WELCOME: Anne Scott, Gina Richardson and Caitlin Dent offer a welcoming smile to those who visit Utass    TM pic
WELCOME: Anne Scott, Gina Richardson and Caitlin Dent offer a welcoming smile to those who visit Utass TM pic

An organisation that started out as a support network for Teesdale farmers has developed into the beating heart for the wider community with a wide range of services, as MARTIN PAUL reports

IN recent years the upper dale has lost much of its services and facilities. In Middleton-in-Teesdale, the village hall has been shut, banking has been withdrawn and the Post Office closed.

Yet people can still access services thanks to Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass), which has evolved from being purely a farming charity into a hub at the heart of the community.

Youth work lead and peer support worker Gina Richardson believes the transition was spurred on by two crises.

“What really tipped it, was covid and Storm Arwen. We all had our jobs to do, but we realised [helping the community] is what we have to do now.”

Admin support worker Anne Scott added: “There was no power during Storm Arwen so we were taking the minibus with food out to places. With covid we started meal deliveries and we had volunteers getting prescriptions and taking them out. We were doing people’s shopping and I think that is what got us well known as a community hub.”

Tuesdays are particularly active when the Post Office and Barclays Bank open for business, and Utass offer a free social craft session.

Ms Scott said: “The bank is quite well supported – more than what we anticipated. They can’t do anything with cheques or cash but they can do transactions and quite a lot of advice is given. It is drop-in, so no appointment is needed. People wanting cash or to pay cheques in, they can do that at the Post Office on the same day.”

Both services are also provided each Friday. About 25 to 30 people attend the weekly craft sessions, particularly when an artist is giving demonstrations.

Ms Richardson said: “It is not just about doing the crafts – it’s about having a chat with friends, having a cup of tea. Some people bring their knitting along and if they fancy taking part they will.

“It has provided us with other opportunities, so if anyone has a problem or an issue or needing transport somewhere, then we will be able to put things on for them. So, it overspills into helping people get on with their day-to-day life in the best way they can.”

While free, a £1 donation is asked to cover the cost of the tea, coffee and toasted teacakes that are on offer. Similarly, a “pie and peas” session each Monday not only promotes social interaction, but also offers help and advice, particularly with aspects of technology, with which a lot of older people struggle.

Youth sessions are offered on a Monday evening.

In its village hall capacity, Utass is home to a variety of groups, including yoga, tai-chi and pilates groups. A tae-kwondo club has also moved in while Teesdale Leisure Centre is closed.

Other community groups, such as the village carnival, Friends of Middleton Primary School and village Christmas lights also hold their meetings there.

Ms Scott said: “It is good to see the building being used. Now that we have got more social activities going on, more people are using the building.”

In much the same way as a village hall, Utass’ space is available for hire for events and parties. Similarly, it is host to Highlights Touring Scheme productions.

Other community activities directly offered by Utass are ladies’ outings and regular shopping visits, using the charity’s minibuses.

Ms Richardson said: “We ask them where they want to go, so it’s not just us putting something on.”

The charity organises a team of “resilience workers” in conjunction with Pioneering Care Partnership. Ms Richardson, who is part of the team, said it offers counselling and other services for people who are in need of it.

She added: “It’s a fast-track service getting the right help at the right time.”

At its heart remains the support Utass offers farmers. Help with farm payment schemes, providing retired farmers’ lunches at the auction marts at Middleton, Barnard Castle and St John’s Chapel, providing training opportunities, and helping with livestock documentation continues. Utass also helps with running agricultural shows at Eggleston, Langdon Beck and High Force.

Indeed, Utass has become pivotal in the lives of people who call upper Teesdale their home.

Farmer Caroline Colling summed it up: “They do absolutely everything, we would be lost without them, end of story. We’d be up the creek without a paddle without Utass.”