Two months in the life of Local Trust’s journalist-at-large
Harriet Marsden, Local Trust’s new journalist-at-large, has spent two months travelling to Big Local areas and talking to communities about what they have been doing. Could Harriet be heading to your Big Local area next?
When people ask me how my job is going, I don’t know where to begin.
Do I start with knitted bollard covers in East Coseley? Proud men of the Black Country learning to cook from Pink Ladies? World-class street art from Cheltenham to Walthamstow? How to describe the shapeshifting beauty of disappearing coastal towns in East Yorkshire? Do I talk about the people I’ve met – Swampies on the Isle of Sheppey? A couple running a food club in Gloucester or some awe-inspiring teenagers in the West Midlands, whom I suspect I might one day vote for?
My first few months as the Local Trust’s journalist-at-large have been stimulating, to say the least.
It’s like journalism on Red Bull: I’ve been to five different regions, spoken to people all over the country and taken more than a thousand photos. This city girl is also finally getting to grips with English geography. More or less. I’m learning a new language – of Locally Trusted Organisations (LTOs) and paid workers, of reps and partnerships and Workplace and clusters.
Thank God for the people who so kindly invite me to visit their areas, who seem to know everybody in them. They introduce me to local volunteers, ferry me around in their cars, answer my endless questions and often feed me to boot. They are essential guides, and I’m blown away by their hospitality as well as their knowledge. Hearing their thoughts on the challenges each community faces, and the Big Local programme, has been invaluable.
In each area I’ve visited, there’s been a palpable sense of energy.
After more than a year of lockdowns, of frustrating stop-and-start, everybody wants to get back up and running. It’s been heart-warming to witness some of these moments of coming-together, like the team on the Mossley estate picking up the new key to their hard-won community centre, or the campaigners of Withernsea meeting in a beachside café for the first time. It’s an instant bond with everybody I meet, too: no two pandemic experiences are the same, but we’re all a little buzzed and weird.
There has also been a (well-deserved) sense of pride, in what volunteers have managed to achieve during a pandemic.
In how communities have pulled together to support their most vulnerable, and how partnerships have stepped in where government has failed. A renewed sense of purpose, with a new self-assurance. I can’t stress enough how much it has helped me, personally, out of my post-lockdown funk.
Before I began the role, I imagined that I could plot out my itinerary in each region of England. I envisaged structure, logic, geographical coherence. I’m laughing at myself now. Reps and partnerships know what’s happening when, and it’s much more fruitful to work around their schedules or to wait for their invites. I’m (slowly) learning to go with the flow.
I’m also starting to grasp – in a way that I simply couldn’t in London – the sheer scale of closures: the reductions to services; the haemorrhage of a thousand tiny cuts. Back home, if you talk about closing one community hub in one area, it doesn’t sound so devastating. But what if you go there and see that, despite the green fields and the attractive red-brick houses, there’s nothing else there? No pub, no park, no church, no place to gather but an ill-served bus stop. But I’m learning that what does endure, what is there, is a strong sense of local identity. For all that every area is unique in its history, its idiosyncrasies, that’s one thing they’ve all had in common: pride.
Of course, there have been other challenges – turns out you can’t get cash out easily on the Isle of Sheppey. I lost a lapel mic clip to an over-friendly bulldog. And on a full day of reporting, of chats over coffees and teas and bottles of water, I sometimes have to remind people that even journalists need to pee. With that caveat in mind, please do get in touch about your Big Local area. I can’t wait for my next visit.
About the author
Harriet is travelling around the country meeting with communities in Big Local areas and writing about their stories.
If your Big Local has a story to share, a project you’re keen for Harriet to come and see, or if you just want to say hi and have a chat, get in touch via email or Twitter.