After nearly a quarter of a Century as the local MP, I sometimes suffer from the illusion that nothing in West Dorset will now be able to surprise me. But, whenever this illusory feeling sets in it doesn’t take long for something to strip the illusion away.
West Dorset seems to have an inexhaustible supply of surprises.
Last week, I had exactly such an experience, when I was introduced for the first time - wholly unexpectedly- to the tin tabernacle at Dottery.
It may, of course, be the case that every reader of this column is already fully acquainted with the existence and history of tin tabernacles. But, just in case you, dear reader, are in the same condition of ignorance that I was, it may be helpful if I explained that a tin tabernacle turns out to be a form of temporary church, constructed out of metal, and put up quickly (and, one imagines, cheaply) about 100 years ago.
This particular tin tabernacle seems to have been constructed for the small population of the small settlement at Dottery by a vicar who was concerned about the distances that some of his parishioners were having to travel in order to get to church.
Though quite plain on the outside, the tabernacle is set within a pleasing churchyard, looking out on an enchanting view of Dorset’s coastal hills. Inside, it is endowed with a rather splendid wooden ceiling and the richly coloured reredos.
The very existence of this building in this place - and, indeed, of this class of building in any place - was a surprise to me. But it isn’t just the ancient history of the thing that is remarkable. In many ways more remarkable, and the reason for my visit, is the fact that the parishioners have lovingly restored both the corroding exterior and much of the interior.
This is not a polite way of saying that a group of rich people have done a whip-round and raised the money to pay some professionals. I mean, on the contrary, that they have literally restored the thing with their own hands - and a beautiful job they have made of it too.
And when I say that they have done it lovingly, this is also a statement of the literal truth. Everywhere, there are the little signs of something done with love and for love of the thing itself rather than merely as a duty - the wonderful new housing for the restored bell, the lovely flowers liberally distributed around the interior, and the evident enthusiasm of all the people involved.
They have made a film of their endeavours - charmingly put together. It is worth a thousand academic treatises about the formation of social capital through the collective effort of a community.
On the day I visited, the weather was inclement and the evening was drawing in, but the inhospitality of the elements was more than matched by the glow of good feeling within - not to mention the excellence of the tea and scones.
As one of the leaders of this remarkable project observed, the Big Society in fact consists of very small societies coming together to do things which would not otherwise get done.