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A record opening day for Marlborough’s iconic Merchant’s House

A record 634 visitors poured in Marlborough’s historic The Merchant’s House when it opened its doors, free of charge, for an open day.

Most visitors were from the Marlborough area, but many came from other parts of Wiltshire and the South West to see the property, rebuilt by silk merchant Thomas Bayly after the Greater Fire of Marlborough, in 1653, and now being restored by a charitable trust.

And there were a dozen or more too from across the Channel together with some 87 children who were able to tour the iconic house.

The Merchant's House was officially opened by Councillor Alexander Kirk-Wilson, Marlborough’s new mayor.

Pictured with him below is the mayor flanked by the Town Beadle and the Officers of Dignity, carrying the 17th century maces, Sir John Sykes, chairman of the Merchant’s House trustees, and Susan Pearson, modelling a beautiful 17th century costume researched and hand-made by Angela Munns and Margaret Matthews, on show for the first time.

 “The Trust would like to thank the many volunteers and crafts-people who helped to make the open day a success,” a spokesman told Marlborough News Online.

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Bid to replace closed tourist information centre is temporarily halted

Plans to replace Marlborough’s library-based tourist information centre, closed last week following the withdrawal of Wiltshire Council funding, have also been stalled.

An emergency meeting was held last week by a working party of four town councillors to look at tourist information in Marlborough and to consider new possibilities as well.

And at the request of activist Val Compton, the councillors also reviewed potential outside funding for a new tourist centre, named available sites including the town hall itself and St Peter’s Church.

That move followed the unqualified support given to town councillors Richard Pitts and Guy Loosmore (see pic) at a meeting of the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce’s executive, which backed the urgent need for a local tourism plan to be developed.

The aim now is to set up a general Marlborough Information and Tourist Centre, which would also provide residents with details of local events and organisations, an objective seen as all part of a general desire to make information more easily accessible to a wider range of residents.

But the question of generating much-needed income to help bolster the funding of any tourist centre has brought the search for outside aid to a temporary halt -- because of a potential clash of interests between more than one project.

Val Compton, along with  Rob Chiodi and Christina Ramsden, have been working on new ideas for the past fortnight. “We have proposals and statistics ready to be handed on to whoever will take the project forward,” Mrs Compton told Marlborough News Online.

Further input from local businesses is expected at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, to be held in the revamped town hall on June 16. “I would like to encourage as many businesses as possible to attend,” Councillor Pitts told Marlborough News Online.

“Meanwhile, if anyone is interested in helping and has constructive ideas they are very welcome to contact me either in writing via the council offices or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..”

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Wiltshire to offer real rewards in a bid to attract community volunteers

Real rewards are to be given to community volunteers in Wiltshire as part of a ground-breaking scheme the county has been asked to pilot by the government.

The county is one of only three areas in England that will trial the scheme, the aim of which is to attract more volunteers by awarding them with “time credits” -- one credit for every one hour they give to the community.

That credit can then be used by them, or a friend or relative, to “spend” with partner organisation, giving volunteers a chance to visit a bowling alley, a concert or perhaps going to the cinema.

Alternatively, volunteers can donate their credits for the wider community to gain such as covering the cost of child-minding or paying for a training course.

The government has invested £400,000 in the time credit pilots which Wiltshire will benefit from, the council itself setting aside £100,000 towards the programme as part of the council's investment for the future budget expenditure.

The two-year trial is part of the government’s White Paper called Giving, whose aim is to make it easier and more attractive for people to donate to charity and become volunteers.

John Thomson, Wiltshire’s deputy leader, says: “I am delighted that Wiltshire has been chosen to pilot this exciting and innovative scheme in England.  Volunteers are the bedrock of our community and it is essential we find ways of not only keeping the volunteers we have but also attracting new volunteers.”

 “Time credits not only thank people for the work they do, but encourages new volunteers to help many other people in the community.”

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Has Wiltshire Council forgotten about localism and the ‘Big Society’?

Wiltshire Council’s decision to cut the number of management organisations for the county’s thirty Sure Start centres from fourteen to four outside providers is having a devastating effect on voluntary groups in the old Kennet District Council area.

Three of the four management organisations for the new contracts are national bodies based outside the county.

