Bourne Diary - October 2011

by Rex Needle

Saturday 1st October 2011

The sale of our important civic buildings to raise and save money which was discussed in this column recently (August 20th) may have sounded an implausible scenario but there are more signs that it is happening around the country.

The town hall at Louth, in the north of Lincolnshire, is already on the market after East Lindsay District Council claimed that because of enforced budget cuts it can no longer afford to run the Grade II listed building. Local community groups have been invited to take it over but if no offers are received then it is likely to be sold on the open market.

The suggestion has now been made that the same might happen to the town hall at Peterborough, a very grand structure that has dominated the city centre for almost 80 years but should be sold off to raise revenue. The idea has been mooted by Councillor Darren Fower, leader of the Liberal Democrats on Peterborough City Council, who sees this magnificent building as a piece of real estate with an estimated price of anything between �80 and �100 million and it could then be demolished and the site used for flats, offices or other commercial purposes. Future meetings, he said, could be held in schools around the city while existing vacant properties would serve as alternative office space for the staff.

Councillor Fower's idea is outlined in the group's policy document Vision 2011 and must therefore be taken seriously. The town hall was built in 1933 and although registered as a building of local interest, it is not listed although it is doubtful if many Peterborough residents, let alone councillors and officers, would like to see their flagship civic building disappear in this way.

I do have a vested interest here because I know the town hall well having been taken to see it being built as a boy and then as a young reporter, attending council, committee and other meetings on several nights each week, thrilled to enter through the massive Corinthian columns at the entrance before climbing the impressive marble staircase to find the appropriate room, with drinks afterwards in the mayor's parlour. There were also dinners and dances in the main reception room on Saturday nights, especially the annual Press Ball that I helped organise and which in those days was the big event of the year. As with all towns and cities throughout England, the town hall was the centre of administration and the venue for all important social activities and to have it reduced to so much rubble is quite unthinkable.

There is no suggestion at this stage that our own town hall will suffer a similar fate but as the people are always the last to be told about such matters, we have no way of knowing that it will not. What we do know is that changes are afoot and they will be far reaching and in the current state of bureaucratic hysteria over the economic crisis, anything could happen and we should not think for one moment that the Grade II listing which protects this particular building will be much of a safeguard against determined officialdom with an eye on the balance sheet.

Crackpot theories such as demolition should not be easily dismissed because when they are mooted by people in power they have a good chance of becoming reality. It has been related here before how the Red Hall would have been pulled down several times had it been left to some councillors but fortunately there were also determined men of vision on hand to save it.

The Corn Exchange was also under threat almost 40 years ago in a situation which mirrors that in Peterborough today. This building has served the town since it was built in 1870 and has been the centre of social and cultural activity ever since yet a move to close it was made at a meeting of Bourne Urban District Council on Tuesday 12th February 1969 when Councillor Lorenzo Warner (1901-1995), founder of Warners Midlands plc, proposed that the building should be sold for use as a supermarket and the proceeds used to finance a new town drainage scheme following severe flooding the previous year.

He suggested that the issue should be settled with a referendum to decide whether electors wanted a well-drained town or continue to subsidise social and cultural activities. "In all businesses, the right thing to do is to cut out all unprofitable waste and the Corn Exchange has been a very big charge on the rates for the last decade", he said. "In the years 1952 and 1967, a loss of �7,999 is shown. Has the Corn Exchange outlived its usefulness?"

Councillor Warner said that school halls should be used as public meeting places out of school hours to encourage the social and cultural life of the town and added: "The use of the Corn Exchange has to meet intense competition and I cannot see how the town can afford the luxury in these days of high rates. More benefit would accrue from providing a well-drained town than continuing to meet the very heavy losses from retaining the Corn Exchange."

The proposal proved to be one of the most unpopular ever discussed by the council and received overwhelming and even hostile opposition from other members who pointed out that the Corn Exchange was providing a valuable service for a town with a population of 5,500 and that the costs involved were reasonable in return for the benefits that resulted and in the previous five months, the building had been let 112 times. "I think that Councillor Warner has his priorities wrong", said Councillor G H Astley but Councillor J H Wright was even more forthright: "This is a preposterous idea", he said. "Nowhere have I seen such a wild suggestion. It would deprive the town of one of the few recreational facilities this council provides."

A motion that the Corn Exchange should not be sold was carried, with only Councillor Warner dissenting. The acrimony generated by his proposal did not however last because he was eventually elected chairman of the council for the year 1970-71. Somehow, I do not think that Councillor Fower will ever be that popular among his colleagues at Peterborough City Council.

There is little change in the state of St Peter's Pool which has been completely dry for several weeks and it may be mid-winter before there is any major improvement. The situation was highlighted by our Picture of the Week last month (August 27th) when we blamed the drought conditions of last summer coupled with the continued extraction of water to supply a wider catchment area.

The story was carried by The Local newspaper the following week when Anglian Water denied that it was in any way to blame. A spokesman said that they did pump water from aquifers below the town, including the Bourne Eau, but added: "The drying up of the pool is not related to our water abstraction. Instead, it is likely to be a natural phenomenon. Groundwater levels will typically be low at this time and will be lower this year due to the cold, dry winter and exceptionally dry spring. The water we borrow from the environment comes from a mixture of rivers and boreholes. In Bourne, the groundwater from our boreholes is taken out of naturally occurring underground stores some 40 metres beneath the surface. We continually monitor all our water sources to ensure they are used in a sustainable way."

