Elmswell: An amazing village

While the judges in the Calor village of the year competition carry out their deliberations Karen Hindle looks at the three finalists.

Karen Hindle

While the judges in the Calor village of the year competition carry out their deliberations Karen Hindle looks at the three finalists. Today she wanders along to Elmswell

I don't think I would be making any enemies when I say Elmswell is not a pretty place.

Indeed parish council clerk Peter Dow says not only would it not make it on to a chocolate box, it would struggle to make the grade on a bar of Toblerone.

“We do not have a very high thatched cottage quotient. We only have one and that is for sale.

“We might make it on the wrapper of a fried Mars Bar but that's about it.

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“The last time we entered this about eight years ago we came bottom,” he says.

But, having said that I doubt you will find a more passionate man about his home village and passion, enthusiasm and an ability to look forward and in an innovative way is what Elmswell has to offer the judges.

The village is a large one, with 2,600 on the electoral roll and a guestimate of 3,500 souls all told, making it the biggest in mid-Suffolk.

A railway line runs through the middle of it and huge 70-tonne trucks trundle through the streets onto an industrial estate.

Now this may not paint a pretty picture and some may be wondering two things. Firstly, why on earth did the village enter the competition in the first place bearing in mind a number of chocolate box entries have already fallen by the wayside. Secondly, how did it get this far?

Well on the first point Peter says: “We thought about it and everyone here knows Elmswell has changed. People talked about it and we thought we should try again. Someone said to me the village has changed and it is time we told people about it.

“We are ready.”

And, secondly, you should never judge a book by its cover.

Look beneath the surface and you see what Elmswell is all about.

Yes, it has all the usual amenities, clubs, societies, and so on, but a few years ago Elmswell was a very different place.

Police used to attend the parish council meetings in case of flare ups, and the world at large saw it as a place you simply did not want to visit.

Peter said: “Even Mark Murphy on Radio Suffolk, who is one of the judges this year, called Elmswell a basket case while he was on air.

“Well we plan to make him eat his words - in a nice way.”

He added: “He was right. Elmswell has really suffered from a bad reputation. It did not have zero community spirit, it had negative equity community spirit.

“Before the last 10 years we developed a poor public image because democracy being what it is we can elect who we like. The Americans got George Bush and we got people who did little to promote the positive aspects of the village.

“We had a bad public image, but that has all changed and been put to bed.”

What the village lacks in aesthetics - don't get me wrong this village is spotless, you won't find any litter here - it makes up for in community spirit and forward thinking.

Peter said: “We have allowed all the organisations to relax and just grow themselves. Consequently the societies we have are all really strong. We have the WI, in fact we have to have two because one meets in the afternoon and the other in the evening; there are 80 kids in the junior football club and if you want to use the community centre you have to book it three months in advance otherwise you are stuffed and you won't get it.

“We have shops which thrive and even a travel agent.

“There are people who have lived here man and boy and are happy that they don't have to go anywhere else. There are people here who do not feel they have to visit a big town for their shopping and that is something we are really proud of.

But that sort of good news does not make the papers, but it will when we win this thing.”

While Elmswell may not find itself on the lid of a box of chocolates it does have some advantages which self-contained villages do not.

This mid-Suffolk village's sustainability has proved attractive to planners who have earmarked the village for sizeable expansion.

In many villages large numbers of houses going up would lead to residents being up in arms, but here they accept it, embrace it and in some cases welcome it.

Elmswell has land available within the development envelope for houses and its older, more established residents have welcomed newcomers to the area. And in turn newcomers have mixed in with village life, so the expansion, thus far has been by and large an organic one.

What will undoubtedly impress the judges is the village's ability to look after the environment in its house building and to fight for social, affordable housing.

Peter said: “A polite way to say it is that we have been put upon by the developers and builders and planners.

“Basically social housing conditions came into play with a development of 15 or more houses, so you found developers disaggregating their sites and building 14 houses then waiting 18 months and building another 14 adjacent to the first lot.

“So you get 28 houses with nothing.

“The House of Lords said disaggregation was OK, so we found ourselves with hundreds of houses and not an inch of green space and not a single affordable house or flat.

“We fought against that and now that system has changed.”

The people of Elmswell always seem to look at the positives and the parish council has been forward thinking when it comes to population growth.

The closure of the bacon factory with the loss of 400 jobs was a devastating blow for the village but now they look at what they have gained from it.

“We have gained a village green we fought hard for that and that gives the village a sense of centre.

“There is the opportunity to build houses on that site in the future.

“We don't know what is going to happen with the school and the closure of the tertiary system, but there may be the opportunity to build a new school on the site, who knows.

“The point is we are always moving forward.”

Members also realised that with the increase in houses, there would be a need for more jobs in the area and more pressure on the local infrastructure and a more pressing need for amenities.

At the moment traffic has to pass through the centre of the village and gets clogged up at the railway line.

Peter said: “It's great the railway is being used more, we have regular trains direct to London, and we have seen more people walking and biking to the station. We realised a long time ago that we needed two things: a relief road to stop the village being clogged up and a footbridge over the railway line.

“We have a company here called HC Wilson and they bring in huge 70-tonne trucks through the village and onto the industrial estate here, but no-one minds because we have a great relationship with them and the company has an incredibly strong sense of community and sponsors the football club.

“All the businesses here have a strong sense of community. I can walk out of here and get £500 sponsorship money with the click of my fingers.”

He added: “As a parish council we secured the land for the footbridge and we have planning permission on it. We shall keep renewing and renewing and renewing until we are at a point when we can actually build the thing.

“Funds for the relief road will inevitably come from a developer who will say 'give me my houses and I will build your relief road.'

“We know we can take the houses and a relief road is exactly what we need.

While the village recognises a need for housing, it also recognises that conventional houses are a real drain on resources, so has investigated alternatives and come up with a cutting edge, state-of-the-art eco development of 26 houses - a partnership project between Orwell Housing Association and Suffolk Preservation Society.

Usually houses of this calibre go to the well-heeled who can afford such innovations but not in Elmswell. These are affordable housing for people who “can show a strong affinity with the village” said Peter.

The development has attracted interest from all over the world and 26 architects worldwide fought for the privilege of taking the project forward.

In the end a British architect won the contract and the homes have been built using green material. There is not a block of concrete in site.

A biomass boiling facility serves the whole development, rainwater is collected and re-used and insulation is second to none, and special compressed blocks using natural products have been used to build the houses, says Peter.

He added: “We have a thriving community here which is never standing still. (We have also bought land from the church for a community wood.)

“We know this type of building is the way forward, but we also know the next batch will not be made to the same high specification because the special money is not there, and that concerns us, so we will see as a parish council if we can help so that the houses can be sold for less, but with a higher eco-specification.

“That is the way we think.

“We are the future.”

BLOB: Get the East Anglian Daily Times on Saturday to find out which village is crowned Suffolk's Village of the Year, 2008.