Rural resilience: How Lancashire is fighting back in the age of Covid-19

How have Lancashire's rural communities coped with the impact of Covid-19? Have businesses adapted, endured, or even thrived? Fiona Finch reports from across the county.

Thursday, 16th July 2020, 12:30 pm
Kate O'Farrell delivering orders from The Gallery at Cedar Farm

Think rural, think resilience.

That could be the slogan which sums up how many in Lancashire's most far flung communities have responded to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across the countryside, as in the town and city, it has been a time to batten down the hatches, shop local and for businesses to diversify and think outside their usual box.

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Emma Parker of Slaidburn Young Farmers

Small village shops have had to get used to restocking to cope with the unexpected - full weekly shops by those local residents more used to heading to larger supermarkets for provisions.

Rural broadband has been tested and reportedly mostly met the challenge, although there are still known areas of the county where signals are hard to get and a car journey might be necessary to pick up a connection.

The closure of pubs, cafes, restaurants and schools meant there was instantly less demand for foodstuffs. But the crucial thing about farming is that work goes on .Livestock and land need attention day in, day out.

At Brooks Gelato and Barton Brook Dairy on Station Lane, Barton, farmer Phillip Berry said: "It never really stops. Cows still need feeding and milking".

Sara Barrow has relocated Flowers With Passion to her home studio

But Covid-19 hit their gelato business. Phillip said: "For the ice cream business having to close coming at peak season has been a big burden. We've only been allowed to open recently. Then it decided to rain which hasn't helped."

Fortunately demand for the farm's milk remained stable. The Berry family also saw sales of raw milk direct from their farm gate increasing. Phillip said: "People are starting to realise the importance of local (food) supplies. A lot of people have been really supportive."

Now their Brooks Gelateria is once again welcoming visitors for socially distanced orders. He and his parents David and Sara have seen other positives with Sara reporting soaring demand for eggs and supplies of takeaway packs of gelato and other provisions.

Carl Hudspith, north west communications adviser with the National Farmers Union, said: "Everybody's story is different. Every single business has been affected differently. There's been an adaptation of individual businesses."

Brian Smith at Rufford Printing

But in a post Covid and post Brexit world he knows there will be many more challenges ahead for Lancashire's livestock farmers and growers.

While communities across the county worked out how best to help themselves and organised local help services one group of young people, Young Farmers, volunteered their labour when needs arose and have sought to keep their members optimistic and engaged.

Charity fundraiser Emma Parker lives on the family farm at Newton in Bowland and is chair of the Slaidburn Young Farmers Club. Members come from around the Hodder Valley area including Slaidburn, Newton, Dunsop Bridge and Whitewell, with a few from further afield.

She said: "We've tried to do as much as we can - the majority over social media. We've had virtual stock judging, baking competitions, we've also tried to lift the mood by sharing different positive photos"

Paul Williams looking forward to welcoming customers back to Choc Amor

While the pandemic has brought many challenges it has also brought some plus points. Emma said: "The benefits - the wildlife, we've noticed it through lambing time. Just little things - you could hear a lot more wildlife, there were more birds. We looked at the sky and there were no aeroplane tracks at all. On a human basis it's been a lot quieter in this area. The roads have been much, much quieter; it's made our job a bit easier. Living in a beautiful area I feel grateful, as soon as I go out I can have a walk, because I live in a remote area I wasn't bumping into anyone."

Shopping wise her family is used to going down the local fell to Clitheroe, but they have battened down the hatches to stay safe and relied on the small village shop in Slaidburn: "Bless them they've had to stock twice a day! "

She also had praise for the local pubs, including the Hark To Bounty in Slaidburn which she said had arranged takeways with different themes each week.:"People have tried to adapt as best they can."

There has been room for innovation too with tailor made solutions to ease rural loneliness. Emma devised a letter writing campaign linking up a dozen young farmers with a dozen elderly residents.She said: "In terms of mental health it's been a very lonely time.When the lockdown really hit that first day I think there was a sense of panic. Obviously we've never been in this situation before."

She knew that a lot of volunteer programmes and measures were already in place locally. She began to think about the loneliness which might be felt by those self isolating in remote rural areas: "Not everyone has access to the internet, not everyone can Facetime or virtually see their friends and families. Even though I'm only 22 there's nothing nicer than receiving a hand written letter. When I was at university I always used to send my grandma handwritten letters just because it's nice to receive one through the post."

The idea took root and volunteers came forward to write the letters. A poster was put out advertising the service and requests were also passed on.

Slaidburn Young Farmers - meetings have been suspended due to Covid-19 but the county's Young Farmers say they are helping where they can

Young Farmers County Chairman Amy McWhirter from Longridge, acknowledged: " It's been challenging and a difficult year for us. We are a charity and we do rely on fundraising. We have a number of staff we have had to furlough."

It has also, she said, focused the minds of trustees and committee members on how they spend budgets and she thinks this will impact on future decision making too: "I think it will make us focus more about every decision we make. You never know about what's round the corner. "

"We have nearly 700 members aged 10 to 26 and we normally meet on a weekly basis. Since lockdown began that's had to stop. We do have a lot of members who are quite isolated where they live. Obviously they have missed their weekly outing. Quite a lot of clubs have held online Zoom meetings and done scavenger hunts around the house, online quizzes and all sorts of stuff .That's been really good, it's kept that part of Young Farmers going. We did a virtual rally online. It was a really, really good success."