This all sounds very plausible but Bourne has been a water bonanza from the earliest times and the fact that by 1969, there were 130 boreholes at various points around the town show how it has been exploited and although most of these have now been sealed, all remaining sources are now administered by Anglian Water.

There is no denying that St Peter's Pool feeds the Bourne Eau which in turn runs into the River Glen and rivers are a continual source of extraction by our water authorities. As a result, the current situation in England is causing concern throughout the country and has been highlighted by The Sunday Times which states quite categorically that our rivers are being diminished as utility companies drain billions of gallons from vulnerable waterways to service a soaring demand (September 18th). This wholesale extraction of water has caused many to shrink and stagnate, putting wildlife at risk, killing fish and reducing some tributaries to puddles.

Water authorities such as Anglian Water pay for licences at each of the sites where they drain from a river or aquifer and all claim that they are operating at below agreed levels although the terms of many of these permits were set decades ago and are currently being reviewed in an attempt to address the worst cases of over-abstraction.

Environmentalists are therefore calling for the licences of the worst offenders to be revoked. Other measures such as reducing consumption by the compulsory installation of water meters in all households and the repair of leaking pipes may help but the building of new reservoirs appears to be the answer. In the meantime, there can be no doubt that water usage during dry spells causes problems because supplies are not being replenished from natural sources and if it were not being extracted from our aquifers and waterways at such an alarming rate, then it is quite obvious that St Peter's Pool would be in a much healthier state than it is today.

Four years ago, I wrote a Diary item about metal thefts because so many churches in the area were losing the lead from their roofs in night time raids inspired by the rising price of scrap worldwide. Shops in Crown Walk and the Angel Precinct were also stripped during night time raids in October 2007 and the sheer weight of the stolen material meant that a lorry must have been used to cart it away.

The situation was far worse over the county border in Cambridgeshire where the lead was been lifted off churches, schools and even doctors� surgeries while hundreds of homes lost their telephone service after copper wires were stolen. Over 100 incidents had been logged in the previous two months and the picture was a similar one elsewhere in the country. Little seems to have changed except that the number of cases has risen to such an extent that according to The Times, insurance companies are now capping pay outs at �10,000 maximum because the risk has become so great (September 24th) which appears to indicate that the thieves are winning.

Repair bills can be far higher when metal is removed and the rain seeps in, damaging plasterwork, pews and even organs and the additional financial burden is ruining many churches and some even face closure. The village church at Kirkby Underwood is a particular target, perhaps because of its isolated position in the middle of farmland, and lead has been stripped off the roof twice this summer. In each case, thieves rolled the metal into strips and then loaded it into a vehicle parked in a nearby wheat field and parishioners will now have to foot a hefty bill to replace it, perhaps as much as �20,000.

The huge demand for commodities from China, India and Brazil has seen the price of scrap lead and copper soar and this has been blamed for the increasing number of thefts with thieves targeting monuments, railways and buildings throughout the country.

This week, Lincolnshire police said that a quantity of copper cable has been stolen from the British Telecom depot in Manning Road, Bourne, one of a series of similar crimes across the country which have contributed to the latest statistics in which metal theft has overtaken domestic burglaries in some areas. The situation has become so serious that The Times reports a government forecast that scrap metal thefts will cost the economy �1 billion this year, a problem that could be eliminated by outlawing cash deals at scrapyards which is believed to be an encouragement for the thieves and the main source of disposal of stolen metal.

The old saying that nothing is safe unless it is chained down never seems to have been truer than it is today.

Thought for the week: One way to make sure crime doesn't pay would be to let the government run it. - Ronald Reagan, actor turned politician who served two terms as the 40th president of the United States (1911-2004).

Saturday 8th October 2011

It will come as no surprise to learn that the new school planned for Elsea Park which was first suggested twelve years ago has been delayed yet again. Parents who were promised this facility when they bought their homes on the new estate have now been told that it will be at least 2012 before work begins and perhaps not then.

The school was among a package of amenities agreed during the planning process for the controversial 300-acre housing estate to the south of the town which was launched in March 1999, the biggest single residential development in the history of Bourne and one which went ahead despite widespread, almost total public opposition, mainly because of the speed with which it was pushed through and the perceived lack of consultation.

The main objections were that the population explosion created by 2,000 new homes would bring an estimated 6,000 newcomers to the town, putting more pressure on existing services such as libraries, public transport, leisure amenities, clinics and particularly schools, and so it has proved.

A new school for Elsea Park was among the benefits to be provided by the developer as part of the planning gain agreed with South Kesteven District Council. The others included a south-west relief road to ease traffic congestion through the town centre which eventually opened in October 2005, four months late because of a dispute with the developers, a community hall which has also been delayed, and others that are unlikely to appear at all such as a doctor's surgery, a shuttle bus service and sports pitches.

In 2006, a front page report in the Stamford Mercury said that the new school project which had been due for completion by September 2007 was to be scrapped (April 7th), blaming falling pupil rolls and the prospect that it would create problems of surplus places at our two existing primaries, the Abbey and Westfield.

Then in July 2010, the school was back on the agenda when the county council said that a projected influx of families to the town meant that it would be needed in the near future and could open as early as September 2013. But the head teachers of both existing primaries issued a statement objecting on the grounds that pupils could be siphoned off from their own schools, thus leading to a reduction in the funding available and this would affect the high quality of education currently being provided. Their statement added: �The result could mean redundancies for existing staff at perhaps both schools when trying to split the extra number of pupils between three schools rather than two.�

At the time, the county council appeared to resist this attempt to scupper the new primary but now The Local reports that it "has been put on the back burner because extra places for pupils are not yet justified" (September 30th). Debbie Barnes, assistance director of children's services, told the newspaper that plans were not being pursued at present because projected pupil numbers for reception age intakes do not justify the need for 210 extra primary places. She added: "We will continue to monitor the situation closely and the developer is still obliged to provide a school when we require it."

