Jill Harding finds that East Knoyle could be a role model for all rural villages

COMMUNITY spirit is often a force to be reckoned with but few places have demonstrated people power like the village of East Knoyle.

In the heart of the small village, near the playground and the war memorial, stands a stone-built post office and village shop selling groceries, fresh fruit and vegetables, and other essential supplies.

To a passer-by this bustling retailer may appear to be nothing more than a local business bucking the trend at a time of supermarket domination and post office closures - but there is much more to it than that.

The East Knoyle community shop has been dreamt, planned, fitted, stocked and part funded by local people and is entirely run by volunteers who are all determined to retain services in their village.

Last Saturday, Chalke Valley-based author Terry Pratchett officially opened the shop and post office at a cheerful ceremony followed by a village party.

Two commemorative stamps reflecting East Knoyle's link with St Paul's Cathedral - the village was the birthplace of Sir Christopher Wren - and the similarities between this project and that in Pratchett's best selling novel Going Postal, were also unveiled.

The event was the culmination of more than two years of hard work, which started in February 2004 when the former village postmaster closed his business and absorbed the shop into residential accommodation.

The post office closure was just one of 3,500 in Britain since 1997 but the East Knoyle community was determined to fight back.

Parish councillors established an action group to survey local residents and found overwhelming support for restoring a community shop and post office to save a ten mile round trip to the closest town of Shaftesbury or a twenty mile journey into Salisbury from a village served by only three busses a week.

But this was not just a box ticking exercise or wishful thinking that was filed away and forgotten.

The council discovered that many of East Knoyle's 850 inhabitants were prepared to take action and form a board of management, using their skills and even their own finances to build a new shop from scratch.

It wasn't all plain sailing.

"Planning guidelines said the shop should be built in local stone but there isn't a quarry for East Knoyle stone anymore so it was pretty difficult," said Sabrina Sully, from the community shop association.

"In the end we had to cut the blocks that were formerly on the bus shelter and use them on the front of the shop to make it look like it had been there for years.

"The other seemingly insurmountable problem was raising the money which was £167,000.

"Although we got a number of grants, including one from Defra, Cranborne and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Post Office, there were many things we simply couldn't get funding for and it was a choice between people putting in their own money or the whole thing falling through so we came up with a £2 share scheme and fundraising events in the village, including a raffle.

"We also had to meet a deadline for the post office to be able to re-open - there were times when it looked impossible."

Finally the plans came together and, in January, local builders Burfitt and Garrett started work on turning the dream into reality.

Offers of help soon followed with a master carpenter donating his time to build the counter and the village blacksmith producing the dog hooks outside the shop.

"It was amazing to see how the community got involved - people who'd never met were working together," said Mrs Sully.

"They remembered what happened when we lost our village school and they were determined that East Knoyle would not become a dormitory and not lose all of its local services," said Mrs Sully.

Now the community is reaping the rewards.

In its first four weeks of opening, the shop had a turnover of £12,500 and queues are a common sight.

All the profits will be ploughed back into the village and there are already plans to buy more benches, spend money on maintaining common land and support local groups and societies.

The shop stocks basic necessities alongside fresh produce from local suppliers and organic food.

And, because it is run by a team of 30 volunteers, it is able to compete with supermarket prices.

It also saves villagers an estimated 30,000 miles a month in car journeys because they are able to shop and use a post office locally and the store's fax, cashback and broadband facilities will prove invaluable to young and old who don't have their own transport.

Janeen Evans has been appointed as the village postmistress and she will run the East Knoyle sorting office which is part of the new post office.

The shop is open from 8am - 6pm and has already become a focus for the community, both for shoppers and the volunteers who run it.

"People love its convenience and having a quick chat while shopping," said shop manager Keith Shipman.

"With all the profits going back into our community this is definitely a model for other rural villages to keep the community alive."