RESIDENTS of the Peak District village of Grindleford are used to it now, but the chalked blackboard outside St Helen’s declaring “Fresh artisan bread here today” still intrigues the passer-by or the rambler descending from the dramatic limestone Edges that flank this lovely valley.
So does the rather larger sign in the churchyard itself — “Grindleford Community Shop”; for the shop, open from nine until six every day of the week (and later on Thursdays) is within the church, cheerfully squeezed into what was formerly a choir vestry. There is the offer of a café service in the churchyard, as well as more than 400 grocery lines.
The village lost its shop, its post office, and its butcher’s five years ago. Two other grocery stores went before that. In the words of Sarah Batterbee, one of the founders of the community shop, and now its co-manager, without a shop Grindleford might have gone the way of other villages, and become a “soulless commuter community”.
St Helen’s was already distinctive. Its hugely impressive Gothic Revival chancel betrays the original ambition for it to be a great church on a grand scale. Seen from the rear, it towers.
But the First World War interrupted the building programme, and a modest nave was added at a later date — to the relief of the parish, which continues to be profoundly grateful it does not have a larger building to maintain.
The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Jude Davis, describes the nave as having a very domestic feel to it. With the absence of stained glass or any ornate features, so it has.
Somehow, that makes the shop, viewed through its ecclesiastical doorway, look quite at home. It is crammed from floor to ceiling with stock, which is topped up several times a week, and constantly updated on the internet.
Milk, dairy foods, and vegetables are delivered daily; local cooked meats come in on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; at about 9.30 a.m. on the same days, artisan bread arrives, straight from the oven in the neighbouring village of Froggatt. On other days, bread comes from the Bakewell Bakery.
Walnut-and-raisin rings, and chocolate Chelsea buns with crème-patisserie filling are among village favourites. Ice cream is made locally, and so are jams and chutneys. The pricing of goods is competitive with the supermarkets.
IT TOOK four years of persistence and fund-raising to get a shop back in Grindleford, and it was the church’s offer of rent-free space that clinched it. Ms Davis, whose benefice includes the villages of Hathersage and Bamford, arrived last year, as the shop was about to open.
“The idea had come from someone in the church, and was leapt upon. There’s a cricket pavilion here, but no public space in the village, nowhere that could give up a little space, and if the shop had to be a commercial enterprise, it wouldn’t survive.”
That said, the shop holds its own, Ms Davies says: “They pay their way, and cover any costs, so it’s great the way it was set up — very organic, and good for the church as well. It certainly feels as if we have more credibility in the village: people see us as part of the community and part of the village, and know that the problems they’ve got are the problems we’ve got.
”It can only be a good thing that people see us as part of them rather than aside from them,” she says. “And it’s been so easy for us. Of all the things that you think a church might do to get that kind of respect and relationship in the village, this has been almost entirely stress-free and pain-free. I hope that means it’s of God, really.”
Ms Batterbee and Andrew Battye keep the stock and deliveries in order, and arrange volunteer cover throughout the week. There are 15-20 regulars, but they would like more: without the volunteers, the shop would sink.
A successful community-action day has meant that all the leaves have been cleared from the churchyard, and Mr Battye was greatly encouraged by that. “We have to push on now from the first good year of trading,” he says.
The shop made a profit in its first year, which no one had been expecting, and in which everyone rejoiced. Any profit made is put back into the community.
In the beginning, it was envisaged that the church accommodation might be temporary, but the present location is considered a “win-win” situation for both church and community.
“We like having them here, and we really want them to stay,” Ms Davies says with pleasure.
That sentiment is echoed by the Bishop of Derby, Dr Alastair Redfern, who awarded the it his Best New Project award for 2015. Everyone involved turned up at a packed Derby Cathedral earlier this month — “mighty chuffed . . . in best frocks, and the bells ringing” — to receive the award at a special winners’ service.
The village newsletter described St Helen’s as “unfailingly patient, helpful, and kind as we filled up the churchyard with chairs, hung bananas on the windows, and nailed signs on their doors”.
IT IS the café that provides most of the profits: the shop would be unlikely to survive without the outward flow of tea and coffee and cake. St Helen’s is one of 14 churches on the newly devised Peak Pilgrimage trail.
There was inevitably concern about a shop and café in a churchyard environment, and the church was alive to those concerns.
What has happened, Ms Davies says, is that “people are able to come and visit a grave, lay flowers, have a cup of tea, and meet other people in the community, which has been quite a lovely thing.”
And there are conversations now about how the church itself could be used more by the community, while continuing to get the balance of work and worship right.
