Aberporth: 'Why we demolished our village hall'

Show notes (summary)

Knocking down a village hall and starting again is a bold move. However, the community in Aberforth in West Wales has spoken and it would like a brand new £1m plus ‘hub’ that’s fit for the 21st century. Hall trustee and project officer Sue Lewis tells us about their plans, the challenges they’re facing and covers some of the key lessons-learned so far. Essential listening, if you too think your community building needs bringing up-to-date.

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 21

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello everyone and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. As we know nothing lasts forever and recently Aberporth Village Hall, which is located on the beautiful west coast of Wales towards the southern end of Cardigan Bay, took the bold decision to demolish their ageing 1930s building and create a new hall fit for the 21st century. Today I’m joined by a trustee of Aberporth Village Hall, Sue Lewis, who has bravely taken on the role of project officer for the new build, and will be telling us about their plans, some of the challenges they’ve faced such as with funding and what kind of difference they’re all hoping the new hall will make to their community. Hi Sue, thank you very much for coming on the show.

Sue Lewis 00:53
Hi Johnny, thank you for having me. Nice to be here.

Johnny Thomson 00:57
Now tell me a little bit more about the village of Aberporth, the old hall and why you decided now is the right time to build a new hub for the community there?

Sue Lewis 01:09
Right, okay. Well Aberporth, as you say, is on the beautiful west coast of West Wales. It’s a former sort of fishing village, now of course tourism is is the biggest employer. It’s a bilingual village, a mix of Welsh and English speakers. And the hall has been part of community life since the 1930s and we’ve been trying, believe it or not, for about 30 years, possibly even 40, to get a new hall because the original hall, the old hall is a steel structure clad with asbestos. So, not the most insulated of properties. Basically, everyone in the village who uses the hall, you never take your coat off, not unless it’s 50 degrees outside. So it’s it’s well overdue, well overdue. We’ve tried several times to do bids to rebuild the hall, but this bid ‘the heart of the community’ looks at what we’re providing. It’s not about the building. It’s about what we’re offering to the community.

Johnny Thomson 02:21
I think it’s fair to say this is not going to be an inexpensive project, is it Sue?

Sue Lewis 02:29
No, I mean, at the moment it stands at 1.1 million. We’ve had funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and the Welsh Government have a fun called Community Facilities Programme. They’re putting in 250k, the Lottery is putting in 450k. Over the decades the village hall has tirelessly raised money, we’ve got 150k savings pot. We’re very lucky because in Aberporth, we have village hall land. and we have two car parks. And of course in the summer, these are fantastic income raisers, people park there and donate about three pounds a day. And that’s really been the the baseline of our business plan for the new hall.

Johnny Thomson 03:20
And I guess it’s probably been quite a challenge, going through the application processes and things like that for the kind of funds like you mentioned, from the National Lottery and so on.

Sue Lewis 03:30
Absolutely. It’s a fairly straightforward process, but you have to have the vision to begin with, make sure that you bring in all the threads that funders are looking for. And our project ‘heart of the community’ as I said was all about the services we’re going to offer inside, it was all about how it’s going to make a difference to the community. And I’m sure if your listeners, if any of them have done grant funding applications, it’s all about the community and how it will affect and change their lives. So it’s no good putting in a bid saying we want to build a new fancy hall, because you can have a building but you won’t have anything inside it. So yeah, it was it basically has been a two year process, believe it or not since I first started on it, because consultation is a big part of funding as well. So we had to go out there, do the legwork, asking the community what they thought.

Johnny Thomson 04:31
And where are things right now with the hall? I think you’ve you’ve just gone through a demolition haven’t you?

