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Marie Clapham visits a champion village as it celebrates Lancashire's most prestigious community award.
(Paintings by Lancashire Life artist Gordon Wilkinson).
It took a team of dedicated workers two evenings a week for months. It meant postponing holidays until the summer was nearly over and residents constantly picking up litter and pulling up weeds as they walked around the village, but they did it. Over Kellet has won the top award in the Lancashire Best Kept Village Competition - the Champion Class.
This contest is one of the oldest community events of its type in Britain and so it seems fitting that one of Lancashire's oldest communities should win it. Over Kellet has a history stretching back to the Domesday Book and links with the ninth century Saint Cuthbert. But this wasn't what impressed the judges. They look for overall tidiness, absence of litter and the general appearance of the properties and amenities. More than 100 teams visit the villages in the competitions and narrow them down to a shortlist. The finals judge, who this year was author, journalist and broadcaster Ron Freethy, picks the winners.
Margaret Fowler, who co-ordinated the village's clean up for the competition, explained how they did it: Over Kellet isn't a pretty village in the usual sense, but the Best Kept Village Competition isn't about looks so this was a tidy up operation really. A team of between five and eight people went around the village twice a week pruning, picking up litter, making sure you could walk all the pathways without being scratched by brambles, that sort of thing. We also encouraged all residents to take part while they went on with their regular business. Villagers picked up litter as they walked the dog or pulled a few weeds on their way to the shop. Everybody made a contribution.
It helps that the villagers clearly have a lot of pride in their surroundings. Even the local pub, the Eagle's Head, has a sign in the car park that says 'Please park prettily'. It's not quite clear how patrons are supposed to do this, but the sentiment is clear. Gardens were bursting with colour during my visit in September, the scent of flowers mingled in the air with newly mown grass and the woody smell of smoke from an open fire.
As for not being pretty, nothing could be further from the truth. It may be more rugged than romantic, but Over Kellet has many features to please the eye.
The centre of the village lies around a crossroads. Each 'quarter' is filled by a green, cropped and neat. Standing like sentries at either side of the main road, an old stone cross and war memorial remind us of the village's history. From here you can see rows of attractive and centuries old cottages, houses or barns, all with a backdrop of hills shrouded in mist that speaks of rain to come. It is quiet, but not for long. The nearby quarry and M6 motorway mean that lorries and other traffic passes through the village regularly.
But this is, as Margaret points out, a working village. There is a farm right in the centre with others surrounding it, you can hear the distant bleats of the sheep and the cows are in a field just down the road. Tractors trek up and down with their loads carried in brightly coloured trailers which, although noisy, are an appealing and welcome sight after the disaster of foot and mouth disease.
A short walk out of the centre and up the hill is rewarded by a beautiful meadow filled with knee high grass of every type you can think of. It gives way to a view of the inland hills and the magnificent sweep of Morecambe Bay. Also at this end of the village are the newer houses built for today's living with double glazing and double garages. These are in contrast to Over Kellet's many stone cottages and houses with tiny stone windows and door frames and dates above the door like 1673 and 1759. It is perhaps a pity that many of these historic buildings, including the church, have been covered with grey render that hides the stone beneath. However some householders are chipping it away to reveal the original brickwork again.
This place is definitely a mix of old and new, there's a cash machine in the Post Office but it costs just 20p a week to put an advert on the noticeboard outside - now that's good old fashioned value.
Over Kellet is the kind of place that, just when you think you've seen it all, you come to another bit. Down one of the pathways (no doubt recently trimmed and neatened) you will discover a village hall, a school and a church. Apparently there has been a school here for nigh on 300 years and the church, St. Cuthbert's, dates from the 14th century. There is a fairly recent housing estate down here too, not what you might expect perhaps but of no detriment to the place and necessary to keep it thriving. After all, families coming into the village mean that businesses like the Post Office and Village Store can survive in these days of supermarkets and internet shopping. They keep the school open and the church, which is joint Church of England and Methodist, well attended.
Over Kellet is no stranger to success, it won the Best Kept Village Small Village class in 1999 as a plaque outside the Post Office proudly proclaims. Now they will have another to go at its side - winner of the Championship Class.
It is a great accolade to be chosen, 97 villages enter the competition and this is its biggest prize. Margaret said they 'couldn't believe it at first, but we're over the moon'.
The presentations for all the Best Kept Village winners took place at West Bradford Village Hall and among its prizes Over Kellet received a watercolour of the village by Lancashire Life artist Gordon Wilkinson