It’s happening already: as I sit outside in the autumn sunshine and drink my tea, groups of women are arriving for a tea party in the nave. Thirsty ramblers call in here: it is how I happened on the place myself.
“I was in here last week, and met 16 surgeons and anaesthetists on a walking holiday,” Ms Davies says. “It was pouring with rain. I told them, ‘Come and sit in the back of the church; we don’t mind muddy boots’. But they were so wet that they didn’t want to make a mess of the church, and insisted on sitting outside in the rain with their drinks. That’s giving us some ideas.”
MS DAVIES was of the youngest female ordinands in Sheffield diocese, and had no intention of going into rural ministry after her training at Ridley Hall and a curacy at Doncaster Minster.
“I was absolutely adamant that I’d never have more than one church. I’d grown up in the city, and was used to the city, and my initial thoughts were: ‘As long as it’s a university town, I’ll be all right,’” she remembers.
“But I liked the parish profile, and I came to visit and liked it, and my experience of working in a rural setting this last year has been brilliant. I love the way that I’ve quickly become part of three communities.
"I don’t know whether I’m just lucky, or that people here are so nice. It’s an incredible ministry, very fulfilling.”
She goes on: “But the Church has got to acknowledge that it’s a near-impossible task to grow three churches with one incumbent, one full-time priest. I don’t have the answer to that, and different colleagues have different ways of dealing with it.”
SHE drops back into the shop to ask Mr Battye whether he would like a harvest of apples from her vicarage trees. He accepts with enthusiasm.
There’s a man in here snapping up the last two currant loaves from the freezer, and a young couple with a baby who have just got back from Australia this morning and are trying to remember what they’ve got in the cupboards at home. A man with a dog is drinking coffee outside.
“You wouldn’t expect it to have been as easy as it has been this last year,” Ms Davies concludes. “I get phone calls from churches saying, ‘We’re thinking of doing this, but . . .’ I think they’re surprised when I say: ‘Go and do it.’ It’s worked. We’ve had a go, and it’s worked.”
Extended service providers
IT HAS worked for others, too. An estimated 2500 village shops closed in the past decade. Figures from the Plunkett Foundation — supporting rural communities that are working to tackle problems through community enterprise and ownership — suggest that there are now 316 community shops in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Few are yet in churches, but “Heavenly Supplies” in the Essex parish of St Giles’s, Langford — a village that lost its shop as long ago as 1986 — is another thriving example.
There are post offices, too: more than 40 of them in churches, chapels, church halls, and community centres. Most of these were established in the wake of the Post Office’s Network Change Programme, which resulted in the closure of 2500 services between 2007 and 2009.
The village of Cloughton, in York, was without a post office for 19 months after its sub-postmaster resigned, and the high-street premises were no longer available.
Now, it is located in St Mary’s. The flagship full-time post office in a church is St James’s, West Hampstead. The church of St Cuthbert, Copnor, in Portsmouth, hosts a GP's surgery, and has built a four-storey community centre.
THERE is a sense in which none of this is new. Before the Reformation (when naves became preaching areas), parish churches used to be the centre of the community, with only the chancel reserved for liturgy and worship.
Church of England authorities accepts that a church can have a variety of uses that are not necessarily ecclesiastical in purpose, as long as the primary use remains that of worship.
And a variety of uses there are, as evidenced by the entries for the £5000 Somerset Churches Trust Playfair Prize, open to churches that had completed work during the past ten years to open up their building for use by the wider community.
The 24 entrants ranged from tiny rural churches to big urban ones; and lavatories, kitchens, serveries, and community space have proved the most welcome additions to the buildings.
The six finalists were St Peter’s, Evercreech; St Cuthbert’s, Wells; All Saints’, West Camel; St Andrew’s, Blagdon; St Luke’s, Bath — and Holy Trinity, Norton Malreward, the oldest of the finalists, and the winner of the prize.
A very small church in a village of just 160 inhabitants, Holy Trinity used its modest budget of £25,000 (and mostly volunteer labour) to remove pews from the south aisle, and relocate the font, to create space for families at christenings, and to provide lunches and teas.
The organ from the south aisle was relocated into the chancel, thus making space for a small servery and a disabled lavatory; and a good audio-visual system was installed. None of this was in conflict with the church’s Norman heritage, and Holy Trinity is now once again the centre of village life.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey was one of the judges, and called on all churches to have an open-door philosophy.
“Worship is a seven-day-a week affair,” he said. “There are these big, beautiful buildings. In some villages, they are the biggest buildings around. They could be a vital community facility — so why are some of them being used only one day a week?
“We want to reward those churches that have found ways to use these buildings to their full potential, and to cement the ideas of the church service being not just a religious service, but something that can serve our communities."