This will be little consolation for those parents who bought their homes at Elsea Park on the understanding that a school was to be built within a convenient distance rather than expecting their children to walk, cycle or be driven a mile into town, yet many of them have now been enrolled at either Westfield or the Abbey primary schools instead which in each case necessitates long and inconvenient journeys each day.

The situation is unlikely to change for the time being because the county council does not intend to carry out a review until next May. "We want to be sure that when the new school is called for there is a long-term requirement for additional places to complement existing provision and not provide surplus school places in the area or draw pupils out of existing neighbouring schools", said Debbie Barnes.

This argument can, of course, be used ad infinitum. Children from the estate who have already gone to the town's other primary schools will expect to stay there when the Elsea Park school eventually opens because parents will not wish to disrupt their education or sever the ties they have made with the staff and other pupils.

The county council's statement appears to indicate that the new school will only be built when there are sufficient children from the new estate waiting to go there without switching from elsewhere, and even though Elsea Park is the prime housing development in Bourne, this is something that is unlikely to happen for many years to come, if at all.

The owners of the old Raymond Mays garage in Spalding Road which has been standing empty and derelict since the autumn of 2005 have been given another three years before they begin work on the new housing estate to be built on the 5.2 acre site which includes the adjoining Rainbow supermarket, now also closed.

Planning permission for an estate of 105 homes was originally granted for a three-year period by South Kesteven District Council in June 2008 and this time limit has now been extended but does not appear to include any provision for the owners, Anglia Regional Co-operative Society, to keep the site tidy in the meantime. This means that Bourne is likely to suffer this eyesore until 2014, a sad advertisement for an expanding community especially as it stands on the eastern approaches to the town and can be seen by every passing motorist and coach party on the A151 which is not a good advertisement for anyone intending to settle here or open a business.

The unsightly state of the premises is now causing real concern and with the possibility of another delay before work begins, councillors are beginning to express fears that the appearance of the town in that locality is being marred. The Mayor of Bourne, Councillor Brenda Johnson, has already described the site as an eyesore. "If it is not going to be developed for another three years then I would like to see the owners made to keep it tidy", she said (August 19th).

Compulsion should not be necessary. The housing development will be a profitable investment in Bourne and it is therefore expected that the owners would have sufficient respect for the town to ensure that the proposed site does not deface the street scene in the meantime. There seems to be a great deal of undue haste by the district council in allowing new homes to be built around Bourne but at the same time attention should be given to those buildings which remain. The authority has the powers to do this and there are many cases in which they should be exercised with the same vigour as that given to the granting of planning permission for residential development.

If the mayor is sufficiently alarmed to speak out on this issue then so are the people and both SKDC and Anglia Regional Co-operative Society should take note.

The new solar farm now being installed on farmland to the east of Bourne is the latest in a series of pioneering projects for the fens that have produced power from the elements, the most important of these being the windmill revolution of past centuries.

In 1763, for instance, fifty windmills are listed as working in Deeping Fen to drain some 30,000 acres of farmland, the nearest being Woolley's Mill at the appropriately named Windmill Farm, a mile west of Tongue End, south of Bourne. The mill ground corn and other grain brought in by barge along the River Glen and navvies working on various drainage schemes over the years were housed there and fed from the adjoining bakery which also supplied residents of Tongue End. It was not uncommon for up to 60 navvies at a time to be living at the Mill House. The mill closed in 1912 and has since been demolished.

Another mill, Ward's Mill, was established in 1910 alongside the Division Drain between the parishes of Bourne and Thurlby. It was built by Mr Jonathan Ward, a local farmer, and was made of timber and also drove a wheel for drainage but was blown down in a gale within a year of construction. It is unlikely to have been a particularly solid structure because the mill sails were made of canvas and these had to be frequently reduced or increased in size according to the strength of the wind. Jonathan Ward, who lived at the Manor House, Thurlby, farmed on a large scale and is recorded as saying: "Any fool can farm in bed when it's dry but you have got to be out and about when it's wet." He always had a five-gallon jar of whisky with a tap at the bottom available and he never allowed it to be less than one third full.

Evidence of these mills can still be seen at Dyke village, which is within the parish of Bourne. Just off the main street is an old smock mill although now in private hands and adapted for other uses in recent years including for the sale of antiques, arts and crafts and picture framing. It was originally a pumping mill in Deeping Fen, probably built by Dutch drainage engineers in the late 17th or early 18th century and around 1840 it was moved to Dyke and fitted with corn milling machinery but lost its sails in 1923 and so ended its wind-powered working life. The mill had a boat-shaped cap turned to wind by a braced tailpole, both features inherited from its former use, and two common and two spring shuttered sails driving three pairs of stones.

The last miller was Mr Thomas Sommerfield who wrote on 8th September 1940: "It was the best fitted mill I was ever in, but old fashioned outside. I worked it for 32 years. It was dismantled in 1927 and was in my family for 63 years. All the spindles below the stones were turned and I took great pride in keeping them polished with sandpaper. The governors were also bright. I never saw this anywhere else in my life. Everything was of the best. My father thought a lot of this mill."

