BATTLING BACK: Left, Jill Cole, director of Northern Heartlands and Shelagh Avery, chairwoman of trustees at The Witham
BATTLING BACK: Left, Jill Cole, director of Northern Heartlands and Shelagh Avery, chairwoman of trustees at The Witham

THE first stage of Barnard Castle arts centre’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic begins this week when its cafe reopens for business.
Trustees, staff and volunteers have been working behind the scenes to draw up a plan to expand The Witham’s activities during the coming months.
The cafe will offer a takeaway service from today (Wednesday, March 31) and will be followed by the reopening of the centre’s shop on Wednesday, April 14.
Shelagh Avery, chairwoman of trustees, said following this and subject to restrictions being eased as set out by the Government, a three-step plan would be put in place to entice people back to The Witham.
This will begin with small outdoor events in the outdoor and garden area at the rear during the summer. In the autumn, indoor events will return to the building.
The third part of the plan is to develop the centre’s digital offer, so those who do not wish to form part of an indoor audience can stream performances.
“There are lots of people who are wanting to go out and we want to enable them to go to events they have been unable to enjoy this past year,” said Ms Avery.
“But we acknowledge there are those who feel apprehensive and we want them to benefit from some of the things we have to offer.”
As part of The Witham’s recovery scheme, a planning application will be lodged with Durham County Council for some temporary structures on the rear garden, such as decking, which can be used for outdoor performances, and a pop-up bar.
Ms Avery said restrictions on the use of outdoor space – which had been had been left as a town centre meadow under the terms of The Witham’s multi-million pound revamp in 2013 – have now been lifted.
“We are planning a programme of small scale outdoor events titled The Witham Unlocked,” she said.
“There will be busking and small performances. They will be free, non-ticketed events with a donations bucket passed round, and will be held mainly on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.”
Last week marked the departure of The Witham’s manager Susan Coffer and with trustees deciding not to fill the post for the time being, an agreement has been reached with officials at arts charity Northern Heartlands to put together the centre’s programme of activities and events for the coming months.
Northern Heartlands is based in one of the Hall Street offices which form part of The Witham complex and director Jill Cole – who is also a trustee at the arts centre – promised a “lively programme” of events.
“When we found out that Susan Coffer was leaving her post as centre manager, it made sense for us to think about how we could help fill that gap,” said Ms Cole.
“We are really about working with people in their own communities, but we also want to encourage people to take advantage of the arts and cultural offer we have here in Teesdale.
“It’s unique not only in County Durham but in the whole of the North East and we want to make sure that everyone who lives in this area feels that it belongs to them.”
She said that The Witham’s aim to provide “something for everyone” fitted well with the aims and vision of Northern Heartlands, which uses arts and creativity to engage with communities and build confidence for people to have a say in the decisions that affect them.
“The summer busking programme in the café garden will provide an ideal start to the re-opening of the venue and the autumn and winter season is already beginning to fill with professional performers eager to appear live before an audience again,” she added.
Keep up to date with The Witham's programme of events at