Post Offices closures are hitting rural areas hard, but for some villagers the local church provides the answer to their postal service prayers. Tessa Gates reports

The medieval church of St Mary and St Rhadegund overlooks the shop and post office that provided essential services to the villagers of Whitwell, Isle of Wight, until two years ago.

It closed with just two weeks notice, another facility lost to this village which has seen two shops, a Methodist church, a forge, playgroup, youth hostel and a nursing home all disappear over the years, despite this being a well-populated and lovely area in which to live.

The vicar – Rev Sandra Lloyd – was determined that Whitwell had lost too many facilities to allow another one to go and put forward the idea of providing a Post Office in the church.

“Initially Parochial Church Council (PCC) members were unsure about it and that is understandable, but we had tried everywhere else. Neither the pub nor the garage could do it for various reasons – and generally the feeling was that if we didn’t give it a try in the church, the village would lose its Post Office for ever,” she explains. “Now we have what we like to call Whitwell Post Office by the Font.”

Planning

Nationally, about a dozen churches now have Post Offices to replace local closures, but it can take months of planning to put one in place. Getting it off the ground at Whitwell was a “tortuous process” but eventually, in April 2007, postmistress Mavis Barclay placed her weighing scales on the font, plugged in her computer system and banking link and the Post Office opened for business in a tiny area beneath the bell tower.

Now each Monday and Friday morning – amid bell ropes and candles, beneath a stained glass window – Mavis deals with a constant queue of people collecting pensions, paying bills, posting parcels and accessing free banking – a popular service as there is no bank locally.

“When the vicar suggested the idea to the Post Office they agreed to an outreach service here,” says Mavis, who is postmistress in the village of Niton during the rest of the week. “I think it is fantastic to see what has been achieved here.”

Convenient service

Local people agree. Far more than a convenient service has been created and the Post Office by the Font is proving a focal point for the whole community. There’s coffee and cake for anyone with time to linger and a warm welcome for everyone, churchgoers or otherwise. On Fridays there are locally made handicrafts, jams, gifts, plants, and fantastic fresh bread and other bakery goods for sale.

When Farmlife called, the friendly, vibrant atmosphere in the church was striking. The Post Office was busy but no one seemed to be in a rush to leave the church. A nine-week-old pup was attracting attention in the arms of its owner, the resident cat was asleep in the choir stalls, people were chatting, reading the news (national and local papers were on sale) and discussing the latest bombshell to hit the island – the proposed closure of 23 primary schools. Young and old established residents and newcomers alike were making the most of their visit.

In attendance, as always, was the vicar. “I am not here to push the faith but I am here to show God cares for them all. It is a joyous thing to see people who perhaps haven’t met for ages, coming across each other again here.

Communication

“God has always been in the communication business and what we have is a good place to be communicating here and further afield with the Post Office.”

As the scheme nears its first anniversary, Rev Lloyd hopes it will continue. The Post Office agreed to run it for a year but there is no contract, as yet, for the future.

Whitwell has proved that the service is needed and that it has a place in the church. “It is not abusing the facilities, we have gone back to our medieval roots when the church was at the hub of the community,” she says. “It feels so right.”

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Information

  • Hundreds of Post Offices have closed nationally and a further 2500 are to be cut by 2009 to save costs. The Network Change programme provides in some instances for outreach or hosted post offices to be set up in communities – for details see www.postoffice.co.uk
  • The Arthur Rank Centre, which serves national churches and the rural community can provide essential information for communities wishing to set up a hosted Post Office service. Guidelines and Best Practice for the Provision of a Hosted Post Office Service in Churches and Chapels is available by calling 024 7685 3060 or at www.arthurrankcentre.org.uk “The guidelines have been drawn up by the Church of England, Methodist Church, United Reformed Church and Post Office Ltd, but they can apply to any other place of worship,” said a spokesman.