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How to set up a village website

PUBLISHED: 16:51 26 January 2015 | UPDATED: 16:51 26 January 2015

The Home Page of Milford and Makeney website

The Home Page of Milford and Makeney website

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With the experience of Milford & Makeney’s website behind him, Ashley Franklin compares notes with the webmasters of Dethick, Lea & Holloway, Sheldon, Winster, Ticknall and Spondon

A snowy Milford seen from Milford ViewA snowy Milford seen from Milford View

In the 1960s the great media guru Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase ‘global village’. Seen now as a cultural Nostradamus, McLuhan observed that electronic communication technologies were increasingly shrinking Earth’s globe down to a village through the instantaneous movement of information everywhere at the same time. In effect, McLuhan predicted the worldwide web.

Never mind this ‘virtual’ village, though: what about the ‘actual’ village? By that, I mean the one you live in. While we increasingly browse, engage, email, text or twitter in the vast regions of the global village, how many of us know what’s happening locally? Ironically, the worldwide web has allowed people to provide that most parochial resource known as the village website.

I became one of those people two years ago. I had been a resident of Milford & Makeney for over 30 years, which tells you that I like living here. It is quiet, scenic and steeped in significant history.

However, I was a typical dormitory dweller and when I wrote a Derbyshire Life article on Milford & Makeney early in 2011, it was an eye-opener. Residents – most of whom I was engaging with for the first time – pointed out the glory of a place I had taken for granted. I closed the article with the words:‘I would hope that my village features down the years have encouraged residents to get more involved in their community. This article has certainly galvanised me. It has led me to offer my help to the Community Group as they assemble their new village website. After 33 years, it’s about time!’

Dethick, Lea and Holloway websiteDethick, Lea and Holloway website

What further galvanised me into action was the exhilarating prospect of creating such a valuable resource while at the same time providing an outlet for my love of photography and writing. I was anxious though about the technical aspects: the assumption I would need to learn about Hyper Text Marketing Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) brought me out in a cold sweat. However, I soon discovered that website creation is a much simpler business now, thanks to WordPress. And it’s free.

That said, creating a website from scratch can be tricky, involving and time-consuming; and it helps if you are IT savvy. While a village website had long been a vision of the Milford & Makeney Community Group, none of us had the time or technical nous to take on the task of building a site.

If you can raise some funds, you can pay a website company to design your site and provide you with WordPress’s Content Management System. This allows you to create pages on which you insert your text and images. It’s basic, easy and, again, it’s free.

As it turned out, my first active involvement with the community was the production of a Milford & Makeney calendar and, as sales were quite healthy, I thought it appropriate to use the proceeds to sponsor our website and engaged a local website company – Foxxweb of Belper. Having seen so many cluttered, untidy, obviously home-made village sites, I stressed our need for a clean, simple, attractive site which was easy to navigate. We also needed a professional design, though with a traditional rather than modern look. After all, under the Home Page banner reading ‘Milford & Makeney’ would be the line: ‘An historic industrial community in the Derwent Valley, Derbyshire.’

The Home Page of Spondon OnlineThe Home Page of Spondon Online

In the end, I went for a colour template largely of browns and creams along with standard black and white, effectively echoing the local gritstone. A banner of photos across the top would highlight the beauty of the place, and the addition of the Milford flag and the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site logo would add a proud flourish. Also, importantly, I asked for a local weather guide to sit on the Home Page.

So, we knew the website would look welcoming. However, it was nothing without content. I already knew Milford & Makeney had an historic hotel (Makeney Hall), a thriving Italian restaurant (Angelo’s), two of the finest traditional pubs in Derbyshire (The Holly Bush and King William), a recently regenerated store and a May Day celebration. However, virtually all the residents knew that, too. For this website to work, it had to tell them what they probably didn’t know and maybe ought to. Milford-makeney.org needed to be the electronic version of the parish pump.

In the ensuing months, through an appeal in the local newsletter and exchanges with the movers and shakers in the village, bits and bobs of information started to filter through. It took nearly half a year before the site could go live. Admittedly, the task of creating website content is not conducive to the constraints of having a full-time job, a special needs daughter and several leisure pursuits!

However, it has been well worth the time and trouble. We have been able to publicise events such as: fundraising concerts at the church; appeals for May Day volunteers; the unveiling of a plaque at Makeney Hall to George Herbert Strutt; the opening of a new playground; and a petition for a vital road crossing.

We have also been able to highlight activity groups like Blooming Milford and Milford Craft Club and home-run businesses operating within the community. Villagers were delighted to discover that in our midst we had a plumber, removals man, cleaning company, home improvement business, chartered accountant, bespoke florist, a chap who fixes appliances, another who can help with TV, satellite and broadband issues, and a guy who can install and fix just about anything. Recently, two unusual – possibly unique – cottage industries came to light: Natural Favours, who design personalised seed packets for use as gifts and wedding favours; and Mountain Lake, which provides model railway layouts that come in a suitcase.

In the first month of the site, we attracted a meagre 61 visitors. A small but enthusiastic number, though: between them, they viewed 550 pages. In the month of the May Day celebrations, the visitor figure had more than doubled to 135, and it doubled again at the end of the year. In 2013, we averaged 190 visitors per month. However, last year the monthly figure shot up to nearly 450. Not bad for a village of just over 600 households.

