‘I have never been so proud of being a town councillor as I am now.’

  Posted: 14.10.20 at 08:30 by The Editor
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Penny Rivers at last year's Remembrance service

Penny Rivers at last year’s Remembrance service

UP CLOSE: With town mayor Penny Rivers.

For all of us, this has been a year like no other. But what is it like to be a civic leader in such trying times?

Nub News spoke to Godalming Mayor Penny Rivers, who, as the town’s first citizen, has found herself facing unprecedented challenges as the town battles through the Coronavirus pandemic.

Penny is well into her fourth stint as mayor – no-one has held the office more times than her since the local government reorganisation of 1972 – but this year has been, on paper, her quietest. Yet in reality it has been her most trying.

“Last year as mayor I had 136 engagements,” she told Nub News.”This year I’ve had eight!”

The reason for that, of course, has been Covid, the cancellation of dozens of events and the lockdown that has seen us all behind closed doors, and subject to restrictions, since March.Penny was the guest of honour at the official opening of Nightingale Flowers in Farncombe during the summer.

For Penny, more accustomed to cutting ribbons, making well-received speeches and providing a glamorous civic presence at events as diverse as church services and football matches, it has been a challenge.

Yet, she says, she looks back on the year so far (her term will end in May) with huge pride.

It isn’t just pride at a job well done – although she has undoubtedly played her part in keeping the spirits of the town bouyed as we navigated our way through hitherto uncharted waters. It is pride, she says, at the way the community has rallied round.

From the major projects such as the Community Store and the work of the St Mark’s Foodbank to the patient and stoic manner in which residents have adopted and adapted to the government’s rules, she says she has never been prouder to be part of our community.

A Liberal Democrat, Penny has been a town councillor for 16 years. She represents Farncombe and Catteshall ward on both Godalming town and Waverley borough councils, and serves as a Surrey county councillor for Godalming North.
She was previously town mayor from 2001-2, 2004-5, and 2019-20.

She only stepped back into the hot seat in May 2019 when the local elections saw the designated successor, Andrew Boulton, lose his seat.

“To be mayor even once is a great privilege – and as the Annual Public Meeting could not be held this year due to Covid-19 restrictions, it was even more unexpected that I would remain mayor for a fourth time,” she says.

“There have in Godalming been a few councillors who have been mayor a few times, but I don’t think anybody has been mayor four times.”

But this has been a year different from all others. A graphic illustration of just how different it has been lies in the figures: in a normal year the town mayor will carry out around 150 engagements: this year, as Penny says, there have been eight.

“Normally there is music and drama and sports – that, of course, is just not happening,” Penny says.

“Eight engagements look as if I have been twiddling my thumbs, but absolutely not. It’s been busy, but in a different way.”

Since the pandemic struck Penny has found a role encouraging and supporting those who have stepped forward to help others: the Community Store and the extra work being carried out at the St Mark’s Foodbank are just two of many examples that have sprung up around the town.

People have banded together to check on their neighbours, run errands, collect prescriptions and go shopping for those who were isolating during lockdown. People have formed groups to make face masks and hospital scrubs, and set up rotas to make phonecalls to people living alone.

“It’s about making a connection between people who need help,” says Penny.

“I have never been so proud of being a town councillor as I am now. Also of the way in which the town council has reacted – it has been exemplary. The town clerk has worked extremely hard to make the High Street a safe shopping environment. People have stepped up quite remarkably, and the volunteers associated with the coronavirus support group have been just magnificent.

“What this pandemic has made us reflect on is our interdependence, our need for each other.”

One of the few visits Mrs Rivers had made in person this year was to Broadwater School to congratulate pupils who received their GCSE results this summer.

She is already a familiar face at the school, having made visits as chairman of the Farncombe Community Team.

She said: “We think that we teach young people: believe me, there is nothing like sitting back and listening to them. They are inspirational. I was absolutely bowled over. It was a great pleasure to go and see them on results day.

“I very much feel that as a community we are able to recognise each other, and we depend on each other. We need to support each other and enjoy each other’s company.”

Other meetings have had to take place online, such as a recent meeting with a local WI group, the Godalming Theatre Group AGM and a delightful harvest festival organised by St Hilary’s School – all arranged over Zoom.

She will be busy in her mayoral capacity at Christmas too: “The message is that the pandemic has not cancelled Christmas!” she says. “There will still be lights!”

Penny will be switching those on as usual this year, although the event will have a different format from previous years.
The town council is busy finalising plans agreed by councillors at a recent meeting. Fear not though – Santa will still be making an appearance!

And she urges people to support local retailers, especially through these trying times and in the run-up to Christmas.

“We need to shop local and support Farncombe and Godalming,” she says.

On reflection, “It’s been a serious year,” she says. “In a normal year there is a lot of fun. Maybe it’s not had quite the fun, it’s been a bit more serious, but I think it has made me reflect on what’s of value.

“We know we need hope, light and encouragement in dark times. The support is still there. We do have to hold on to each other as best we can – even if it’s only by Zoom.”

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