Already Voluntary Action Kennet (VAK) which set-up and ran the Pewsey Sure Start centre, has closed for business. And the Rural Needs Initiative (RNI) charity which set-up and ran the Marlborough’s Corner House centre and Tidworth’s Windmill Hill centre, will close by the end of the year.

Working with Pewsey parish council, VAK did all the hard work setting up the centre and successfully completing purpose-built premises which were only opened in January this year.  In 2010-2011 VAK received £117,450 of government funds from Wiltshire Council for Pewsey Sure Start centre.

VAK’s information shop in Pewsey will be closed within the next few months and services moved to the new library.   Last year Wiltshire Council paid VAK £8,870 towards the information shop.

The closure announcement on VAK’s website ends: “We are very sad we will not be around to continue to support our rural communities.”

[See also our companion story: “Fears for the future of Marlborough’s Sure Start centre are averted.”]

Coinciding with the changes in Sure Start management, the Council also made a thirteen per cent reduction in funding for all voluntary organisations providing specialist help for under-fives in the county. And a fifty per cent cut in funding for Home Start Kennet which supports families with young children across the Marlborough and Tidworth areas, including army families.

Apart from achieving economies of scale, the Council’s policy of ‘clustering’ centres for the tender process was aimed at ensuring ‘greater cohesion with partner agencies.’

Yet Kate Easter, chair of Marlborough centre’s advisory board, says RNI had done “a great job in getting services on side and working together.”

She’s optimistic about the new regime:  “Change is a good thing if it’s managed well.” And she’s very positive about the impact 4Children’s larger network and wider experience will bring to east Wiltshire’s children centres.

RNI was started in 1997 by Kennet District Council and a range of partners to combat the isolation of rural families with very young children.  In 2007 RNI was asked by Wiltshire Council to set-up and run the Marlborough and Tidworth children’s centres. 

In 2010-2011 RNI received £317, 595 of government funds from Wiltshire Council to manage the two centres.

RNI and VAK submitted a joint tender in 2010 to run Marlborough and Pewsey centres which had already been formed into a ‘cluster’ by the Council. And RNI pursued a lone bid for the Tidworth centre.  Neither bid was successful.

In a statement to Marlborough News Online, RNI’s trustees said: “After reviewing options in this current economic climate, (we) have taken the difficult decision to move towards the closure of the charity later this year.”

The trustees “feel that the original aims of the RNI are now further embedded in national and local policy.” And they are fully supportive of the new regime – and wish 4Children well particularly “as they will be building on the strong foundations laid by RNI.”

Indeed it can be said that Marlborough News Online has found nothing but support for the new management – so strong is the belief that Sure Start is doing a really valuable job in the Marlborough community.

However, it seems that the call by the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, for councils to provide more support to local voluntary groups, came too late for the Rural Needs Initiative and Voluntary Action Kennet. 

Pickles said that while local authorities are looking to manage on reduced budgets that they should not ‘disproportionately’ cut funding to charities and voluntary groups.

His call came one week after the start of the new financial year – when the budgets and contracts for Wiltshire’s Sure Start in 2011-2012 had been fixed.

[Financial figures revealed through Freedom of Information requests.]

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Aldbourne man abandons Everest bid

An Aldbourne man who aimed to be the first over-60 to scale the North Ridge of Mount Everest and only the second to reach the summit has abandoned his bid, because he was unsure he had the energy to tackle the final 20-hour climb.

On the team's blog yesterday (Wednesday, May 25) Simon Knighton wrote: “I was concerned that the natural deterioration in physical strength and general fatigue that occurs at altitude would not allow me to safely complete the 20 hour+ Summit Day on the 26th May.

“I had expected that the switch to oxygen above 7,500m would provide a boost but after several hours climbing with O2 assistance, I came to the conclusion that unless I used unrealistic amounts, which would have opened up other risks, the safest course was to withdraw.

“It has to be remembered that above 8,000m, in the 'death zone' there is no real assistance possible and to be anything less than 100 percent in every way places oneself and one’s team at considerable risk.

“Of course there will be disappointment for us individually, but this will be tempered by the knowledge of what we have achieved so far.

“I have climbed and slept above the North Col (higher than Aconcagua) three times in the last month and every one of us has had the experience of a lifetime.”

By 5am UK time this morning (Thursday, May 26) eight climbers, eight sherpas and two instructors had reached the summit of Everest.

