makes this village so wonderful. The fact that people just get on and do things, they don't wait to be asked or talk a good game they just get on with it. The computer room was David's baby and he just got on with it.”

The computer room does not only provide classes but also acts as a communication network and a vehicle for Neighbourhood Watch in this sprawling village.

Interested parties submit their email address to David and they are entered on the Cockfield e-circle through which information is passed.

“It is not always practical for people who live in the more isolated parts of the village to have their properties watched or for people to keep an eye out and talk about what they have seen.''

With Cockfield e-circle, information can be sent out to all entered on the system.

David said: “So far 40% of the village has signed up for Cockfield e-circle.

Robin added: “That is the thing about technology, a lot of the older generation shy away from it, but it is a brilliant way to communicate and that is so important in a village like this.

“More and more people coming to the village will sign up for it, it is certainly something which will grow and grow.”

The project was also backed by the community council which is the backbone - along with the parish council - of this village.

Again it involves, or has the potential to involve, every adult member of the village.

A charge of £2.60 is levied on interested parties and for that they are entitled to use the community mini-bus for free, just paying for petrol currently at 50p a mile, but soon to rise to 70p a mile.

The bus was bought for villagers with the help of Suffolk County Council and Babergh District Council.

Parish council clerk Alan Morgan oversees the hiring of the mini-bus which can go out to anyone who is over the age of 25.

And it is in this fine vehicle that I am taken on a tour of the village. As we go round it is clear the community council has had a hand in most things.

Set up in 1972 to raise funds for the village it is certainly a great success.

It funded the marquee for the schools 150th anniversary celebrations, it helped with the computer room and it maintains the pavilion on the village's Great Green and it has had a hand in securing 2 ½ acres of woodland as part of the village's woodland project.

This is fundraising by the village for the village.

Chairman Carl Brinkley said: “It won't just be a wood, there is an area for pond dipping, and there will be strong links with the school as this will be an outside classroom for the children. They can go down to the woodland area as it is easily accessible.”

Robin added: “It looks like there is this sort of amenity all round here, but it is not really like that. This will provide an area where people can go, maybe take the dog for a walk and just relax.”

As we move on round the village it is very clear there is not much house building going on.

People here have preferred to make their existing homes bigger.

“And that has presented us with a real problem,” says Robin.

“We know there is a need for housing here and we are keen to see the people who have been brought up here, staying here, but the houses they would once have been able to buy are out of their reach because they have been extended and have moved into a different price bracket.

“House prices are very high here. A basic three-bedroomed house will cost at least £250,000 and young people just can't afford that sort of money.”

Four years ago the parish council carried out its own survey to see the state of housing in the village and quickly realised there was a strong need for one to three-bedroomed houses.

Working in partnership with Babergh and Orwell Housing Association the village has 20 houses to add to the stock. Sixteen are for rent and four are shared equity.

Some have been built and people have moved in while others are being built and some have yet to be started.

Robin sad: “We decided not to put them all in the one place to create a mini estate. It was better to integrate them in the village so they fit in with what is around them.”

Land was sold at a discount by local landowners, which has also helped move the project along.

As we go round, the last place we visit is the village school, serving 80 four to nine-year-olds.

Under the headship of Ann Morley the school has recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, providing a perfect example of how a village has worked together to get something down.

Ann said: “Everyone pitched it. We had 300 people here sitting down and the WI did the puddings. We had exhibitions. One lady had loads of old photographs, so she created a wonderful display.

“The school cook got a whole lot of people together to do some salads.

Carl added: “It's generally like that in the village. If anyone wants something done there is an army of people who will come and help. We all pull together.

“We are all far apart but when it comes to things like this you won't find anywhere any closer in terms of community.”

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