One hall’s experience of functioning during the pandemic

Pauline Ridley, Treasurer, Dallington Old School Village Hall.

In March 2020, as the news about coronavirus became increasingly alarming, our hall management committee reluctantly decided to cancel all forthcoming events and bookings to prevent the spread of infection. A week later, the government announced that all such venues must close for the foreseeable future.  So what has the impact been?

Dallington Old School Village Hall is a listed Victorian building in one of the smallest villages in East Sussex, with a population of just 300 people, of whom almost 40% are over 65. In the past few years, we had slowly managed to bring the hall back from the brink of closure through the hard work of a small group of volunteers.

We had updated the kitchen to make the hall more attractive to hirers, an essential first step to bring in enough income to cover the high cost of maintenance and repairs to the fabric of the building we hold in trust.  We had also started a weekly community library/café which was becoming a popular place for residents to drop in, exchange books and enjoy a friendly chat over a cup of tea. Fresh vegetables grown by parents and children in the local primary school garden were on sale during the summer. We had installed broadband into the hall and received some donated laptops which we hoped to use to help elderly residents use the internet with confidence.

Suddenly all these promising developments had to stop and we weren’t sure if the hall would survive a prolonged closure – though no-one anticipated this would last for as long as it did..

The first ray of light came from the support we and other village halls received from Action in Rural Sussex. They provided regular clarification and updates to the various government announcements, along with advice on risk assessments and ways to make the hall ‘covid safe’ whenever we might be able to re-open.  They hosted an online Community Buildings Forum which became a practical and emotional lifeline for those of us who would otherwise have been struggling in isolation.

The loss of income was the immediate worry, but to our surprise and relief, we heard about the grant scheme available to village halls and, though the Forum, shared tips on navigating the applications process.  This money has been crucial to our survival. It allowed us to cover our running costs for over a year, with enough spare to embark on some much needed repairs while the building was closed.  These included restoration of our historic billiard room and upgrading of fire safety and electrical systems. The only permited use during this period was for occasional staff training for local care-workers, which at least brought in some income and ensured the hall was regularly aired and cleaned.

But the impact of Covid has been far more than financial. Historically village halls have been a place for people to come together at times of crisis –  frustratingly, that was now impossible. Each time we began to look ahead to re-opening, new restrictions were announced. We found ourselves in the unprecedented position of having  a (relatively) healthy bank balance but no idea of whether we could encourage people to come back to the hall.

So our main priority now is to start bringing our community back together. Some regular groups which had struggled to retain members even before lockdown indicated they would not be restarting. We also knew that some elderly or clinically vulnerable residents might feel nervous about going back into social spaces, even though they had also been the hardest hit by lockdown.  So our publicity about the re-opening emphasised the steps taken to reduce risk of infection. We also took the decision to use some of our Restart grant money to waive hire fees for local community activities until at least the end of the year, to encourage new groups to come forward. And in the weeks before re-opening we smartened up the exterior of the building with new hanging baskets donated by volunteers, to announce to passers by that the hall would be back soon.

At last, we nervously opened our doors in July for the first community library /café in over a year. To our great relief, a small but steady trickle of people arrived, greeting each other with delight. Since then, the weekly library continues, a few talks and events have taken place and some groups have restarted.  Taking advantage of the temporary fee waiver to test interest, weekly chair yoga sessions were tried out and have proved so popular they will carry on permanently.

It is still early days. In common with other halls, we face the continuing challenge of recruiting a new generation of volunteers and trustees and attracting enough users to stay viable. But one effect of the lockdown has been to make us all appreciate the small things that we took for granted. For generations, village halls have provided a vital space for all kinds of activities, a place to come together, meet neighbours, and share ideas. Now we have them back, we should cherish them.

 

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