The debate over wind turbines, however, continues with a vociferous lobby opposed to their erection on the grounds that they will ruin the environment although it is difficult to understand how the wind on a blade to produce power can do that. In 2010, for instance, a government planning inspector allowed the erection of 13 turbines each 100 metres high at Wryde Croft south of Gedney Hill in South Lincolnshire after ruling that the sheer scale of the fens can rapidly absorb wind farms, thus overriding objections over their visual impact, possible health effects and potential problems for aircraft and the way therefore seems clear for other wind farms already planned for the Bourne area.

The inspector also made another valid point that wind turbines would not in any substantial sense redefine the fenland landscape which would retain its essential characteristics and this is the nub of the argument because it is conveniently forgotten that the windmill was a familiar part of the countryside in past times and without them life would have been hard indeed because they produced the power to grind corn and other commodities and to keep the swampy marshland drained and productive in this part of the country.

Most windmills are now protected buildings, Dyke Mill being listed Grade II in July 1977 and restored in 1998 and it would be unthinkable to even consider its demolition. So it is with England�s other remaining windmills which have become part of our heritage and in centuries to come it is quite possible that the earliest of the wind turbines now being built, and perhaps even solar farms, will also be preserved as part of our industrial heritage.

Thought for the week: There's no way that solar panels or windmills can do it themselves. - Patrick Moore (1923- ), British astronomer and popular television presenter who is credited with raising the public profile of astronomy.

Saturday 15th October 2011

Yet another public service in Bourne is under threat, this time the police station in West Street. The chief constable of Lincolnshire, Richard Crompton, has announced that a review of all the properties controlled by the county force is underway in an attempt to make savings and to protect frontline services and officers.

He told the Stamford Mercury that they faced "rough choices" regarding funding and the custody suite at Spalding police station is already being shut for a three-month trial (October 7th). He added: "We recognise the importance of accessibility and if a station is put forward for possible closure it would only do so after public consultation and then when an alternative point of access was in place, such as a library, post office or supermarket. Our main priority is to retain our police officer numbers and so we are looking at all our budgets and spending and that includes our buildings."

The mere fact that the closure of our police station is even being considered shows how farcical the current situation over public spending cuts has now become and this particular economy demonstrates how little co-operation there is between our local authorities. For instance, the public library, which itself has an uncertain future, appears to be a popular dumping ground for every local service that is being cut, one county councillor having suggested that the register office in West Street, also facing the axe, could be re-located there, while the post office would also be totally unsuitable because it gets quite crowded at busy times and there would certainly not be enough room for another desk manned by a couple of bobbies.

The loss of a police station in Bourne would mean the end of a tradition that began 150 years ago with the establishment of the first police presence in May 1857 following the County and Borough Police Act. There were only a handful of officers but their appearance soon had an effect as the Stamford Mercury reported: �This long looked for force arrived in Bourne last week and we are gratified in being able to state that already a considerable improvement may be noticed. This was fully apparent on Monday last when the loiterers at the corners were much surprised at the order to �move on� which they also found would be to their advantage promptly to obey. No less than six or eight cases of petty larcenies have occurred and parties have been apprehended upon suspicion from the neighbouring villages. The town itself is supplied with one superintending officer and two men. Of course, the liberty of the subject will not be necessarily interfered with in the discharge of the duties of the new officers.�

At this time, the population of Bourne was 3,720 (1851 census figure) but the police strength increased as the town expanded and by 1861 a permanent police headquarters had been established at the corner of Burghley Street and North Street complete with offices, cells and hostel accommodation for officers so enabling them to be available on 24-hour call. There were then 16 officers but this had increased to 19 by 1875 and 21 by 1913 and the coming of a regular police force brought a considerable decrease in crime and general lawlessness.

From 1857 onwards, policemen on foot patrol day and night were a familiar and comforting sight and during the early years of the 20th century when the motor car was becoming popular, uniformed officers could be seen regularly on point duty to keep vehicles moving in the increasingly busy town centre, especially on market days when stalls erected at the kerbside reduced the amount of road left for passing traffic. But when the first traffic lights were introduced in 1973, they were no longer necessary and so began the reduction in the police presence on the streets.

The police station in North Street continued in use until 1960 when it was replaced by a new building in West Street while the former premises were demolished to make way for a block of old people�s maisonettes. The facility, however, was downgraded to office status in 2000 only open five days a week (closed for lunch) and an indeterminate staffing level for duties in the town. Yet by 2007, Lincolnshire Police, as the force is now known, had 1,228 regular officers, 149 Community Support Officers, a new breed of police men and women although with limited powers, 784 civilian support staff and an annual budget of �108.6 million, which accounted for 10% of the total council tax bill.

In the past 150 years, modern policing methods have changed out of all recognition through the introduction of mobile patrols, new technology, shorter working hours and fewer points of personal contact, with the result that Dixon of Dock Green, the friendly neighbourhood constable, has all but disappeared. There is undoubtedly increased efficiency in some areas but public concern persists, particularly among the elderly who feel unsafe because petty crime frequently goes unchecked and that their environment and well being is threatened by litter, graffiti, vandalism, yobs on the street corner and other anti-social behaviour that is not investigated, and there is a frequent cry for a permanent return of the bobby on the beat who was such a familiar and reassuring sight in past times.

Phasing out our police station would therefore be seen by many to be a retrograde step in the protection of our community, of persons and property and the observance of law and order and if these essential safeguards are not to be maintained, then the public will have the right to ask exactly where their taxes are being spent.

