Nearly 400 halls have contributed to the unique record so far, detailing their response to the pandemic and hopes for the future.
The small staff team at Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) was unsure whether the volunteers who manage England’s village halls would engage with Village Halls Week 2021 – a national campaign week that had to be moved online light of the nationwide lockdown.
Over five days, the charity’s social media feeds hummed with chatter, and hundreds attended online events that considered how these rural community buildings could recover from the pandemic and plan for the future. But the most surprising outcome was the enthusiasm and interest with which hall management committees scrambled to sign a somewhat hastily constructed online ‘Domesday Book’.
The Domesday Book is a colourful, and arguably historical record, so far featuring nearly 400 village halls whose volunteer custodians have taken time to explain their charity’s history, their response to the pandemic, and hopes for reopening and supporting their community in the future.
One such entry by Ashreigney Village Hall in Devon reads:
“The recent pandemic has really brought home how vital our village hall is to a small, rural community such as ours. It is literally the “heart” of the village. Social gatherings, our market, and meetings may be banned; but our hall continues to serve. In recent months it has been used as a central control room by emergency services carrying out search and rescue operations, it continues to act as our Post Office, and the car park now hosts regular street food pop-ups. We look forward to the day when we can all meet up again, to celebrate and fully enjoy this vital and much-loved part of village life.”
Most halls remain closed due to the national restrictions. And whilst many benefited from emergency grants at the beginning of the pandemic, halls committees are worried how much longer they can go on without generating income from hiring out spaces to community groups, local businesses, and events such as private parties and weddings.
The Domesday Book has the endorsement of Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Rural Affairs whose foreword states:
“Village halls have been a crucial part of rural life for the past century. They provide a space for activities and events that bring people together, create a sense of community, reduce loneliness and support local businesses. At a time when many village halls are closed because of coronavirus, it is essential to recognise and celebrate the work they do.”
Reflecting on the past couple of weeks, Phillip Vincent, ACRE’s Public Affairs and Communications Manager, said:
“The idea was simple. We wanted to find a way of making our campaign week more interactive and engaging whilst capturing stories about the important contribution village halls make to England’s rural communities. We honestly didn’t know how many groups would sign the record, but in the end, we received so many entries that it crashed the page we built, whilst the US-based app providers, Coda, ended up featuring us on their website!”
Many of England’s Village Halls date back to the 1920s. In a survey undertaken by ACRE last year, it was found that 60% of village halls provide the only meeting space in the local community. An estimated 50,000 individuals are reliant on the use of village halls to make a living.
ACRE says the Village Halls Domesday Book will remain open for a while longer hoping that even more halls will sign.
The Village Halls Domesday Book can be accessed here: https://coda.io/@acre/village-halls-doomsday-book-2021.