There was a bit of a reminiscence of the Military Repatriation ceremonies down Royal Wootton Bassett High Street on two occasions this week. (Can it really be ten years since the town was honoured with its ‘Royal’ soubriquet to mark its respects to our fallen servicemen and women?).
On Tuesday it was the sad funeral of dear Mr Enam Chowdhury. Enam was the proprietor of the first-class Ganges Restaurant in Bassett High Street. He played a central role in the Bassett Community - especially with regard to the Rotary Club and other charities. For example, he very often gave use of his restaurant to various local groups for fundraising activities; and more recently he had been highly active during previous lockdowns delivering meals to those who were vulnerable or shut in. Is it not ironic and tragic that he himself was then struck down by Covid, and after some weeks in a coma, sadly succumbed to this horrible disease.
His hearse stopped behind the old Town Hall on stilts, and across the road from his beloved restaurant; and the people of Royal Wootton Bassett - led by their Mayor and Deputy Mayor and by the Lord Lieutenant, Sarah Troughton, and me - paid our respects to this much loved local hero.
Then on Friday we will similarly be paying our last respects to that other local hero, Chris Wannell. I will tell you about it next week. Both Enam and Chris were pillars of the community, and without breaching any protocols or confidences I can now let you know that I was hopeful that both would soon have been recipients of some national honour to mark their huge commitment to local people. It is a shame that it could not have been before they were so sadly taken from us, but it may be of some little comfort for their families and friends to know that the Nation was slowly moving towards some suitable honour for them. We will remember them, and we will honour them both in our memories.
Who cannot welcome the glimpse of the end of this nightmare which the Prime Minister’s Road Map offers us. I was given my ‘jab’ by Dr Sanjeev Popli at the outstanding Yatton Keynell GP’s surgery last week joining so many thousands of my constituents. Its looks as if all age groups will be done before the summer; and that as a result of that and of the sharp reductions in infection, hospitalisations and deaths, we really can start to look forward to a gradual lifting of the unwelcome restrictions on our lives. It cannot come too soon, although we must not rush it. Schools are back next week, and then step by step we can start to move towards some kind of ‘normality’ on 21 June. (Perhaps sooner if vaccinations and pandemic figures keep moving in the right direction.)
So as we mark the passing of two dear friends and pillars of the community in Royal Wootton Bassett, we must also do what they would have wanted us to do - to focus our minds not on the past but on the future. Both Chris and Enam were optimistic, cheerful people working for the future of their community. And so must we all.
We are all longing for ‘life to get back to normal…’ We’ve had enough of lockdown, shops closed, events cancelled, isolation, boredom. We think back to how it was before Covid and can’t wait to recreate our old lives. It’s perfectly natural - we have all been though a tough time; many of us are still in it. We long for the ‘good old ways of the good old days.’ I have been using up part of my Covid inertia watching ‘Foyle’s War’. There’s just something about it - the old cars, thick suits and overcoats, fedora hats; funny old buildings; everyone calling people ‘Sir’. And Honeysuckle Weeks, Foyle’s driver and aide must be a highpoint. At this fiftieth anniversary of decimalisation, who over 60 can avoid a bit of nostalgia about ten bob notes, half a crown and a tanner? Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. Wasn’t life great back then?
Well… not really. What about the rat-infested bomb sites; life expectancy about 65, so many of our friends and relations buried in foreign parts; what about the threat of nuclear war; what about the disease and poverty that was rife? Do we really long for those things, or is it just the smoke-filled station in Brief Encounters?
The imminence of recovery thanks to great British expertise of lockdown and vaccination should urge us all to put nostalgia behind us and start to plan for the future. We can now dare to hope that in a month or two, sometime after the renewal of Easter perhaps, we really can expect to emerge from the gloom into the weather getting better, the lambs frolicking in the fields. So now must be the time to give some careful thought to what we want our lives - and Britain as a whole - to look like when it’s all over. Do we really want to go back to where we were 12 months ago just now? Or may this not be a moment to welcome so much that has happened in Britain over that time?
