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What the red kite tells us about town centres

For tourists visiting on a warm summer weekend it's idyllic: coastal paths alive with gorse and heather, seals basking in coves and maybe a seafood supper at a village restaurant. And many visitors decide to settle here, at the far end of Wales, as a respite from a fast and furious world.
 
As the tourists see it...
For those who do, and for those locals who stay, the story is more nuanced. Remoteness is a disadvantage as well as an attraction. If you want work, you often have to make your own. And while the quality of life may be excellent, you have to work hard to enjoy it.

 

This week I was the guest of Transition Bro Gwaun, the Transition Towns group for Fishguard and Goodwick, at an event on town centre regeneration. It was called Cymuned Unol - Community Together. 
 
Walk around the town and you can see why the community needs to come together, and how it is doing so. Goodwick and Fishguard are twin but separate towns, one clustered around the ferry port linking west Wales with Ireland, and the other, older, at the top of the next hill. Most of the shops are in Fishguard, much of the employment in Goodwick. 
 
Stand in the town square in Fishguard and you might think this is a town that is on its uppers. The three empty pubs, including the domineering Abergwaun Hotel; the cluster of empty shops, including one fittingly called Debris. There might seem little reason to stop here. 
 
First impressions... (are often incorrect)
But search a little harder and the town is full of life, from the organic fruit and veg shop and the fish and chip shop in West Street to the Gourmet Pig restaurant and coffee shop opposite. There are three bank branches; a cinema saved through community efforts; Ffwrn, a former church hall turned into a bakery, bar and music venue; and further up the high street, the Transition Cafe which serves meals from 'waste' food and whose community-owned wind turbine will eventually bring an income to reinvest in the town.
 
The shops display determination and inventiveness, from the wool shop which doubles up as a coffee shop and the fish and chip shop that sells fresh bread (or is it a bakery that sells fish and chips?) to the independent bookshop and the delightfully named Luna Cycles. That inventiveness is evident in the local town team's work, from the Aberjazz festival to plans for free wifi across the town centre, and in the number and busyness of local community groups.
 
There are plenty of challenges, not least from landlords who sit on their property hoping for a lucrative rental stream when it needs to be brought back into use to create value for the whole town; and inevitably from the naysayers who believe things will never get better. But challenging places also offer opportunities that supposedly successful ones have a habit of excluding. 
 
Nothing wasted: Transition Bro Gwaun's mural 
I finished my presentation this week with a picture of a red kite. There was a time when the red kite was such a rarity that it could only be seen in a small area of mid-Wales, having been persecuted out of existence in most of Britain. Two decades ago kites were reintroduced in England. You can now find them in the Chilterns, in Lincolnshire south of Grantham, and in Leeds. 
 
I often have to travel up and down the A1 in Lincolnshire. Between Grantham and Peterborough more often than not I'll see a red kite circling above one of Britain's busiest roads. A few weeks ago I spotted seven in the space of an hour. They thrive on roadkill, and have found that the roadsides that are value-less places to humans provide them with the sustenance they need.
 
There's a parallel in our town centres. It's the spaces that are seen to be lacking in value that may provide opportunities, whether it's the brief excitement of a pop-up shop or festival or the longer-term interventions of initiatives such as Incredible Edible. In How to Save Our Town Centres I talk about the 'inspiration of the interim', the brief encounters that hold out possibilities of long term change. 
 
The community-led activity that is burgeoning in Fishguard and Goodwick holds out such possibilities. There are no guarantees or certainties. But as Doreen Massey argues, it's precisely that uncertainty, that coming together of unfinished stories, that allows us to consider and explore different ways of living.