Rural renaissance planned for Norfolk village

Not so long ago, the farming estate surrounding West Lexham Manor was a bustling hive of activity and employment for the whole village.

But the industry modernisation and social upheavals of the past 20 years have left many of the estate's buildings slipping quietly into a wasteful state of redundancy.

Now, a pioneering 'rural renaissance' is under way to bring those structures back to life as a residential education centre which could rejuvenate the village as a beacon of sustainable living and environmental awareness.

The ambitious project is a not-for-profit social enterprise planned by Edmund Colville, whose family moved into West Lexham Manor, near Swaffham, in 1997.

Mr Colville hopes to re-inspire the image of a thriving community by renovating outmoded outbuildings to provide accommodation and teaching areas for subjects ranging from energy-efficient architecture to preparing local foods.

All profits from the courses would be reinvested to subsidise a revived village hall, shops, canteen and social facilities.

But first, Mr Colville needs a �146,000 grant from the RDPE (Rural Development Programme for England) to match his family's own investment for the initial phase of work on the estimated �2m project.

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'Everyone talks about sustainability, but we want this to be an exemplary project where people can come and see it in action,' he said.

'Firstly we want to start a business to ensure the long-term survival of these heritage buildings. Secondly, the ethos of the project is to create a business with social and community values, which will employ local people. The theme for the courses will be sustainability, but it is also about real life. I would love to have all our furniture made by a local craftsman using wood from Thetford Forest, but the reality may be that I have to go to an auction and buy a second-hand Ikea table. It has all got to make economic sense – because nothing is less sustainable than a bankrupt business.'

Planning permission has already been granted for heritage-conscious renovations of the Grade II listed West Lexham Manor, and many of its outbuildings.

The first planned phase of work includes the conversion of a cart shed into an accommodation block and the renovation of the vacant village hall, which would become the central teaching area as well as a social facility and meeting place.

If the project proves financially viable, phase two would see a district heating system installed in a former piggery along with a laundry room, social areas, canteen and dining hall. The final phase would be to revive an old barn as a workshop, art studio and more dormitories.

It is hoped that courses will begin in the summer, offering professional development in subjects like eco-building design, renewable energy systems and land management, alongside more cultural courses like furniture-making and rural crafts. Mr Colville said that many of the existing tenants of the estate's rented cottages had already volunteered to get involved in grounds maintenance, promotion, food growing, hosting, and the transport of students and tutors.

And he has also invited local entrepreneurs to make use of vacant buildings, with two women from neighbouring villagers hoping to use the stables to open a livery business.

The final aspiration is to create a micro-economy where students share experiences with villagers, businesses share resources, and partnerships are forged with organisations like the Swaffham EcoTech centre and local food producers, farmers and suppliers.

'It is the embodiment of everything we are trying to do,' said Mr Colville. 'When you come here, you will see everything done to the best practices and it is more powerful than just saying to someone: 'Buy this, and don't buy that'.' Following a recent visit, Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said: 'This is a pioneering example of the sort of local, entrepreneurial community project which can drive a rural renaissance in the heart of Norfolk. West Lexham is completely in tune with Norfolk's spirit of self-help, community and sustainability.'

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