Sue Lewis 04:39
Yes, yes we have. In fact there is now a big hole where where the hall used to be. Everyone does a double take when they go pas. So we split the project into two, so the the demolition has been phase one and that’s been funded by the Welsh Government. The design, I mean we couldn’t have started this project at a worse time. Not only did we have COVID, Brexit you know, everything you can think of. Building prices have spiralled, so the estimates we had for the the cost of the build two years ago are nowhere near what they are now. But we’ve just got to suck that up and go with it. So yes, so the Welsh Government funded the demolition and we’ve been tweaking the design to try and bring the cost down. And one of our trustees has been working very hard with with the architect on that, you know, there has been a lot, a lot of behind the scenes work. They’ve taken out some of the steel to bring the price down, we’re going to be potentially able to phase it so that the rather nice glazed entrance can be an add on later on when funds allow. So we’ve done everything possible to future proof it, but now the fact we’ve demolished the hall we are we are duty bound to replace it. So work work has to go on.

Johnny Thomson 05:20
And remind me, when are you hoping that everything will be completed?

Sue Lewis 06:11
Right? We’re hoping to get the builders. Tenders go out this month and we hope to get the builders on site in early in the new year and opening the hall doors Spring ’23. And as you know, with any building project, there are always hidden snags and hitches, but that is at the moment an achievable programme.

Johnny Thomson 06:35
And you’re still catering right for the people in the village in some ways, aren’t you?

Sue Lewis 06:40
Yes we’ve we’ve actually, the ‘heart of the community’ project was, it included things like being open longer hours, it included things like delivering a community fridge, a luncheon club. Well we have a second community building, it’s the former youth club that’s run under the village hall umbrella, a much smaller building with basically a sports hall. And we’ve moved everything over to that. And we launched a community fridge funded by Cynnal y Cardi, which is basically remnants of European funding. So, that’s funded a six month pilot project. We’ve managed to employ a very effective coordinator who’s taken that forward. We’ve also had funding for a community garden, which volunteers are really enjoying getting, you know, getting dug into that. And we’ve also had a bit of funding to roll out a digital club, because the building can often have free Wi Fi. And that is one of the outcomes we have for the new hall is that we will have free Wi Fi available to everyone, they can drop in, use the internet, have a cup of tea, it’s basically what we’ve said in the bid, it’s going to be a warm and welcoming community hub.

Johnny Thomson 08:04
Community fridge for anyone out there who isn’t sure what one of those is, tell me a little bit more.

Sue Lewis 08:10
Fantastic. I mean, it’s a UK wide project. And if any Hall is thinking should we do this, I would say yes, because what it’s about is about stopping food waste. Now, supermarkets throw out tonnes of perfectly good food, you know, the date is the use by or the sell by date. So we have collections arranged with our local supermarkets and it’s basically food for free. And what we’re hoping to do once the new hall is built, is use those vegetables and fruit. We’ve had loads of fruit, raspberries you know, you could have enough raspberries to make trifles for everyone. So we’re hoping to use that surplus food to do things like have a lunch club, that people can just come in and pay what they feel. So it’s not a food bank. That’s that’s very, very, you know, it’s not, it’s all about stopping waste. And what we’ve had we launched in September, and we’ve had 28 volunteers sign up, were open four days a week. And it’s it’s great. There’s a real community buzz and you know, I’m sure everyone all through COVID, that is what we’ve been missing isn’t it, that community buzz. And we’re starting to be back out there and people are suddenly dropping in. I was volunteering there a couple of days ago. People came and I hadn’t seen them for ages, you know because of COVID. And it was great. It’s a meeting point. Obviously we’re all very safe with the sanitising and the social distancing and the ventilation etc and the masks, but it really works and the best thing is it’s stopping food waste, and people are able to access fresh food. So you know, what’s not to like?

Johnny Thomson 10:03
And how perfect, because as you say post COVID you’ve got this new beginning as well. You mentioned Wi Fi sue. What other new facilities is this fantastic new hall going to bring and perhaps more importantly, what kind of difference do you see all of this making to the good people of Aberporth?

