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Friday, 22 May 2015

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Tynedale: Rural communities adapt to changing face of post offices

AS Falstone postmaster Alan Ormesher calls it a day, Tynedale is in real danger of losing yet another post office.

Despite being entitled to retire a few years ago, the 68-year-old has carried on to retain the vital service in the village, which runs 10 hours a week.

However, with nobody coming forward to fill the vacancy created by Mr Ormesher’s retirement, another community is facing the prospect of losing its post office provision.

Back in 2008, the organisation controversially closed hundreds of stores nationwide, with the services in West Wylam, Ovingham, Sinderhope, Horsley, Otterburn and Whitfield losing out in the district.

In other areas, including Humshaugh, Langley, Ninebanks, Newton, Slaley, Fourstones, Colwell and Bardon Mill, services were replaced by a mobile van which tours the district at various times during the week.

But with post offices playing a key role in rural areas, postmasters and postmistresses have been coming up with innovative ways of diversifying to keep the service viable.

A prime example of the value of post offices is in Wylam, where the post office was under threat of closure in 2012 when long term occupants Fred and Rosa Voase decided to shut up shop.

The possibility of its closure started alarm bells ringing and village-based charity The Reece Foundation stepped in with a £500,000 grant to allow Wylam Parish Council to take over as landlords.

They found a new tenant in the form of Steve Loveday – and the venture has now doubled in size.

Having taken over the post office and the cards and stationery shop, Mr Loveday acquired planning permission to expand the business into another room. It now doubles up as a hardware store, and sells fresh fish and meat as well as artisan bread.

The thriving business has become a ‘one stop shop’ for local residents.

Mr Loveday said: “When I took over, the post office and shop was running as a three day operation, but now it is full-time and we don’t have lunch breaks!

“I have since gone more into the retail side of things and have kept the post office running, and in order to do that I have taken on one full-time member of staff.

“The post office and the other sides to the business work in tandem, and we have something that no other business in the village has.

“The post office does bring people into the shop, and from places like Ovington, Ovingham and Clara Vale, so it helps having both sides to the business.”

Mr Loveday added: “We joke that we want to supply everything so that people don’t even need to leave Wylam!”

Another prime example of how diversification can help a business develop is in Allendale where internet facilities have been launched alongside the exiting post office and shop.

Working with help from Northumberland Community Development Network and funded by a grant from the Post Office Community Enterprise Fund, the internet hub aims to more encourage people living in rural areas to access the world wide web.

The combination of all sides of the business results in customers galore – and more projects are still around the corner.

Allendale sub-postmistress Jo Dixon said: “If you look at the big picture, the post office is going through a massive restructuring.

“And if you want to keep the shop going with the post office franchise, you have to reinvent what you were doing.

“We keep thinking about what we can do because changes mean you are now only paid by the post office on the viability of the service, so we need to try ways to increase the numbers into the building to ensure the continued success of the post office.

“The post office is important for the village because we have a huge catchment area and people already have to travel to get to us, and it would mean having to go an extra 10 miles to Hexham to access it.

“We would consider it a real loss to the community if we lost the post office service, so we need to come up with ways to make it sustainable.”

When the mobile post van was first rolled out around the district, there were concerns from many quarters. And the reputation of the provision has not been helped by the numerous breakdowns experienced by the van.

However, communities appear to have adjusted to the reduced service, and Slaley resident Anne Lishman says there are no complaints from residents now.

She said: “Occasionally it doesn’t get here with it breaking down, but other than that I find the service is okay.

“It was better when the post office was in the shop as I could get cash and stamps any time that I wanted.

“But I personally think the van is a good service with a good driver who is always chirpy, and it is always useful if I need to get some cash out as there is no other option living in Slaley.

“It was hard to get used to at first, and we were all pretty negative about it and we all moaned and groaned.

“You just get used to it and adapt, and I don’t think about it being an outreach service any more.”