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Claire Perry attacks “scaremongering” in Euro debt bail-out debate

A call on Conservative colleagues to stop “scaremongering” over demands that may be made on the UK to bail-out of European countries in major debt difficulties came from Marlborough MP Claire Perry in the Commons on Tuesday.

In a debate concerning Britain’s 7.5 billion commitment to a putative 60 billion fund, she pointed out that all the countries had to “go belly up” in default before any funding was due.

“It is not a gift or a grant but a contingent liability of 7.5 billion, of which approximately 1.2 billion has been put into the facility to date,” she told MPs.

“The suggestions we often hear from members of the Government benches that hard-pressed taxpayers will see further cuts to public services or will not see the schools, hospitals or road repairs that they have been promised are simply fiction. That is not the case.”

Mrs Perry, formerly a banker who worked in the office of Chancellor George Osborne, added: “I urge members on both sides of the House to stop this Eurosceptic scaremongering, to focus on the facts of the debate.

“And to ensure that we collectively never again sign our country up to the sort of bail-out mechanisms and removal of vetoes with which the previous government left us.”

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Claire Perry makes it to the top ten sexy female MPs

If you want a sexy female MP, then vote Conservative.

That appears to be the message from the results of the website, which has named the UK’s sexiest male and female MPs.

When viewed earlier it nominated nine out of the top 10 sexy women MPs as all being Conservatives, and, of course, one of them happens to be Marlborough’s own MP Claire Perry.

Elegantly tall Claire had taken seventh place on the website, the number one spot going to Labour MP Luciana Berger.

And on Twitter, Claire declares: “I know it is WRONG to look but can’t help noticing that nine of the top ten female MPs on are Conservatives.”

The website has been created by entrepreneur Francis Boulle, an entrepreneur who has appeared on the reality TV show Made in Chelsea, and has been romantically linked with the Harry Potter actress Emma Watson.

Prime minister David Cameron found himself in 93rd place out of 506 male MPs, with Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband at number 76, precisely 70 places behind his younger brother David, the former Foreign Secretary, who is in sixth spot.

Mr Boulle admits that his website is likely to cause offence, but insists: "It will help people to know who their Members of Parliament are and lift the veil on Westminster."

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We need a big debate in Marlborough on the NHS’ future demands doctor

Marlborough needs to stage a Big Debate on the future of the health and well-being services for the area as a result of the controversial NHS reforms now currently put on hold by the coalition government.

The idea has been suggested by Dr Nick Maurice, in the wake of Excalibur Project conference held at St John's School and Marlborough College last month, which posed the question, How can Marlborough become a leading international hotbed of learning by 2020?

The event was attended by more than 100 people, ranging from Marlborough school headteachers, parents and children too.

“A similar exercise on the subject of health could be undertaken in Marlborough – opening up a wide-ranging debate,” Dr Maurice, whose family founded the town’s medical practice, says in a letter to Marlborough News Online.

“We could ask the question, ‘How can Marlborough become the healthiest community in the UK with the greatest sense of well-being in 2020?’

“This might be a project that could be funded by the Friends of Savernake Hospital and the community.”

He believes a skilled organiser “could be brought together with representatives of as wide a cross-section of the population as possible” to pose the important questions about the future of the NHS, which is currently causing turmoil between the three main political parties.

And he adds: “Those questions might include, what is the current state of health and well-being of the population of Marlborough? What are the major health and social problems facing the community?”

“And what are the barriers to improving that situation?”

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Fears for the future of Marlborough’s Sure Start centre are averted

The Corner House Sure Start centre in the George Lane car park is under new management – averting fears that it might be among those centres around the nation closed by spending cuts.

The centre was set-up by a local charity – the Rural Needs Initiative, which also ran the centre in Tidworth.

Both centres were part of the ground breaking scheme to support families with children under five years old and both centres are now run by the London-based, not-for-profit organisation 4Children.

4Children is the third largest voluntary provider in the country.  They were calling for a Sure Start-type scheme ten years ago and because of their expertise and research, they were called into Downing Street to help shape the previous government’s policy.

4Children  now run sixteen of Wiltshire’s centres – as well as nineteen in Essex.

Sure Start provides a place where children under five and their parents can receive joined-up support services. These include: early education and childcare; support for parents – with advice on parenting and local childcare options; child and family health; helping parents into work.