A news item tucked away on the inside pages of The Local last month (September 30th) is an indication of the shape of things to come because it tells us that our local authorities are still discussing how they will bring their public services together under one roof.

This subject has been under review for the past three years and it will be remembered that the town hall was originally the proposed venue but now the Corn Exchange appears to be the favoured choice although it would be difficult to imagine anything more unsuitable yet Lincolnshire county councillor Eddy Poll, executive member for economic development, has told the newspaper that: "We are confident a decision will be made in the coming weeks on what course of action is best for Bourne."

There is no need for further consultation because most people can tell Councillor Poll and his colleagues that what is best for Bourne is to leave things exactly as they are, the town hall in its existing role with a counter for general inquiries and the payment of council tax, the public library to remain where it is in South Street and the register office in West Street. In recent weeks, this column has been discussing the possible phasing out of our public buildings during the current economic climate with town halls at the top of the agenda in many places and if ours is not be used for what it was intended, that is as the central point for administration and council services, then that too is likely to become redundant.

Change may be inevitable in today's society but it is not always for the better and in this particular instance, the old adage that if it ain't broke don't fix it should apply. To suggest that medicine is about to be administered and will not taste too awful if councillors say so is to treat the public with disdain especially when it comes from someone who represents Spalding East and Moulton which has little to do with our town and we are tempted to ask when Councillor Poll last paid us a visit.

There are many areas of council activity where spending cuts should be made and this is not one of them. To use the Corn Exchange for services that are operating perfectly well in their present locations is a misguided policy and one that may herald an era of inconvenience for those who have to use them as well as taking up space that is currently used for recreational and leisure activities.

The closing of established buildings or premises to save money and shifting services to makeshift locations does not work, as has been proved in the past. The result is a false economy because the new arrangement will invariably be inferior and inconvenient for customers and a good example of this has been the proposed closure of the Post Office in West Street.

Bourne has had a post office since 1847 when it was situated in Abbey Road but moved to North Street in 1870 although the premises in each case were small and inconvenient and so when a specially designed building was erected in 1981, complete with a sorting office at the rear, customers felt that we had finally entered the modern age. Yet it has twice been threatened with closure, first in 1988 when it was suggested that the service be moved to Nos 42-44 North Street which was then being used as a launderette although this proved to be a major misjudgement of public opinion because a wave of protest followed when the issue was taken up not only by the local newspapers but also by the television and radio channels. The town council also complained that the premises were totally unsuitable for postal services and that customers would have to queue outside on the pavement while vans delivering and collecting mail would create havoc for passing traffic.

Then in 2001, the Post Office made another attempt to close it down, again provoking outrage in the town because it was planned to downgrade the facility to a counter service at McColl's supermarket premises fifty yards further along the street towards the town centre which could not have been more unsuitable. Again the intention was to save money by phasing out the building in the interests of economy. There was much smooth talk from officials promising a new and more efficient service from the back of the liquor store which failed to convince because anyone familiar with the town knew that it was flawed and that chaos would have ensued if such an ill-advised move had become a reality.

Queues were already a regular occurrence outside the post office at busy periods with waiting customers stretching down the street as far as the Baptist Chapel some mornings and so it was not hard to imagine the melee in the new and much smaller premises on pension pay out morning or on a busy market day when there were large crowds on the pavement and lines of heavy vehicles queuing up at the traffic lights. There was another vigorous campaign by the press and the public and eventually the Post Office realised that the proposal was untenable although it was two years before the scheme was finally rejected and in February 2003, it was announced that a new manageress was to be appointed and the building would remain open as it does to this day.

If those who run our affairs are so intent on the current programme of closures, then perhaps the chief constable may have unwittingly given the solution to all of our ills by suggesting that space might be found for the police station at a supermarket, the new Tesco store in South Road being the most obvious choice.

A pharmacy has already opened there and the company is now into banking and estate agency so why not pile our entire public services there, a most convenient arrangement for everyone because then we could pop along and buy the weekly groceries, pay the council tax, borrow a book, collect a prescription and make a complaint to the police all at the same time. The management might even find space for a couple of cells for wrongdoers and all of the other valuable organisations that are becoming victim of the dreaded cuts. Would they also have room for the fire and ambulance stations, I wonder? Now that really is streamlining all of our services under one roof, the very solution that our local authorities have been seeking for the past three years.

The closure of well used amenities should not be taken lightly. If they are shut, or moved elsewhere to less convenient locations, then it is a sign that those who made the decisions have proved themselves unworthy of the job in hand. Public services are there to be maintained at all cost and if they are not up to the task then it is their duty to step down and make way for someone who is.

Thought for the week: The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. - Martin Luther King (1929-68), American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the advancement of civil rights around the world.

Saturday 22nd October 2011

A heart rending tale has arrived by email from a lady in Australia trying to trace members of her family who were forcibly taken from their home in the north east of England and sent to an institution in Bourne. Such an occurrence today would arouse the attention of the media and the fury of the nation but these events took place almost eighty years ago, a time that is beyond the memory of most and as the novelist L P Hartley so perceptively remarked, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

In 1934, the McDougall children were living in a caravan at Blyth near Newcastle in Northumberland. Their mother had abandoned the family who never saw her again and the children were being cared for by their father who was working in one of the nearby shipyards. But their living conditions attracted the attention of the local authority who decided that they were quite unsuitable for small children who should be removed and taken into care.