Zoom, Teams and video messaging were something out of science fiction; yet now they are enabling families (and businesses) around the world to reconnect in a way they could not have imagined. Meetings in village halls used to attract two or three people, yet now they are becoming vibrant (although beware Handforth Parish Council and Jackie Weaver, bless’er.) I miss getting letters, and still religiously use the Royal Mail for my constituency correspondence and to write to every eighteen-year-old. But can I really justify the 66 pence postage? (Thirteen shillings to send a letter- it used to be a penny!) And anyhow, is a letter through the post really the best way to speak to the younger generation? Perhaps not. Social media has such a lot to recommend it. I am sad about our high streets and do what I can to help preserve them; but online retail and Amazon have become an everyday part of our lives - do we really want to reverse that? Working from Home used to be a luxury for a privileged few. Now it is increasingly universal with side benefits of more leisure time, less commuting and stress and pollution; more time for outdoors and sports and above all for families. Do we really want to go back to ‘Working Nine to Five’ and the daily commute?
We are all longing to ’get back to how it was’. Of course we are. Human beings are instinctively conservative. We like things like they have always been. It’s a healthy instinct. But embracing the best that technology in particular can offer must be central to our route out of Covid and post-Brexit. We have so much to offer the World- as individuals and as a nation – and if we approach the brave new world in the right way, we really can make sure that these changes and others are truly for the best.
Nostalgia mustn’t become what it used to be…
Captain Sir Tom Moore’s was indeed a ‘life well lived.’ It is sad to see him go - of course it is. But then again, his achievements of the last twelve months are in a way a good end to a long and happy life. It was his grit, and his enthusiasm and his dry humour that appealed to us all; and I suspect that he died a very happy man surrounded by his family.
Captain Sir Tom must also have been pleased by the news of the very successful start to the delivery of the vaccine in the UK. All residents of care homes, and most care home workers, 80% of the vulnerable over-eighties, some 10 million people so far, and every prospect of a significant proportion of the population by the Summer. It really is a phenomenal achievement- of commercial good sense by buying decent quantities well in advance, albeit taking a risk that they might not work; of logistical planning; and of mustering a volunteer army. I am especially proud of the St John Ambulance, of which I am glad to be a Commander, who are training up and deploying 30,000 volunteers in the effort. Top marks to my friend Sir David Hempleman-Adams, explorer and former High Sheriff of Wiltshire who has undergone the rigorous St John training, and is jabbing arms in Bristol as you read this. I wonder if his patients know who he is?
By comparison, EU countries are furious that their own slow-moving and bureaucratic approach of purchasing the vaccines collectively has meant a much slower roll-out across the Continent. The Germans in particular are furious; and Ursula Von der Leyden’s absurd attempt to block the Irish Border in retaliation, followed by a swift reversal of the idea, just makes the EU look silly. Having said which, even sillier is the spokesman who justified this about-turn by commenting that “only the Pope is infallible”- perhaps not a particularly happy analogy to use with regard to Protestant Northern Ireland.
We’ve been a month in lockdown now, and I hope that you are getting through it. Parliament is barely operating, with MPs being encouraged to work from home. I have been doing what I can remotely and have to admit to beginning to feel a bit ‘Zoomed-out.’ Zoom could be self-defeating if everyone seeks to justify themselves by yet another zoom briefing.
I walked four miles last weekend (not bad on two tin hips) and was especially glad to see so many families out for walks, skateboarding, ponies, all of course carefully maintaining social distancing from others exercising round Great Chalfield. It’s tough for so many people - of course it is. But the figures really do seem to be indicating that the Lockdown is working (leaving aside the worrying new variant spotted in Bristol and Liverpool), and that vaccine and lockdown together with better weather from March onwards really should signal the end of it. We all hope so; and if we rigorously stick by the rules, no matter how boring that may seem, then we are all making our own little contribution to that happy day.
The late and great Captain Sir Tom would be proud of us and doubtless exhort us all to yet greater efforts.
The shock and sadness and bereavement when someone dies can sometimes risk blotting out all that was so good about their lives. So it is with my dear friend, Chris Wannell of Royal Wootton Bassett who died on Monday.
The words ‘Wannell’, ‘Wootton Bassett’ and ‘Fire Brigade’ are so intertwined as to be inseparable (despite the fact that Chris was from Chippenham by birth.)
There is almost no aspect of the town of Royal Wootton Bassett with which he - and his dear family, Audrey, Heather and Martin - were not involved in one way or another. He was a Town Councillor for 40 years, Mayor not once but twice (as was Audrey), he was a District Councillor, the inspiration behind the sad Repatriations of fallen service people through the town, Chairman of the local Scouts, a founder member of the Carnival Committee, involved with the Rotary Club, St Bartholomew’s Church, the Christmas Lights, Wootton Bassett Academy, the local Conservatives, of which he was a staunch and stalwart member, and in so many other ways. There was not an inch of Bassett which he did not love with a passion. “Cut me open,” he used to say, “and you’ll find ‘Bassett’ engraved on my heart.”