Wiltshire has thirty of these centres and last year the Council decided to put them out to tender.  The resulting changes mean that just four providers now run all thirty schemes and the mix of Council staff, local charities, trustee groups and school governors who up to March ran sixteen centres, have lost out.

[See our companion story for the impact of these changes on local charities:” Has Wiltshire Council forgotten about localism and the ‘Big Society’?”]

The national charity Action for Children (with Methodist roots and formerly known as the National Children’s Home) also lost out in the tendering process.  They had run seven of Wiltshire’s centres.
Marlborough’s Corner House centre has a full-time outreach worker, three part-time support workers and a coordinator, as well as a team of volunteers. They have all been taken on by 4Children who are in the process of appointing a new manager.

The previous manager of the Corner House, Sue Deedigan, is now in charge of the group of five 4Children centres in east Wiltshire: two in Devizes, one in Pewsey, one in Tidworth, and Marlborough’s  Corner House.

Sue told Marlborough News Online she’s excited about the change: “With 4Children’s experience and guidance I am confident we will be able to provide better support and services for the children across the Marlborough community area than ever before.”

4Children’s deputy chief executive, Charles Ellis, told us that they’re planning to develop the services provided by its Wiltshire centres. His motto is ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, but if they find gaps in the services to families with young children, he wants to fill them.
And he promises that 4Children will carry on campaigning to make sure that “Sure Start does not get lost during the difficult financial situation”.

Why did Wiltshire make these changes – taking funding and responsibility away from local charities and passing it to larger and more distant providers? 

As well as 4Children’s 16 centres in Wiltshire, the other three managements are now Barnardo’s -  two centres (down from five last year): Spurgeons (a charity with Baptist origins based in Northamptonshire) – nine centres. The only local charity to survive the changes is the Rise Trust of Chippenham which has kept the management of its three local centres.

In a statement to Marlborough News Online, Wiltshire Council explained that they were able to limit the impact of government cuts by getting the largest possible savings from economies of scale in the new contracts.

However, Council documents from before the 2010 election make it clear that achieving ‘economies of scale’ was always one of the aims of the tendering process.  Further reduction in funding was made possible when the coalition government ruled that Sure Start budgets were no longer to be ring-fenced.
The Council’s aim now is that “Through targeting work at the families in most need, services will still be provided in all areas of the county and for children under five in most need.”

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After a four year gap, Marlborough to welcome visitors from Gambia

A group from Gunjur, Marlborough’s link village in The Gambia, is to visit the town next month.

wo young women and three men will be the guests of the Marlborough Brandt Group (MBG) for a four week visit to introduce them to the Marlborough area and our way of life.

One of the visitors teaches at the pre-school now run in Gunjur by the development organisation set up there by MBG.  The pre-school has proved so successful and popular with parents that there are now five pre-schools in this ‘village’ - with a population of about eighteen thousand people.

The group will be led by Baboucar Touray – known to everyone as Boyo – who was a member of the first group of Gunjurians to come to Marlborough in 1986.  He then returned here twice to study refrigeration engineering, which has been the basis for his successful career.

The group will spend a day at the College.  They will have three days with St John’s School – which will include going on a geography field trip to Lulworth with St John’s students.

They will be here for MBG’s Summer Garden Party in the grounds of the Master’s house at the College (Sunday, 26 June), and for the Jazz Festival.

This visit is especially good news for MBG as no exchange visitors have been granted visas to visit Marlborough for the past four years - although two Gunjur community leaders were able to come here in autumn 2009.  This gap was due to the general tightening up on visas for visitors to Britain from outside Europe.

It is still impossible to get visas for Gambians to come here for training or work experience.

Dr Nick Maurice, a founder of MBG and now its president told Marlborough News Online: “I am thrilled that we shall be welcoming friends from Marlborough’s link community of Gunjur in The Gambia again to bring the wider world to the streets, schools and homes of people in Marlborough and Wiltshire – and to repay in part the wonderful hospitality that more than eight hundred people from Marlborough have received in Gunjur.”

In Gunjur, 'Doctor Nick' is stopped by an old friend - passing on the latest gossip.

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Val Compton reveals the amazing saga of the rescue of Marlborough’s tiny cygnets

The amazing 24-hour rescue of five cygnets swept over the Town millrace in Marlborough – two of them given up for dead – was revealed tonight (Tuesday)  by wildlife enthusiast and community champion Val Compton.