As we approach our second anniversary, we will have recorded nearly 8,000 visitors making over 10,000 visits and viewing nearly 30,000 pages. From the outset, the aim of our website was ‘to provide useful, important and interesting news, information and insight for residents and visitors, with the hope of enriching the life of the village and bringing our community closer together.’ We are satisfied that has been achieved, though there is still much work to do.

We might not have made it work at all had I not received the help of Denis Sauzier who himself runs a village website: that of Dethick, Lea & Holloway. While I was assembling a Derbyshire Life article on the parish, I discovered Denis was assembling its website and, as I was thinking of doing the same for Milford & Makeney, he kindly passed on handy tips and advice.

What brought Denis to create a website was the intention to formulate a Village Plan for Dethick Lea & Holloway. As he explains: ‘It seemed clear that a village website could be very useful as a catalyst in developing the plan.’

Denis had taught himself WordPress when he previously redeveloped the website for the Arkwright Society.‘There is no need to understand or use computer coding,’ he points out. ‘You only need basic familiarity with computer use, the internet and word processing, plus a lot of determination! WordPress is very user friendly and provides a lot of guidance but you still need to spend time trying things out and learning from mistakes. It took me about 50 hours’ work before I could launch the site.’

As the village community was already well served by a thriving parish magazine dating back more than 100 years, Denis ensured that the website worked in partnership with the magazine – not in competition. ‘Key to a village website’ he points out, ‘is generating a real wish by village organisations and residents to get involved in the website itself as well as to contribute to its content.’

From the outset, Denis got four other residents involved – ‘to share the load and also reflect a broader perspective on what is included and how it is presented.’ Initially, the website was well received, with around 900 page views per month. However, 2014’s figure is less than 600 per month, not helped by a drop in contributions and loss of editorial help.

For Denis, the village website’s strapline ‘By and For the Community’ remains an aspiration rather than a reality, though he’s still glad he created the site. ‘It’s not an essential resource, but it’s certainly a useful facility,’ says Denis.

The residents of the Peakland village of Sheldon certainly find their website a useful facility. Since its launch in 2010, the site has recorded over 40,000 visitors – an average of 750 per month – a remarkable figure given the village has only 35 houses and 80 residents. ‘It’s a great way to disseminate information in an efficient manner,’ says website manager John Tanner, and it’s certainly helped to keep Sheldon Day – the village fete – and the annual fell race, thriving.

The website for Winster looks very plain and functional with no photos or fancy graphics but it works extremely well, says website manager John Geddes. All the information contained within the site is listed on the Home Page, for good reason, says John: ‘I wanted a digest of the most relevant information on the first page that visitors come to, as I didn’t want them to have to click through to find out about news or events. We have had to be really tight with the layout but it’s a format that even adapts to smaller screens on mobile phones.’

The Winster site is certainly working for holiday cottage and B&B owners, who report a ‘good level of business’ coming from the site, and it’s due to work even better for residents: John has ambitious plans to set up a webcam to show weather conditions in the village. ‘I know from personal experience,’ says John, ‘that you can be sitting at your desk only a few miles away and not realise that snow is building up in Winster to the point where you need to be heading home if you don’t want to spend the night outside the village!’

The most impressive village website I have come across in this county was created by Bryan Smith back in 2000 for the South Derbyshire village of Ticknall. Initially conceived as a site largely to promote his B&B, Ticknall Life has been developed and re-built several times over the years to become an impressive, comprehensive and professional-looking site reminiscent of national newspaper portals.

Ticknall Life is chockful of news and information, with fine attention to detail. For example, along with the information about Ticknall Parish Council meetings and planning applications received, there is a well-taken portrait and profile of every single councillor.

One of the main reasons for the website’s success is that most of the content is provided by the community. In spite of that, Bryan still needs to devote time to the site every day but it’s ‘very satisfying,’ he says ‘not just for what it does for the community but also because I enjoy web design.’

Another impressive community website – Spondon Online – is also very progressive in that it contains a growing social media hub. Steve Allen has been running the site since 2000 and, as with Bryan Smith of Ticknall Life, it’s clearly a labour of love. Steve has to put in at least an hour every day to keep it updated. However, his reward is 4,600 site visits per month – including Spondonians who have moved away and like to keep in touch – and very positive feedback, especially from groups whose events have proved more successful through publicity on the site.

Nowadays, Steve is putting more time into updating the Facebook page than he does the website because ‘it’s a larger, more responsive audience and it’s so quick and easy to post/share new content.’ As well as heading towards 3,000 ‘Likes’ on their Facebook page, some posts have been seen by over 50,000 people. As Steve points out: ‘Facebook is a great outlet for letting residents engage with each other and beyond, and to share news, information, photos and video in an easy, convenient way. We had a traditional message board on our website for years but it was nothing like as active as our Facebook page. When Spondon had flash-floods last July, loads of people shared photos and videos. It was a real buzz to be in the centre of all those conversations and to know that we are a go-to place when things like this happen locally. On a smaller scale, our Facebook page has helped locals track down lost pets, mobiles and even wedding rings.’

So, if you live in a village without a website, why not think about creating one? The website here in Milford & Makeney has helped to bind the community that bit closer and it’s clearly working elsewhere.

The final word should belong to Ticknall webmaster Bryan Smith as, according to the Burton Mail Web Watch: ‘Ticknall Life sets a benchmark for other small community websites to aspire to.’ What, for Bryan, is key to setting up your own village website? ‘Obviously, clear, accessible, user friendly presentation is important but, as with any publication, content is king. And for a community website, that’s down to the community.’

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