Chris was a lifelong fireman, rising to become Officer in Charge of the Bassett Fire Station. He saved countless lives and property and went on to make a huge contribution to the Fire Fighters Charity with his beloved historic fire engine, ‘Martha’ – who had given service in the Blitz. Martha was a well-known figure throughout the area, raising money, bearing coffins of deceased firemen- of which Chris’s own coffin will be the latest as it is borne down the High Street -attending steam fairs like that in Castle Combe where I joined once for a memorable ride. Chris and I drove Martha down into Castle Combe village accidentally to a stage where we could not do a three-point turn. “Drive her round by the Manor House”, he said, and we got some great photos without being done for trespass. Chris well deserved the Fire Service Charity’s ‘Lifetime Service Award’ which he won in 2018, followed by a Garden Party in No 10 Downing Street.
Chris was no stranger to Parliament. I remember he and his great friend George Scarrott of the Bassett travelling showman’s family coming up to give evidence to the Commons about how to keep travelling fairs on the road. They shared a bedroom in a local hotel - and each complained to me separately about how much the other snored. Now Chris and George will be enjoying a pint of 6X in the Five Bells in the sky reminiscing about old times.
Chris was an absolute pillar of the community of Royal Wootton Basset in every way, and he will be greatly missed by his lovely family, but also by his so many friends, among whom I am proud to be counted, throughout Royal Wootton Bassett and the wider community.
As we bid Chris a fond farewell, let us remember a Good Life Well Lived.
Most of us live where we live in North Wiltshire because we like it like it is. Or at least I presume that if we did not - if, for example, we craved the hustle and bustle of the city - then we would go and live in Bristol or Swindon. The reality is actually the opposite - more and more people want to live like we do and would give anything to come and live in North Wiltshire. The moral question at the heart of all planning is: “Do we have some kind of obligation to allow them to do so?”
Wiltshire Council are starting the long and tortuous process of trying to decide what the County will look like through until 2036. It’s what is known as the Local Plan, and it lays out the broad parameters of planning into the future. For reasons known only to themselves, the County are proposing to provide some 5000 more homes by 2036 than the Government is asking for. That will mean a real change in the way a large part of our area will look. It will mean houses, roads, infrastructure, employment land. Do we really want it?
Wiltshire has concluded that Chippenham, Trowbridge and Salisbury should take most of the extra housing needed (Swindon is done separately), so I guess that we should be glad that Malmesbury, Royal Wootton Bassett, Purton, Calne and Box will be relatively spared unreasonable over-development as a result. The first step towards achieving their housing targets looks like a new by-pass to the East of Chippenham, swathing through unspoiled countryside. Do we need a new bypass? Not really - there’s a perfectly good one to the West of the town. Nor must we be bribed by the £75 million the good old Government is shelling out for this road. It’s a bribe, because with it comes 7500 houses. That’s a new town the size of Calne, double the size of Malmesbury. It will mean 20,000 or so extra citizens of Chippenham; it will mean 10 or 15,000 more cars trying to weave their way to the supermarkets to the west of the town as well as to the station and motorway.
Now we do need some low-cost housing for local people. And no doubt some will be rather reluctantly provided by the profiteering developers. But most of the houses will be lovely three and four bed houses designed to attract well paid commuters. Our population and employment is currently more or less in balance, so why do we need all these extra houses? They are houses for people who do not presently live here. So why, you may well ask, are we planning to wreck a great patch of countryside in order to block up our roads with thousands of cars, overstretch our schools and surgeries and infrastructure, in order to provide nice houses for people from elsewhere? There’s no reason that I can think of.
The new road will sweep down from the Wavin roundabout (its already more or less completed from the Morrisons roundabout), round Abbeyfield School and the football ground, then across the meadows to the Lackham roundabout. Any land inside that curve will then be fair game for the developers - including large amounts of unspoiled farming and recreation ground.
Add to that a wholly unnecessary and hideous solar farm down beyond where the road will cross the A-4, and you land up with significant urbanisation half the way to Calne. If we allow either we will risk ruining the very fine environment which all of us who live here love so much.
So now is the time for action. Take up cudgels on behalf of our countryside, our quiet market towns and villages and stop the onward march of philistine developers. Letters, petitions, protests, judicial reviews. Let’s go for it. Let’s keep North Wiltshire how we like it - green and pleasant.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.