Internet access has proved difficult for some: "We had a meeting where one lad drove to the nearest village and sat in his car."

At popular Lancashire rural destination Cedar Farm at Back Lane, Mawdesley, near Chorley, there are 24 businesses on site. Most had to close their units during the pandemic lockdown, but many were innovative in keeping an economic lifeline going.

Marketing manager Rachael Smith said: " Everybody closed (to the public) although some switched their business model and offered an online service."

For printer Brian Smith of Rufford Printing at Cedar Farm, work continued behind the scenes. He said: "We kept going because we print for a very rural area and there's a farming community. We do lots of duplicate books, the old fashioned way of accounting for local growers.We also deal with the knackers' yard and that sort of work kept on. We do some medical stuff as well, we had a bit of that."

Just one member of staff was furloughed. He said: "Some weeks we didn't have stuff to do. We just decided to make ourselves a bit more leaner and cleaner and tidied up and hopefully wait for an upturn.

"I don't have much experience of city or urban life. I live in the countryside. I really sympathise with people trying to cope in lockdown on the fourth floor of a multistorey block. I think we have an unfair advantage where we live - we are very fortunate, we're very privileged."

Meanwhile Esther Cropper, proprietor of The Food Shop at Cedar Farm upped the "wholesale" side of her business. She specialises in making home cooked ready meals ranging from lasagne to Lancashire hot pot. She explained she already supplied the two local post offices at Mawdesley and Newburgh. But demand boomed at the two outlets as people faced lockdown. She said: "The two local shops have been amazing, working so hard."

She cited how businesses adapted getting fresh vegetables in and arranging deliveries "and really looking after their communities."

Her hope is that support will remain for local businesses and that customers will not instantly opt back to larger and more distant outlets. Her shop also has a deli counter and she said : "We reopened the shop and that's been good for us."

Meanwhile at The Gallery at Cedar Farm manager Kate O'Farrell often spent her exercise hour during the weeks of lockdown getting on her bicycle and delivering custom made craft and art packs to local customers. She said: "We were doing art and craft kits and starter kits because we run a lot of art workshops which had obviously gone for lockdown. Acrylic painting and waterclour ones were really popular."

Collage and drawing kits for children were also a favourite. Kate also started selling online for the first time. She said: "We worked on a few things like that and redid everything in the shop, we repainted all the walls, redid the floor and had a stocktake. We had to furlough the staff and they are not (all) quite back but we are trying to get everybody back. We can only have about seven people in the shop at one time.

At award winning chocolatier Paul Williams of Choc Amor at Cedar Farm , who runs the business with wife Jacqui, expects the start of the year to be quieter for business after the Christmas boom. But he reported that for part of the lockdown internet sales soared by a sweet 6,000 % . Overall with doors closed for so many weeks to walk-in customers they are 40% down on usual sales, but their postal service has kept them going: "We've paid our bills, made our wages and we're still here which is a good thing."

Although full tastings and special events like truffle making courses are not back customers can now visit the shop and even taste the chocolates with the now usual hygiene precautions. Now that Cedar Farm has reopened Rachael says: "It's lovely. It's strange. We are saying it's back to normal, but we're not normal. It's getting used to everybody running their business slightly differently. "

The lockdown even prompted one town based business to move back to a village location. The shops lock-down posed an immediate dilemma for Chelsea Flower show award winning florist Sara Barrow of Flowers With Passion. Her shop on Inglewhite Road in Longridge was far too small to accommodate social distancing for her staff and her customers.

She decided to relocate back to the studio at her home in the village of Goosnargh just before the shutdown was made official and already had a 24/7 website where orders could be placed, but faced the heartbreak of putting staff on furlough.

Sara counts herself fortunate in that she already obtained flowers direct from from Holland and was able to source blooms, as well as growing some of her own. It means she has picked up business further afield from Bentham to Chorley, Blackburn to Blackpool. It was just as well because overnight weddings were cancelled and hotel and other business contracts put on hold as premises closed.

Husband Carl has taken deliveries out and Sara, who is asthmatic, has worked from home "in a bubble". She said: "It was crazy for two months".

Longer term she has made the decision to permanently relocate to her home base. Her studio in a converted garage has she says "proved to be a blessing in lockdown. I worked from here for five years before I opened the shop."

She has taken up the Government's Bounce Back loan scheme to purchase a massive flower fridge for the back of the studio. While most consultations are currently by Zoom, in time she expects to be welcoming many more customers to her studio with its bespoke wedding area.

She concluded: "It's just been a mixed bag. It has been mentally tough. I am just so grateful we were able to carry on working. The number of comments I got from people saying thank you. People were desperately trying to get messages out to loved ones - I've never had it as busy as for those two and a half months."

Although making the decision to close and lose the shop was tough she is looking forward to giving online demonstrations and developing her business. She said: "It's exciting now."

* Photos by Neil Cross unless otherwise advised.

Paul Williams at Choc Amor
David Berry in the provisions shop at Barton Brook Dairy
Izzy Moss at Brooks Gelato
Kate O'Farrell in The Gallery at Cedar Farm
Esther Cropper at The Food Shop at Cedar Farm
Sara Barrow of Flowers With Passion tending some of the flowers she grows at home