A dedicated team of volunteers has carried out a pioneering study into the use of village halls in the North-East. PETER BARRON, a proud villager himself, investigates their findings

HAVING all but lost his sight ten years ago, David Wheeler might easily have withdrawn into a more secluded life in the picturesque North-East village he has made his home.

Instead, 84-year-old David can be found every Monday morning, enjoying a competitive but friendly game of carpet bowls in the cosy village hall at Hurworth-on-Tees, near Darlington.

“I can’t see the jack but I can use my instincts,” says David. “It’s the interaction and the friendship that matters.”

David is just one of countless examples of people who have found a social lifeline through one of the foundation stones of community life: the village hall.

Across the North-East, village halls are community hubs, many with a fascinating history. Converted schools, chapels, or wartime Nissen huts are all included in a long list of buildings used as focal points for village life.

Now, the Tees Valley Village Halls Network, is preparing to unveil the conclusions of a comprehensive study – the first of its kind – into the use and management of these buildings which are to be found in almost every isolated community.

June Wheeler, David’s wife, has no doubt about their importance: “The village hall here in Hurworth has given us a lot of new friends we’d never have had,” she explains.

“We thought we’d give carpet bowls a try, even though David’s blind, and everyone was so welcoming right from the beginning. It’s become a really important part of our lives and I know that if I couldn’t come, for whatever reason, David would always be well looked after.”

The results of the study will be presented to village halls’ representatives at a special meeting at the Wilson Centre in Long Newton, a village between Darlington and Stockton, on Saturday (October 28).

Hugh Jackson, chairman of the Tees Valley Village Halls Network and a Hurworth villager, believes that village halls are more important now than they’ve ever been.

“History shows that social interaction traditionally took place in post offices or pubs but many villages have lost those amenities,” he says. “Coupled with a decline in bus routes, many village halls have to fill the gap.”

The Network’s study, a kind of “health check” covering the operations of nearly 40 village halls, has looked at how they are managed and organised. Issues such as public relations, publicity, marketing, how the halls are used and how they serve the communities are all on the agenda.

The results revealed a mixed picture. Lottery grants have clearly been a godsend and many halls are well run and forward-thinking, adept at introducing new activities and attracting new users.

The list of activities across the Network grows each year. Art classes, flower-arranging, Zumba, pilates, line-dancing, theatre productions, mother and toddler sessions, big breakfasts and community lunches – you name it, a village hall somewhere probably provides it.

However, other halls – particularly those in the smallest settlements, such as the ex-mining communities of East Cleveland – are struggling. That’s partly because of the deterioration in the fabric of the buildings, but also because there simply aren’t enough people able or willing to take on the challenge of keeping them going.

Hugh, along with the Network’s treasurer Brian Wake, who is also chairman of the management committee at the Wilson Centre in Long Newton, estimates that around ten per cent of the Tees Valley’s village halls are in danger of being lost unless action is taken.

“It has certainly been heartening to see the depth of goodwill and the good practice in many communities, but we have to find ways to spread that across the whole network,” says Brian.

The network’s report has, therefore, been entitled “Swap and Share”. It encapsulates what is seen as the key to the future: an exchange of ideas, practices and resources.

One of the main recommendations in the report is that a “structured programme of training and events” is developed to help village halls across the Tees Valley to learn from each other.

“These events will aim to ensure that committees are better equipped to meet the current and future needs of their halls and communities,” says the report, which has been compiled with the support of the Tudor Trust.

Combating loneliness and promoting social interaction is seen as a primary reason for ensuring that village halls aren’t allowed to become boarded up but continue to open the door to new interests and friendships.

Hugh Jackson cites the example of one particular hall in East Cleveland: “It’s a nice village hall but it is a tiny community comprising of a single row of houses. Where else are those villagers going to find social interaction? That’s why it so important,” he says.

Back in Hurworth-on-Tees, even though he can’t see the jack, David Wheeler is looking forward to his next game of carpet bowls with his new-found village friends.

It’s an activity he had never tried before but it was made possible because the carpet and the bowls were passed on to Hurworth by the Wilson Centre at Long Newton.

“The equipment wasn’t needed at Long Newton anymore so it was offered around the network and we were delighted when Hurworth wanted to make use of it,” Brian Wake explains.

Swap and Share. It’s the future for village halls.