One of the questions the nice lady from ACTion with Communities in Cumbria had asked me was, “What is the charity status of your village hall?” In the face of my incomprehension she’d asked the follow-up question, “What does your constitution say.”
I was forced to confess that I had never actually seen the constitution, and to the best of my knowledge nobody had ever mentioned sending the accounts of our village hall to anybody. In fact I’ve always felt that the treasurer at a committee meeting is a bit like the corpse at a funeral. Everybody expects them to be present, but if they start speaking, people get distinctly nervous. Still, Wendy, our treasurer, had long mastered the art of appearing quietly competent. So I thought that it might be an idea to sound her out about our charity status.
Given it was a fine morning and I had to take some photographs of the hall, purely to prove to the world how much we needed a new one, I decided I’d drop in and see her after I’d got the photographs. I showed her the pictures and asked her to choose the ones she felt did full justice to the dilapidation and decrepitude. As she was engrossed in studying them, I tentatively raised the question of our charity status.
“Oh yes,” she said, still looking at the pictures on my phone, “I sent our accounts off to the Charity Commission every year. Indeed I do them on-line.”
I experienced the warm glow that comes to any great leader when they realise they are leading a team of competent people who get on with the tasks delegated to them.
It struck me that I might have the answer to my problems. I asked, “So, do you have a copy of our constitution.”
“No, never seen it. Have you asked Megan? She is the secretary.”
“She’s also a teacher, she’ll be in work.”
“No problems, I’ll text her.”
We drank coffee and discussed the possibilities for fund-raising, until Wendy’s phone pinged. “Ah, Megan has texted back.”
“Oh good, what does she say?”
Wendy read the text. “Never seen it.”
“Indeed. Given that Megan took the job on when Gladys, her predecessor, died, we can hardly ask Gladys.” With forced casualness, Wendy asked, “You could always ask Archie Wilson.”
Now it’s true that Archie had been chairman for forty years, starting his period of misrule in the 1970s, but frankly he didn’t strike me as the sort of person who kept up to speed with the paperwork.
“You know Archie, ask him anything and he’d leap in and try and take control again. Not because he wants it, but out of pure habit. Could you ask the Charity Commission if they have a copy?”
“The problem with that is that it looks awfully unprofessional. And what happens if they say ‘no’. Not only do we not have a constitution, but the world of officialdom then knows we don’t have a constitution.”
I sighed, then had a moment of inspiration. “Who was secretary before Gladys?”
Wendy stared into her coffee. “I’m tempted to say ‘Adam’, but it might have been Noah.” She paused. “Was it Tucker Wainwright?”
“You’re right, it was old Tucker.”
“But he’s been dead forty years.”
“And the rest. But his daughter still lives in Cowperthwaite. She’s the sort of person who has never thrown anything out in her life. She might still have his papers.”
Wendy shrugged. “I suppose there’s always a chance.”
Molly Wainwright stared into space when I mentioned old Tucker’s papers. “I didn’t throw them out. It’s just a matter of where I put them.” She gestured to the kitchen table. “Sit down and have a cup of tea and I’ll try to remember.”
It took the best part of a teapot full of tea to loosen the gates of memory. Frankly there is only so much tea and coffee a chap can drink, and I was about to make my desperate excuses and leave when Molly said, “That’s it, I never had them. Dad got fed up of them cluttering up the cottage and stored them with Toby Graham. This was sometime before the war. You go and see the Grahams.”
The quest continued! I decided to drop in and see the Grahams after milking. Mark Graham was coming out of the milking parlour when I arrived. He’s Toby’s grandson. I explained my plight.
“Grandfather was a hoarder. He had all sorts of stuff squirrelled away in the old granary. I’ll get our Joseph to give you a hand looking.” He shouted across to his youngest son. “Joe, see if you can find some papers he’s looking for in Grandfather’s shed.”
Joe was the younger of the two sons. Not a bad cowman, but the farm couldn’t support him and his brother. So Joe had his own business. He had a tractor and a vacuum slurry tanker and emptied septic tanks locally. I’d had him round to do ours, he’s a steady lad and doesn’t make a mess. Also he has a digger which he’ll take round to jobs on a low loader pulled behind the tractor. And of course, when he’s not busy, he’ll help out at home.
Joe led me through a maze of old buildings, until eventually we came to a door that was blocked off by a pile of sheep feed-blocks. We moved enough of them to open the door, and Joe led the way in. “We don’t go in here much now. I’m sure there was a light switch. He reached out and clicked the switch. Somewhere up above us in the cobwebs, a light-bulb woke into dim life. Irritated spiders doubtless scuttled for cover, muttering about how the neighbourhood was going to the dogs.
As I looked round, it was obvious that the old granary was quite big, but was pretty much packed solid. The double doors at the front were barred from the inside, but you couldn’t have opened them anyway because an old Triumph Herald blocked the way. Judging by the tyres it hadn’t moved since the 1970s either. We picked our way down a narrow path between piles of buckets and drums filled with the sort of miscellaneous bolts and fittings that nobody in their right mind would ever throw out, ‘because they’ll always come in.’
Eventually we came to a set of shelves which filled the back wall. Joe glanced at the shelves and then pointed, “Look there, if we ever buy an old Fergie tractor, we’ve already for a set of wheel weights for it.”
With that he led me along the front of the shelves and at one end there was a gap. It was only when I passed through the gap that I realised there was another ‘room’ behind the shelving.
“This is where the old lad stored stuff for folk.”
Most of it was covered with old sheets, stiff with dust. Joe flicked a sheet aside. “Good grief I wondered where this had gone.” He picked up a rifle. I recognised it, Short Magazine Lee Enfield. “I remember Grandad telling me old Toby had a rifle when he was in the Home Guard and he’d not given it back because it was too useful for rabbiting.”
I looked at the rifle, I’d have said it was last cleaned at some point in the early 1950s, which was probably when Old Toby’s borrowed ammunition finally ran out.
Joe was delving deeper amongst the heaps. “Here you are, a chest of drawers.” He pointed to the top. Written across the top in yellow smit was a name. “Tucker Wainwright.”
Gingerly I pulled open one of the drawers. It was filled with manila folders full of yellowing correspondence, faded account books and finally, in a faded and only slightly damp envelope postmarked 3rd August 1920, was the document I’d been searching for, ‘The constitution of Auldwick with Cowperthwaite village hall.’
You might not have realised but it’s now ‘Village Halls Week.’ As somebody who, one way or another, has spent a lot of time in village halls in various places, I’m a believer in their importance. So I thought I’d celebrate them a bit. So the story will continue.
Now if you’re lucky enough to live in Cumbria there is ACTion with Communities in Cumbria, our Rural Community Council, on hand to help.
If you’re in the rest of England you want ACRE, Action with Communities in Rural England.
Alternatively, when you just want a good book
As a reviewer commented, “Yet another quiet, but highly entertaining, amble through Jim Webster’s farming life, accompanied by Sal, his collie extraordinarie.
Sheep, cattle, government eccentricities and wry observations are all included.”