She nursed overnight the two cygnets at her home in Kennet Place after refusing to have them put down, then even taking them with her in her shopping basket to an urgent meeting at Marlborough Town Hall.

After lunch today Val managed to reunite the two – she named them Little and Large because of their size -- with the swan family on the banks of River Kennet, in Waitrose car park.

And delightedly watched them swim off together.

“We just waited around in jubilation, really,” she told Marlborough News Online. “There they were all back together again in the water. That left me a very, very happy person.”

The drama began while Val was out on Monday morning when five of a total of six cygnets were swept over the town millrace and caught up in the turbulent water at the bottom. Two of her neighbours, Marcus and Kurt, jumped in and pulled them out, putting them back with their parents.

But as a crowd gathered to see what was happening, it became obvious that two of the cygnets, about two weeks old, were in an extremely poor condition.

“Someone went across to Marlborough police station and by the time I was called out on my return home by Wiltshire Wildlife Hospital, just outside Salisbury, I found these two little cygnets soaked to the skin and genuinely looking as if they were about to die,” revealed Val.

“The problem was how to get them away from the cob and be able to pick them up. The police decided I should deal with the cob and they would deal with the babies.

“I wasn’t frightened of dealing with a big swan because I have a secret weapon I came across last year when I was trying to get a cob away from something it was attacking.

“I was wearing a wrap at the time and I just opened my arms in front of the cob. It might have thought I was a huge swan and saved the day.”

This time Val was without any cloak, but she had the umbrella she carries in her handbag. She advanced on the swan holding out the umbrella and making aggressive noises. It backed off and some people in the crowd grabbed the two ailing cygnets.

“I ran home with them,” said Val. “They were look as though they were about to die. In that condition they head weave, moving their heads from side to side with no control. They are unable to turn over and at that point they usually die.”

“The Wildlife Hospital was talking me through it on the phone and they said I might as well take the cygnets to the vet and have them put out of their misery. But I said, ‘Just give me a little time, another hour or so’.”

“What I did was to make sure they were very well supported in a box, so that they couldn’t flip over their backs. I used sheepskin and fur to pad round them and eventually they began to warm up.”

“Then I covered their heads completely, to imitate being under a swan’s protecting wings, but it took several hours before they stopped head weaving and I began to think I was on a lost cause.”

Val then put a towel in the sink to give the cygnets something to grip on to, offered them lettuce and chick weed to feed on before putting back in the box, her problem being that she had an urgent meeting to attend at Marlborough Town Hall.

Undeterred, she put the cygnets in her shopping back, covered them up again and took them to the meeting with her. “They were making very friendly little noises all the way through the meeting,” she said.

“By the time I got them back home they were clearly perking up. So I put them back in the sink. They attempted to eat some food and then attempted to climb out. So I lined my bath with a towel at the bottom and when I dropped them in they began to attempt walking.”

“That’s when I began to think, ‘I’m on to a winner now’ and they certainly survived Monday night in the bath. When I got up at 5.30 this morning I was nevertheless expecting the worst, fearing that they may have died during the night.”

“But there they were making those little whistling noises that cygnets make and enjoying themselves. I ran out to the river and got them some plant foot, put some water in a shallow container in the bath so that they could eat and drink as if in their natural habitat.”

“When they had had enough they started to look a bit tired. I popped them back in the shopping basket and they went off to sleep again.”

Wiltshire Wildlife Hospital suggested that Val might now be able to reunited the cygnets with their family. They problem was: where were the swans and the cygnets now?

She walked all the way from Stonebridge Meadow to the Pewsey Road bridge trying to locate the swans and then found them, once again, on the banks of the Kennet at the edge of the Waitrose car park, where she was worried that the water was too deep if she needed to wade in.

“So I grabbed four St John’s school students, all smashing boys, as helpers,” said Val, continuing the swan saga. “One of them took pictures with my camera, someone held the umbrella, and we managed to get the parent swans separated, just by enticing them with food.”

“The female swan turned round so that she had her back to me. Her other cygnets were wandering around behind her. And with none of them looking, I popped my two cygnets back in the pack.”

“I wanted to make absolutely sure there was no aggression from the parents. I feared the cob might kill the two cygnets. But they just accepted them completely, and they all swam off together.”

“Nobody could ever say Marlborough is boring after all that.”

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