Sue Lewis 10:22
Well, I mean it’s not not only Aberporth, we’re a sort of quite a large village on the coast, but we have villages in the hinterland. We’ve got Parcllyn, Blaenporth, Blaenannerch and so you’ve got a catchment area of about 2,500 people, which I know doesn’t sound much by English standards, but in West Wales, that’s quite a population catchment. So the new hall, the main thing that it will be offering people is it will be open, because the whole thing that sparked this project is the hall is situated next to the Cylchoedd Meithrin in which is the Welsh playgroup. And what was noticed is that mums were coming, you know, bus services in this area are very infrequent, so the bus would drop them off half an hour before the kid was due to come out of the playgroup. And we noticed that mums, you know, babies and that was standing out in the rain waiting for the children because the hall was closed. Which is crazy. It’s a community, a community facility. And instead of opening the hall for an activity and locking it, our new hall will be open all the time. And we’re committed as well to putting on six evening social events a year. So community social event. It’s all about bringing different generations together. It’s all about community interaction. And it’s all about combating rural isolation and rural poverty. And this new hall is going to deliver all that. We’re also, Aberporth was the first plastic free village in Wales. So we’re really keen on the environment. We live next to the sea, we are very proud of our clean village. And we will be doing things like having energy efficient lighting, energy efficient heating, we’re going to have an electric car charger, bike racks, encourage people to recycle, reuse. And of course, the community fridge fits in with that. So a lot of exciting projects that are very much of now. I mean, as we’re talking Jonny, we’ve got COP26 going on. So Aberporth is ahead of the game, if you like.

Johnny Thomson 12:50
Yeah, exactly. And you really are tackling the kind of social and environmental issues of now, as you say by creating this new community hub, well done, fantastic. And you’re not just focusing on the future either are you, I understand there’s also an important heritage aspect to all of this as well, yes?

Sue Lewis 13:10
Yeah, to be honest, this is my favourite part of the project. I’m a huge local history buff. We’ve got a very vibrant history group in the village called Hanes, which is Welsh for history, Hanes Aberporth, and we’ve been working with them, I got a small pot of money from the Heritage Lottery. And what we have, we’ve got handwritten minutes going back to 1928. And we are going to be scanning those minutes. We’ve had volunteers digitally transcribing them, so everyone will be able to access them. And they are marvellous minutes. They they go into the war comforts committee when ladies were knitting scarves for our boys. And they go into all the concerts that were held in the hall. I mean, our hall is or was because obviously it’s gone now, but it was licenced to hold 300. Well in the ’40s they were packing 500 plus in there, there was no health and safety. And it’s a snapshot of village life as it was then and its characters and you know, they were really, really community minded. So we’ve managed to get all these minutes transcribedand we’ve also put out an appeal for old photos of people enjoying events, because really that’s what a village hall is about. It’s about the activities that take part you know, that happen inside it. And we’ve got some cracking pictures that have come up. We’ve got a picture of a 1970s jumble sale, and you look at it and you think oh my goodness, you know, I mean that was recycling writ large. Big pile of clothes and everyone jumping in we’ve got pictures of nativity plays, coffee mornings. Eisteddfod, which is like concert, Welsh language concerts. So, the village hall has played a part in so many people’s lives. And by getting this archive together, we’ve had a bit of funding to create exhibition boards. So the life of the old hall will be on the wall of the new hall. So it’s, it nicely brings it together

Johnny Thomson 13:17
A great way of preserving that. And yeah, it’s always fascinating that kind of stuff. And I’m just, I’m just imagining now, perhaps a situation in 90 to 100 years from now, where people are listening to this podcast, and laughing about things like Wi Fi, whyare the talking about… what’s that Wi Fi thing they’re talking about?

Sue Lewis 15:42
Absolutely, It’s, I mean, we’re all part of history aren’t we and the thing with a village hall is that it’s so many people have different memories of it, and it’s played, you know, it plays a part in family parties, it plays a part in wakes. It’s, it’s there all the time. So it’s such an important asset for any community.

