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Backbone of Britain: Meet the couple caring for the rural community and battling social isolation

From the outside, Pontrilas Village Store and Post Office looks like any normal village shop. But venture inside and you discover the beating heart of a community.


Emily Scaife reports...

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Meet the couple caring for the rural community and battling social isolation

Meandering along the A465 from Hereford, the sleepy village of Pontrilas sneaks up on you and, as you pull into the side road, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing inhabits it.


But it is, in fact, home to thriving Pontrilas Village Store and Post Office in south Herefordshire and, on this particular morning, local resident and regular customer, Peggy, walks through its doors.


“It’s nice coming here and being met by cheerful people,” she says.


“You feel as if you’re coming home.”


For some, a village shop is a convenience and something they take for granted.


For others, it is a lifeline and the latter definitely applies here, where a social enterprise scheme set up by Sonya and Nigel Cary helps to reduce social isolation for the community’s rural inhabitants.

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The pair established Care and Repair Enterprise (Care) in 2013, taking over Pontrilas’ shop and post office, which was set to close down.


“We have put ourselves at the heart of the community,” says Sonya, who previously worked for The Red Cross. “Everyone knows us and they can come and chat to us without going into an office.


“The community is addressing its own need. When residents come in and buy something they’re benefiting those who are vulnerable in the local area without them even realising it.


“If the post office and shop had closed down, it would have had a really negative impact on the village, because if you are elderly and living on your own, you can quickly become socially isolated, which, in turn, affects your wellbeing.


“We’re a true social enterprise – 100 per cent of our profits are put back into it all and it’s a phenomenal way to address a local need at a local level.”


Social isolation is a serious issue for rural locations, and a report carried out by the Local Government Association and Public Health England in 2017 revealed that hardship in some regions is ignored, because of the mistaken assumption that people living in the countryside are wealthy.


The reality, though, could not be further from the truth.


Many elderly people in rural areas suffer from an inability to use or access the internet, exacerbated by poor broadband in the more isolated locations. Add to this reduced public transport services and poverty, and it is not difficult to work out why how many older people find themselves in desperate situations.

“I have attended many bank appointments with elderly residents to help them set up bank accounts,” says Sonya.


“Lots of farmers don’t know how to go online to tax their tractors or vehicles, so they come here and we do it for them on our laptop.”


The catchment area of the scheme covers as many as 30 villages and 3,600 residents, many of whom live in very isolated, difficult to reach areas.


Sonya admits some residents were wary of the scheme at the start, not believing that someone could run such an enterprise without benefiting themselves in return.


And the selflessness displayed by Sonya and Nigel every day is indeed almost too good to be true in a society that seems to persistently ask ‘what’s in it for me?’


From picking up elderly residents who want to do their shopping to running a prescription delivery service, there is no favour too small.


And it is this attitude which has led to the pair winning numerous awards, most recently overall British champions in the Countryside Alliance Awards last year.


The awards are known as the ‘Rural Oscars’, given to the top rural enterprises in the country and, due to the nature of their unique care scheme, they are the only village shop of their kind in the country.


“If you go to any other shop in the country, they say ‘next, please’, ‘next, please’. There is no ‘next’ here – we know everyone by name,” says Nigel.


“First, we befriend people. A friend helps a friend and that is more acceptable to a lot of older people than ‘charity’.”


Something as simple as making someone a cup of tea can have a profound impact and every small act of kindness has the potential to transform someone’s life.

“When someone loses a loved one, women tend to be more resilient and able to feed themselves, but men typically don’t,” Sonya says.


“They take each other for granted and when they lose their wives no-one is making them their cup of tea any more. When we’ve visited them at home, that simple act of making them a drink has made many older men break down and cry.”


The site recently expanded into two adjoining warehouse units and now boasts an on-site dementiafriendly cafe.


“A local farmer’s wife has been diagnosed with dementia, so he sometimes drops her with us for our respite service,” says Sonya.


“This is the reason we opened the cafe – it provides a respite day service which allows our residents who are caring for a loved one to have a bit of a break. We charge £6 per hour and it engages them in cognitive activity and gives them a nutritionally balanced hot meal.”


There is no end to the activities Care provides for its residents.


Last year, Sonya and Nigel opened their doors on Christmas Day, providing a traditional lunch for local residents with no family of their own.


“It pulled the community together. Farmers gave us a turkey, a side of beef and potatoes, and we had a raffle to raise funds to buy the 14 people who attended a Christmas gift. Local families brought their children along because they wanted them to understand what Christmas Day is really all about.


“Everyone was overwhelmed by how wonderful it was and we will be doing it again this year.”


The next new addition to the site will be an active ageing fitness studio, but despite raising a significant amount of money to fund the cafe and securing a £30,000 grant from the Leader fund, the pair still need to raise £40,000 to get the scheme off the ground.


“The whole point of us being here is to provide community services. If you were to run it as a business it wouldn’t work and we would have shut by now,” Sonya says.


“The shop has been successful because the local community wanted to let the older generation know they were loved.


“Helping older people feel loved and valued underpins everything we do.”

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