One morning a female worker from the council arrived and took the three children away, Archibald William Scott (later known as Alan) McDougall, aged 6, Elizabeth Annie, aged one, and Alistair, whose age is not known.

Alan was the father of Sharon Mason, aged 51, now living in Melbourne, Victoria, who has written seeking help and who takes up the story: "They were all dragged away by the strange lady and taken to Newcastle where they were put on a train going to Lincolnshire but I am not sure exactly what happened to them after that", she said. "I do know that they ended up at a home in Bourne where they were treated very badly but as time went by, they all lost touch with each other."

Alan was fostered to a local farming family but disliked being there and ran away several times but was caught and taken back. Then when he was old enough to join the army, he enlisted, serving in many places overseas including Africa. On discharge, he worked as a boilermaker and emigrated to New Zealand where Sharon was born and then in 1970, he and his family moved to Australia but Alan returned to England and died at Swindon, Wiltshire, in 2008 aged 80.

Sharon is now using the Internet in an attempt to trace what happened to the two missing children and is trying to check census records of the children's homes in operation at that time because they would have been resident there for at least ten years. This was not the Bourne Hostel in West Street as was at first thought because it did not open until 1945 but was most probably the former workhouse in St Peter's Road which from 1930 became known as Bourne Public Assistance Institution, also known as Wellhead House, where many of the inmates were young girls and children thought to be at risk.

"I know that all his life, my father looked high and low to find his brother and sister", said Sharon. "They were separated and adopted by different families and I heard a rumour that one of them went to a rich lawyer and his wife but I am not sure if this is true or where they lived. Wherever they went, my father was told at the time that he would never see them again.

"The whole affair as he related it to me has broken my heart many times and so now that he has gone, I have taken up the search and although it is proving to be a long and painful process, I would be over the moon if I could locate my auntie and uncle or find out what happened to them, not just for myself but also for the sake of my dad."

It may be a long shot but perhaps someone out there does have a link with the past that will enable Sharon trace her long lost relatives. If so, please email and I will put you in touch.

All four of our mainstream schools will have become academies by next year, Bourne Grammar being the last to qualify with a proposed conversion date of January 1st.

Bourne Abbey C of E, was the first in the town and in Lincolnshire to become an academy last December followed by the Robert Manning College whose application took effect when the autumn term began on September 1st and Westfield Primary is due to join them on November 1st. All are anxious to take advantage of the government mantra of more money and more independence which will enable them implement their own admissions policy and curriculum, set their own pay and conditions for staff and vary the length of terms and school working days.

These are far reaching changes for schools that until now have been under the control of the local education authority and not everyone regards them as a necessary undertaking, especially when those involved already enjoy a distinguished reputation with excellent results in their present form, but it is to be hoped that the doomsayers will be proved wrong in the long term.

They will all be in uncharted territory and it will be up to the governors to steer through it but only time will tell if the new status will be a success. It is to be hoped that it will not all end in tears, as it did some years back when there was a similar haste to become comprehensive with disastrous results for many, including a drop in educational standards.

There are signs of a settlement over the problem of pupils from Bourne Grammar School leaving their cars parked at the kerbside in the Austerby all day during term time although it may still be some way off.

Three solutions have been put forward by Lincolnshire County Council including (1) the introduction of no waiting from 9 am until 4 pm Monday to Friday during term time (2) double yellow lines which will prohibit parking at any time and (3) a request that the school provides parking for pupils on site.

The first two suggestions will only drive the aggravation into other streets in the vicinity and so it must be obvious to everyone that option three would be the best, especially as the school is likely to be given academy status next year and some people fear that this could lead to an increase in the number of pupils with cars. The responsibility for the action of these youngsters most certainly lies with the headmaster and staff and many regard it as unforgivable that they should stand by and do nothing while the lives of others are continually disrupted.

But it is not that easy because the council is to have one of those dreaded consultation procedures for which government has become notorious, so adding time and cost to a problem that should have been solved years ago. Unfortunately, home owners in the Austerby are likely to have this hindrance on their doorstep for another school year because the council has indicated that nothing will be done before next June when it is likely to take responsibility for civil parking enforcement from the police. As this will be seen as another source of income for the council through parking fines, we may expect parking restrictions to appear in many other streets around the town.

We will soon be celebrating Bonfire Night and as often happens, yet another email has arrived seeking information about the connection between the Gunpowder Plot and the Red Hall, an apocryphal tale that refuses to go away and surfaces continually, even appearing in official publications relating to this town.

The erroneous assertion suggests that the infamous Guy Fawkes conspiracy to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament during the early 17th century was hatched at the Red Hall, our most famous secular building and now listed Grade II.

One of the earliest references appears in John Moore�s account of the town published in 1809 but as he was stating beliefs that were prevalent at that time it is safe to assume that there was a widespread oral tradition that subsequently filtered down through the printed word, notably by later written historical accounts, particularly those that appeared regularly in trade directories such as Kelly�s and White�s between 1842 and 1937 that are still available and often quoted today in newspaper and magazine articles and even in some guide books.

Historian Joseph J Davies, the distinguished headmaster of the former Council or Board School in Abbey Road, now the Bourne Abbey Church of England Academy, was quite specific in his 1909 edition of Historic Bourne that one of the leading conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, was born at the Red Hall and was executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot which he had joined with the sole purpose of restoring the Roman Catholic religion in England.

But by 1925, John T Swift dismissed all connections between the conspiracy and the Red Hall in his history Bourne and People Associated with Bourne yet it was to be another forty years before the myth was finally laid to rest. In between times, Bourne was stuck with the legend which was often referred to in the local newspapers and there is evidence that many still believed it in later years and still do so today.