Johnny Thomson 16:06
And I guess from that perspective, this whole project must, must really mean a lot to you personally, and to your fellow committee members, of course, that you are taking this significant step in the history of the hall and the village in the local community? Brilliant and that sounds like one of the key things that you’ve that you’ve learned from, from the experience as well.What would your advice or, or Sue’s Top Tips be? Because you know there must be other halls out there that are either considering rebuilding or carrying out some major renovation work, or even just wanting to do things that bring, bring the whole more up to date. So what would your advice be?

Sue Lewis 16:20
Absolutely. And, you know, I won’t say it’s all sunlight and roses, because it involves a lot of committee discussions, it involves a lot of work, you know, and we, you know, like our chair is, you know, I think he’s basically taking the sleeping bag up to the building site. So people put in a lot of effort, but they’re, they’re not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for the community. It’s, you know, we do bicker at each other as you do, you know, because we’ve all got that, but the most important thing is, we’ve all got the same vision, we all know where we want to go to, you know, we might, we might sort of, you know, sort of have the odd sort of bicker and falling out on the way. But at the end of the day, we’re all united in, that is what we want to achieve. And, you know, we’re all signed up to that. And that’s what, what keeps everybody going really My advice would be never go into something half hearted. You know, if you jump right in, you think bold, you think big. And, you know, the bigger and bolder, the better, really, so, don’t do anything, you know, sort of timid tinkering. It’s always best to think, right, let’s think big here. We want a really, we want something that’s going to last another 100 years. And to be honest, you know, our forebears in the 1930s, they thought big. I mean to you know, build a okay it was steel and asbestos, but to build a village hall from scratch, that that was thinking big. And, yeah, that would be my main tip is to think big. And don’t, don’t give up, you know, because nothing is given on a plate, you have to keep plugging away at it. And you know, those grant bids have to be written. And you have to sort of do your research, you have to talk to your community, you can’t do it on your own. You’ve got to bring the community with you. And I think this is why our ‘heart of the community’ project has achieved what it has, is we’ve brought the community with us. And you know, I’m sure they’ll all be there when when we open the doors, and they’ll all be ready to start using the the new hall.

Johnny Thomson 19:04
Wonderful. Well, thanks, Sue. Thanks for sharing your experiences. And then perhaps you can come on again, a little further down the line when you get to that point?

Sue Lewis 19:12
Well, more than happy. I mean, it’s a big learning curve. And you know, why reinvent the wheel if someone else has, you know, done something yet, we’re all more than happy to share our experiences.

Johnny Thomson 19:26
Yeah. And if you’re interested in following the progress of the rebuild, you can keep track of all that through updates on Aberporth Village Hall website as well.

Sue Lewis 19:35
Yeah, we have a website which which I update actually. So there’s a blog and that shows you all the stuff that we’re doing. So, and you know as as with any funding programme, you have to obviously thank your funders, so, using social media, the website, you know local media, that’s, that’s really a top tip.

Johnny Thomson 19:58
Yeah, well, I’ll definitely provide link to that on our site with this episode, so thanks again Sue and good luck or pob lwc, is that?

Sue Lewis 20:09
Pob lwc?

Johnny Thomson 20:11
Yeah, I knew I get it wrong.

Sue Lewis 20:14
Yeah it’s quite difficult language.

Johnny Thomson 20:16
I’m a Geordie Sue so I can’t say English words right anyway, never mind Welsh ones. So that’s my excuse but no thanks again Sue, it’s been it’s been fascinating and as I say genuinely good luck with with everything. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all how it all pans out.

Sue Lewis 20:32
Lovely Thank you, Johnny.

Johnny Thomson 20:35
And on that note that’s all for this episode. Just a reminder that there’s not much time left now to enter our Wonderful Villages Photo Competition where you could win £1,000 for your Village Hall and £500 for yourself. The closing date is 21st of November and you can find out more about the competition on a special page on our website. Thanks as always to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster, who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again in two weeks time with another episode. So if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until next time, good bye for now.