PUBLISHED: 11:49 26 May 2015 | UPDATED: 11:49 26 May 2015
Halstead boasts a strong sense of community and a reputation for being one of the most attractive Essex towns. Petra Hornsby finds out if the secrets to these successes are linked
What makes a strong community? Could it be one that pulls together and works together to make things safer, healthier and, well, just simply a nicer place to live? One way quite a few towns and communities have found to do this across Essex is to take part in the very popular Anglia in Bloom competition. One town in particular, Halstead, seems to have considerable success over the years.
Halstead is an attractive and busy little market town nestled in the Colne Valley, a pleasant and picturesque drive of around 15 miles from Colchester that weaves its way through Chapel, White Colne and Earls Colne with some wonderful views on the way. It has a rich history that relates back to its successful textile industry in the 19th century when Courtaulds developed a prosperous silk weaving business in the town, employing many of the townsfolk. It’s former base, Townsford Mill, sits on the River Colne that runs through the town and is now a popular antiques centre.
Today the town has a good variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and services that cater for its residents and attract those from neighbouring towns and villages.
Each year a group of hard working volunteers join forces to make wonderful floral displays in the town for all to enjoy as part of the Anglia in Bloom and RHS Britain in Bloom competitions. Since 2009, this productive and creative group has won ten Gold awards, five Best Town awards and last year were joint winners of the RHS Britain in Bloom Town category. Community categories range from Small Village to City plus others such as Coastal (up to 12k) or Urban. Halstead is currently shortlisted for the East Anglian Flowers award.
To add to its list of honours, Halstead was nominated (by the RHS Britain in Bloom judges) as one of only five entries for the national Britain in Bloom 2012 competition and was then invited to enter the Champion of Champions category for 2013 — the top category for Britain in Bloom.
Anglia in Bloom covers the six Eastern counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. The original concept of Britain in Bloom was born in 1964 and in 1996, as the competition grew, it was divided into regions.
Its basic ethos is an attractive one: the competitions will encourage communities to form teams of volunteers to improve local environments by growing more flowers and trees, and vegetables too, to help sustain wildlife habitats.
The impact of the glorious displays can only truly be appreciated if the ‘backdrop’ is also maintained, thus communities also join together in keeping their town tidy and paying attention to areas that need some particular attention and care.
Halstead resident Julia Smith has been secretary of Halstead in Bloom since 2000. Following a public meeting, about 40 people came forward to volunteer and offer their support and a small committee was formed. Over the years, several community groups of all ages have been encouraged to get involved, keen to demonstrate their support for the positive impact the competition has on the town.
Julia explains more about the group today: ‘We have a core team of about 35, but there are many more people in the town who help — maybe litter picking their street, looking after one tub or garden, joining in with community events or donating goods for fundraising. Many also generously give financial donations to the projects.’
Every year there is a theme. Last year it was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and, for 2015, the group are looking to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
With Mother Nature offering so many colours to choose from its palette, it must be hard for the group to decide on a colour scheme to work in with its theme. So what will it be for this year?
‘Our basic colour scheme will be orange and lemon with lime and white. This colour scheme was suggested by Halstead Town Council’s groundsman, Jason Bedlow, and all our displays are designed by Joan Gibson, a very talented florist and horticulturist, together with Ruth Hedgecock from Colne Valley Nurseries,’ Julia says.
This year the committee has decided to organise special displays at the town’s Loom Garden — near to the Halstead Hospital — and also at Weaver’s Court and the Public Gardens. So where do all these flowers and plants come from?
‘We have an excellent relationship with Colne Valley Nurseries, White Colne and also Bourne Brook Nursery in Greenstead Green. Ruth at Colne Valley Nurseries has given us a great deal of help and advice and has also donated plants, shrubs and bulbs,’ Julia reveals.
With judging taking place sometime in the first three weeks of July, the group will be very busy this month, maintaining the displays and keeping an eye on the general appearance of the town. Award criteria consist of three main factors: horticultural excellence, community participation and environmental responsibility and each entrant has to show a commitment to all three.
Julia explains the advantages of having some extra help in influential places: ‘We have a good working partnership with Halstead Town Council, Braintree District Council and Essex County Council which helps us to get any grotty spots cleared and the town kept tidy. We are also proud to be part of the Green Heart of Essex campaign.’
It would seem that many people travel across the region to look at the various displays and Julia knows this to be true.
‘The town has benefitted as many more visitors are attracted to the town during the display months — we know this from comments received by us and by the town council. Of course, residents, those who work in the town and our visitors enjoy the floral displays.’
Serving in her role for so many years, Julia too must enjoy participating in the competitions.
‘Personally, we have made some lasting friendships, we get great exercise (both mental and physical) and we also get satisfaction in bringing awards to Halstead. We meet around eight times a year, which has helped us achieve the success we have had.’