Year review (Jan - Mar): A new year, new challenges and a new MP settling in to her new role
By Stuart Laundy - Senior Reporter
It’s been a year like no other; a year when Covid-19 and coronavirus entered the popular lexicon; a year when Zoom and Teams took on new meaning; a year of lockdowns; and a year when everyone across the land became aware of a small market town in south-west County Durham. Stuart Laundy takes a look back through the Mercury headlines from a tumultuous 12 months that are sure to go down in history books.
THERE was no hint of what was to come at the start of the year – in fact the tone of January 1’s Mercury was upbeat and forward looking.
Trustees at The Witham reported a 33 per cent in ticket sales during 2019 compared to the previous year and there had been an across-the-board rise in the number of people, taking part in all activities at the centre.
Centre manager Susan Coffer was looking forward to presenting a busy programme for the new year season confident of building on 2019’s efforts.
Teesdale’s former MP Helen Goodman was also looking forward to new adventures.
After losing the Bishop Auckland seat to Dehenna Davison the previous month, Mrs Goodman's work on climate change and renewable energy had led to an invitation to become a fellow at the Durham Energy Institute.
Ms Davison, meanwhile, was getting stuck into some of the issues which had formed part of her campaign, including the prospect of a Toft Hill bypass, which she had raised with transport secretary Grant Shapps.
Fitness fans were told they could look forward to improved facilities at Teesdale Leisure Centre, in Barney, which was to be “reinvigorated” as part of an overhaul of sports facilities across the county.
The move was prompted by figures which showed the centre ran at an average of just 38 per cent capacity during 2018, with lower demand for the swimming pool being blamed.
There was also good news for the town's shoppers after county councillors granted planning permission for a new Lidl and Home Bargains development at the former Addisons auction house site.
Developers aimed to be on site later in the year with an opening date expected in mid-2021.
Teenager actor Reuben Bainbridge, from Eggleston, told how he had landed a role in an episode of the BBC's long-running hospital drama Casualty.
He had spent three weeks filming his scenes at a purpose-built studio in Cardiff.
On the sporting front, there was bad news for dale bobsleigh racer Alan Toward, from Middleton-in-Teesdale, who was ruled out for the season after injuring his foot at a competition in Germany just before Christmas.
An operation was required followed by a long period of recovery.
INTO February and still no real sign of the crisis which lay ahead – details of a strange virus that had emanated from the Far East were still strictly international news, although its spread was rapidly heading west.
On the home front, there was good news in a long running campaign to improve gritting on the Stang road.
Having sought a judicial review into Durham County Council's decision not to upgrade the road to priority one gritting status, county officers agreed to co-ordinate their efforts with neighbouring North Yorkshire council.
Jed Collins, campaigner and clerk to Hope and Scargill Parish Meeting, said: “This is what we asked for as long ago as 2004. This will make your Stang travelling a lot safer.
“I am relieved – it has been a long time.”
The dale's best in business were recognised at the dale's annual awards.
Boldron-based Ellipse Fabrications were double winners, picking up the best business award along with the Growth Business of the Year title.
More than 200 businesses were nominated across 12 categories in the awards.
A group of Middleton-in-Teesdale mums had plenty to smile about after raising £45,000 to refurbish a popular children's play area.
The money was to be spent at the Wesley Terrace play area, which had been temporarily closed in 2018 after an inspection found equipment to be in a dangerous condition.
Grace Crawford, one of those involved in the fundraising effort said: “This project has brought us closer together as a community. It was tough, but it's going to be worth it.”
It was all systems go for the recently-formed Teesdale Operative Society, which organised its first open call ahead of a planned fundraising show in the summer followed later in the year by a three-night run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
AND so it began.
By the middle of March, groups and organisations had begun to scale back, cancel or postpone events in an effort to reduce the risk of infection from Covid-19.
On the back of Government advice for those aged over 70 to self isolate at home for up to four months, the Association of Teesdale Day Clubs suspended all ten of its lunchtime get-togethers.
The fives and threes dominoes league abandoned its knock-out matches, the bowls club contemplated a summer without action, while Easter activities at other venues were abandoned.
Durham County Council issued advice to cancel non-essential face-to-face meetings. By the end of the month, and with the scale of the crisis becoming ever more apparent by the day, volunteer groups had begun to spring up across the dale to ensure the most vulnerable in society were looked after.
Raby Estates closed all leisure and tourism operations, while Barnard Castle Town Council called off the Meet and 1940s weekend.
Staindrop Parish Council members met in the village pub following the closure of the Scarth Hall before the Wheatsheaf too had to close its doors.
Given events since lockdown was imposed on Monday, March 23, it's easy to forget some of the other headlines from earlier in the month.
The sudden closure of the Jersey Farm Hotel following its sale left couples planning to marry at the venue desperately searching for a new location.
A petition was launched calling for improved safety measures at Kinninvie crossroads following a recent spate of crashes.
Louise Robinson, from Holwick, launched the petition after she and four passengers fortunately escaped serious injury when a van failed to stop at the junction and clipped her car, causing it to spin off the road.
“In a perfect world, I would like to see a staggered junction and lower speed limit,” she said.
“Realistically, I would like to see warning signs.”