Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The spirit of Alban Woodroffe is alive and well

THE well-equipped Woodmead Halls is a popular venue 
for events such as local historian Ken Gollop’s ‘Shady 
Tree’ series of talks

SEVERAL of these columns last year took an imaginary walk from Charmouth Road car park to the harbour, examining the varied work of volunteers along the way. 

Recently, I returned to this theme, without apology – for much of Lyme’s vitality is volunteer-based. Any weakening of that generosity would be a loss to the town.

Mill volunteers peopled June’s column as my walk turned along the river. The Town Mill Trust creates a mutually-supporting unity out of its several parts. This made me think, while continuing along the Lynch, of ‘The Three Ms’ – Mill, Museum and Marine Theatre, each distinct, yet also part of a whole: our key non-profit local attractions. They too can be ‘mutually-supporting’, if not so interwoven as, for example, the sites along the Ironbridge Gorge, which promote each other really well.

At Gosling Bridge I started up Hill Road to Woodmead Halls. The seat outside, welcome rest for a puffing pensioner, was a good spot to consider why this feels so professionally-run. I say ‘feels’ because Woodmead Halls depends almost wholly on voluntary labour, illustrating the truth that ‘voluntary’ need not imply ‘amateur’ in its sometimes-derogatory sense, but efficiency and pride.

Why ‘Halls’? In 1923 the town grammar school was founded here (part of the former Woodmead Farm) using redundant First World War army huts. The new school building in Uplyme Road replaced it in 1932, so the borough council adapted the huts, making a large hall with stage and a smaller hall, both with kitchens, plus separate huts for Scouts, Red Cross and, until 1963, the school’s woodwork room. With six tennis courts, here was the town’s social and leisure centre.

Local government reorganisation in 1974 made the town council encourage take-over by an independent committee, able to tap grants for building parish halls while removing management and running costs from the council. In 1981 the council leased the land to trustees; the new building, largely as we know it today, was constructed in 1982.

Woodmead Halls is a charitable trust on behalf of all the voluntary bodies in Lyme Regis, each entitled to elect a member to the halls’ management committee. So every organisation in the town has an interest in sustaining this public facility.

Anyone attending events there knows how smoothly it runs. With large hall exceptionally well-equipped, small hall adaptable and comfortable, spacious kitchen, friendly bar and spotless toilets, it’s no surprise that Woodmead Halls is heavily booked year-round. 

Fortunately its smart website includes a bookings calendar, making it easy to spot a gap. Apart from Michaela Ellis as part-time bookings secretary/caretaker, everything else that makes Woodmead Halls so professional is achieved through hard-working volunteers, led by a committee of 10 chaired by Stan Williams. 

Vice-chairman Nick Robertson and treasurer Susanne Whitemore will often also be found, with Stan, serving at the bar. Gilly Warr runs a slick administration, John Broom handles building development, Charlie Kapur led the £67,000 fundraising drive and managed the re-roofing and installation of 90 SolarPV panels that make Woodmead Halls a model of eco-friendliness (earning Charlie a West Dorset ‘environmental champion’ award in 2011.)

This committee in turn relies on other volunteers such as John Evans and Alan Stickler, the heart of a six-strong maintenance team working most Friday mornings, and more, to keep the place spick-and-span, including a major two-week redecoration last August; or Irene Croad regularly serving behind the bar over the last four years; or Mike Donno who keeps the sophisticated sound and lighting systems running.

What’s in it for them? Mike enjoys helping users make best use of the technology, drawing on his practical skills and sometimes his tact, for “a little knowledge isn’t always good!” To Alan, who retired to the town, volunteering was “a lifeline”, bringing friendships in his new home – “the sociability is so important”. John, born in Lyme, also found retirement demanded “new ways of being active and involved with people”. Irene, too, values the socialising and “meeting all my friends: I just love what I call ‘going to work’!” – she’s one of those precious volunteers whose mantra is “I never say no”.   

“Woodmead Halls wouldn’t be here without Stan,” says Michaela Ellis; his leadership has over many years created for the town an exceptional facility which, crucially, is financially self-sufficient. With such volunteer commitment, nearly all income – from hire fees, bar, weddings, energy generation, commercial grants, etc. – covers costs and investing in development.

The development plan is businesslike and strategic, aiming, Stan says, to “get Woodmead Halls in perfect order”, make it profitable, expand the range of activity, and employ staff in support. Details of this phased expansion, first extending the kitchen and enlarging the small hall, are shown in the halls’ entrance. When planning permission is obtained grant applications will begin, for which supporting letters from user organisations will be vital.

Meanwhile, Alan Stickler says: “I think I’m the youngest volunteer!” Recruiting younger volunteers is always a challenge but, with so many in Lyme enjoying the facilities, surely Woodmead Halls will find them?

In creating the town grammar school in its army huts, Alban Woodroffe showed chutzpah and self-belief – his dealings with county council and ministry officialdom yield good stories. He would surely be pleased that his ambitiously self-reliant spirit still thrives in the same spot.

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