It was not until fifty years ago that the story was totally discredited by Mrs Joan Varley, archivist to Lincolnshire Archives Committee, after studying parish registers and deeds of the hall that had recently been deposited with them by a descendant of the Bourne Digby family, Sir Everard Philip Digby Pauncefort Duncombe, of Great Brickhill Manor in Buckinghamshire, and so the popular theory was well and truly laid to rest.

The story had evolved around the mistaken belief that Sir Everard Digby was born and lived at the Red Hall and it has been frequently stated that as he was one of the main perpetrators, he and his fellow conspirators met at his home where the plot was hatched. The date the hall was built is not known exactly but 1605 is the most favoured. This was the year that the plot was actually discovered and as the building was some time in the planning, it would have been impossible for it to have been the meeting place of the conspirators.

In fact, Sir Everard Digby, who was involved in the plot, lived at Stoke Dry, Uppingham, Rutland, and was one of the great landowners in the Midlands although he had no connection with Bourne. But over a century later, the building did pass into the hands of a Digby family and James Digby, gentleman, appears as a deputy steward to the Manor of Bourne Abbotts at a session of the manorial court in October 1730, and from then onwards there are numerous references to him and his descendants in the manorial records. It is at this date also that the name Digby begins to appear in the parish registers. The family owned and inhabited the Red Hall from then until about a century later and this fact appears to have been the cause of some wishful deduction that Sir Everard was a direct ancestor of the Digbys of Bourne which was certainly not the case.

After an exhaustive search through the documents, Mrs Varley published her findings in April 1964, with some reluctance it would seem, because she said at the time: �I am sorry in a way that I have robbed Bourne of its best known legend but I was merely trying to get at the truth. It is very easy for incorrect statements to get into local town guides. Stories grow up about places, following generations believe they are true and eventually they are accepted as fact. They are written into books and other authors do not take the time to check and revise them.�

This is still the case. Once a statement is made in print, it is filed away in various archives and then when a subject or place is to be written about again, the writer consults the cuttings and repeats the error. So it is that the Gunpowder Plot will surface occasionally as having happened at the Red Hall because, as Mrs Varley pointed out, some writers are careless about checking their facts.

Thought for the week:  The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history. - Eric Arthur Blair (1903-50), better known by his pen name of George Orwell, English author and journalist and leading chronicler of English culture during the 20th century.

Saturday 29th October 2011

Our town hall is being phased out, as predicted by this column earlier this year. For the past 190 years, it has been the centre of administration in Bourne but those who run our affairs have decided that this historic building has outlived its usefulness and the services provided there should be moved elsewhere.

The decision has been taken without any discussion at local level and the plans were on show at the town hall for only two days last week with no attempt to publicise them beforehand to give the people an opportunity to have a look. A public consultation has been promised early next year but only after the project has been approved by South Kesteven District Council and so objections will be quite futile. The scheme therefore appears to be a fait accompli with no input either from the town council or the people of Bourne.

The idea is to turn the ground floor of the Corn Exchange into a new customer service facility known as the Bourne Community Access Point with a library, interview rooms and other services for both the district and county councils. The existing hall, kitchen and changing room would remain and plans are still being developed for the first floor. Design work could begin next year with completion of the project by March 2013.

Richard Whyles, head of finance at South Kesteven District Council, told The Local (October 21st): "The new facility should provide an environment to access a wide range of services for the town, district and county councils all from a single point within the heart of the town."

The decision has been a long time coming, originally mooted in July 2008 as a scheme to concentrate public services under one roof at the town hall but, as expected, this proved to be unworkable because there was insufficient space and the costly necessity to install a lift to improve access, especially for the disabled. Then along came the economic crisis and with money rather than quality the main consideration, the proposed venue was switched earlier this year to the Corn Exchange, a much cheaper alternative that will also create savings elsewhere.

What will happen to the town hall is not yet known but in other places where similar decisions are being taken, sale or demolition are the most likely options although our town hall is protected with a Grade II listing. It was built in 1821 by the architect Bryan Browning and has dominated first the market place and now the town centre for almost two centuries and apart from housing our local administration, the magistrates also met regularly in the courthouse until it closed in April 2008 and cases are now held elsewhere. The cost was met by public subscription and the building is therefore morally if not legally owned by the community but through various changes in the history of local government over the years, ownership has passed to Lincolnshire County Council who lease it to South Kesteven District Council.

Mr Whyles told the newspaper that any change of use for the building would have to be approved by the district council's development control committee and talks are already underway with the county council over future leasing. But it seems unlikely that it will be allowed to stand empty and in similar circumstances elsewhere, such properties are offered to any group of people interested in taking them over and running them for community use as part of the Big Society envisaged by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Unfortunately, these projects do not have a good track record in Bourne and if suggestions were invited, those who saw the opportunity could find themselves up against a barrier of official procrastination and obfuscation and a distinct unwillingness to help.

We have two such cases already in Bourne where volunteers are anxious to take over public buildings and yet despite spending a great deal of time and money to that end they have not been given the control they need to complete the task and appear to have been hampered by unnecessary bureaucratic delays that have thwarted their every turn. Bourne Preservation Society (now Trust) was formed almost as soon as the cemetery chapel was listed in April 2007 to prevent the town council from pulling it down and although they have a viable fund raising and restoration scheme in hand they have yet to receive the key to the door.

A similar impasse has held up plans by the Bourne Arts and Community Trust to take over ownership of Wake House in North Street which they have occupied since 1997, a struggle that has been going on since the lease came up for renewal in 2005, but South Kesteven District Council has replied by putting the building up for sale to the highest bidder and so making them compete in the open property market which the trust clearly cannot afford to do. If this is the way the Big Society is intended to operate then it is doubtful whether any voluntary group will be prepared to take on the town hall.

The alternative therefore would be to sell it and so there is a distinct possibility that it could end up with a developer for conversion into flats or even as a Wetherspoon public house or night spot, a not unlikely occurrence because the magnificent mediaeval style sessions house in Peterborough where I spent many hours at the Press bench as a young reporter is now a public house and restaurant. What an ignominious fate that would be for our town hall if such a thing were allowed to happen here but in the present madcap economic climate, anything is possible.

There is no indication at the moment about the future of this historic building but disuse means disrepair and eventual dereliction and the broken pane syndrome sets in. Indeed, there is already a smashed window on the front and we wonder if this is a portent of things to come. Certainly, there are already fears that the building may suffer such a fate because the Mayor of Bourne, Councillor Brenda Johnson, told The Local (October 21st): "I hope that it will not be neglected following the change of use. I can understand the access problems as is does not have a lift but I would like it to continue to be a focal point in the town."

The public library in South Street which has been in use since 1969 will also be lost if this scheme goes ahead. Book borrowers have not been asked their opinion about the move which will most certainly mean trying to put a quart into a pint pot because there appears to be insufficient space at the new location to accommodate the 25,000 books we have at present as well as the reference and reading library, the children's section and the bank of computers in the IT section as well as the office for administration. Something will therefore have to go.

The old building will almost certainly be demolished and the site sold for housing. This could also mean the closure of the fire station next door to create one large site, the adjoining garage already being vacant, and given its close proximity to the Red Hall, this prime location would be a most attractive prospect for a development company such as Stamford Homes which is already busy filling the old railway station site next door with new properties.

Whether this scheme for one stop services will work remains to be seen but there are already misgivings about the lack of space at the Corn Exchange and the loss of a perfectly good public library building with eight parking spaces. The district council is stressing that the whole point of the exercise is to concentrate services in the heart of the town but as most people travel in by car that may not be such a good idea now that parking has become a major problem. Other difficulties are likely to surface along the way and so most people will not be sharing the council's enthusiasm just yet.

Cuts and closures are never popular, especially in a small market town where tradition is all important and so those who implement change do so at their peril. It has already been reported that the register office and the police station in Bourne are at risk and we wonder what will be next. All of this for the sake of saving a few pounds because of the current financial squeeze that has shown local authorities to be so devoid of ideas that all they can come up with is to shut well used and much loved institutions and axe services while their own jobs, salaries and pensions remain protected. Considering the amount of money they are forced to pay through the council tax, the people rightly feel that they deserve better.

Anyone venturing off the main roads around Bourne and into the narrow fenland lanes will encounter many roadside piles of wooden logs, distorted in shape and discoloured grey-black with age because they are indeed relics from the dim and distant past.

These ancient timbers that have been preserved in wetlands such as the fens around Bourne for several millennia have become known as bog oaks.. Many massive specimens have been turned up by the plough, some up to 40 feet long, and discarded at a safe distance in order not to hamper future farming operations. They are the remains of the forest that existed here after the Ice Ages, the trees rotting and eventually falling into the peat soil and their recovery provides a snapshot of ancient natural history.

The British Isles were once part of the continental land mass and the rivers of eastern England tributaries of the River Rhine. Around 12,000 years ago, during the Ice Ages, the Arctic caps spread southwards as far as the Thames valley and 2,000 years later, as the ice began to melt, low lying areas of land flooded and created freshwater lakes and swamps.

For the next four thousand or so years, these Neolithic wetlands teemed with plant life. Great oak forests evolved between the lakes and over time fallen trees and vegetation composted down to form nutrient rich soils. Some of the trees and branches fell into the lakes and ponds and sank to the bottom and in these dark, airless conditions the timbers were preserved from decay by the acidic and anaerobic bog for hundreds and even thousands of years. The wood is usually stained brown by tannins dissolved in the acidic water and bog wood represents the early stages in the fossilisation of wood, eventually forming lignite and coal over a period of many millions of years.

From time to time, the preserved timbers reach the earth's surface like spirits from the past to remind us of what was once here. Although these fossilised trees are known by the local name of bog oaks they can be any species growing naturally near or in bogs including yew, pine and swamp cypress. They are the legacy of this wet low lying land frequently revealed as farmers plough deeper each year and throwing up huge sections of preserved tree trunks in these fertile acres, so large that in past times a special device was attached to the plough to release the horse whenever the blade struck one and some were so big that several horses were needed to pull them from the ground.

Many can still be seen in fen areas where they have been hauled clear of the field and abandoned on the grass verge at the roadside and during the 19th century, these finds were so numerous that farmers cut them up and used the wood to build fences and even today, many people collect sections to decorate their rockeries and as garden ornaments.

The ancient forests that could be found in these parts were home to many species of wild animals whose remains have also been found such as bones, horns and antlers and particularly the teeth of mammoths, one so large being recovered from the gravel pits around Deeping St James, near Bourne, that it was used for many years by a family as a door stop.

Thought for the week: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. - old English proverb but generally attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), widely considered to be the greatest poet of the middle ages and the father of English literature.