Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A story worth waiting for...

During the fifteen years I spent as a freelance journalist, trainee and then staff journalist on regional newspapers, I can probably count on one hand the occasions when I felt proud of the work I did. Not those times when I thought I'd written a good story - rather, the times when I thought I'd actually done something worthwhile with what little talent I'd been granted.

One such instance was the £30,000-odd we raised in a month for breast cancer research, with the high point a world record-breaking chain of bras - 3.2 miles long - along Douglas Promenade (yes, the bras were empty at the time). All done in howling wind and pissing rain, but there was one hell of a sense of achievement when all was done and we were in the pub celebrating. Other moments were few and far between.

Then last night I heard some news that made me smile. And I'm still smiling now, twenty-four hours later. As a trainee on the Chorley Guardian, I received a letter from a woman called Diana Curren, highlighting the plight of a ruined historic building called Bank Hall, which stands by the River Douglas in the nearby village of Bretherton. The shell of the building remained, but it was crumbling away as the years passed and the grounds were wildly overgrown. Diana asked if anything could be done to raise awareness of the hall and protect if from any further deteroriation.

I met Diana at Bank Hall and instantly fell in love with the place. You could live a few hundred yards away from it and spend your entire life unaware of its existence. The hall dates back to the early 17th century, and you can read about its history here. It was the kind of place - both the building itself and the extensive grounds - for which the words moody and atmospheric were conjured.

Tall chimneys and a spectacular clock tower remained, but gone were the lime trees which once lined the drive to the front door, likewise the stone lions that guarded it. The building had been devastated by dry rot and the sheer weight of years of neglect.

Spurred on the by the visit, I wrote a feature on the hall's history and current plight. We asked for views from the public, and I wasn't expecting the strength of emotion the piece generated - particularly from those who either knew very little of Bank Hall, or were completely unaware of its existence.

I arranged a meeting (in a local pub, naturally) of interested parties and from that meeting was born the Bank Hall Action Group. I stayed active within the group, covering developments as a plan was formed. It led to the Chorley Guardian running the 'Save Bank Hall' campaign, which won awards. The strength of feeling within the community was astonishing. Over the next twelve months, meetings were held with the owners. Access was established, to the grounds if not the building, and - after what seemed like an age - some initial stabilising work was undertaken.

But then the campaign seemed to stall. There was little indication from the owners and the council of any real desire to come up with a solution. Some schemes were suggested, but never came to fruition. In September 1996, I left Chorley and returned to the Island.

The following years saw further work carried out - ivy was stripped away, trees growing out of the foundations were removed, and the garden was cleared of the jungle that was strangling it. More of the grounds were opened to the public, a visitor museum was built and each year a calendar of events was organised. I managed to stay in touch from time to time, one day hoping that the building could be restored in some way.

As the years passed, I lost faith. I shouldn't have. The Bank Hall team continued to work tirelessly behind the scenes. The website was created , a Facebook page appeared, the campaign to save the building continued to gather pace. The hall was also in with a chance of winning the first series of BBC's Restoration, which saw derelict historic sites vying for the public's vote.

Last night I heard the news that planning approval has finally been granted for a project that will restore Bank Hall, if not to its exact former glory, then at least to what should be a decent version of it. There will be apartments, and a visitors' centre in the clock tower and main hall/porch, a walled heritage garden (back to how it was in its pomp) and conversion of the greenhouse and potting sheds into a visitor entrance and cafe.

In this day and age, it sounds like a fair compromise. The news brought with it another rare feeling of pride from my time in journalism, five years after I left it. The wait has been worth it. What started sixteen years ago, with me as a wet-behind-the-years rookie trying to find a feature with which to fill a page gap before deadline, has ended - all being well - with a victory for people power.

I write these words not as a self-congratulatory pat on the back, but as a tribute to the folk who took up the fight in those early days and those who continued to carry the baton as the years passed. It also serves as a reminder that, whatever it is you want in this life, most of the time you have to work damn hard to get it - and if you give up on your dreams, you won't live to see them come to glorious life. And that's particularly apt within the world of publishing.

My thanks go to everyone in the Bank Hall Action Group, past and present. A fantastic achievement.

(My thanks also to Bank Hall tour guide John Howard for allowing me to use his photographs - if you want to see more cool pics, visit - and like - the Hall's Facebook page here)


Carol Anne said...

Brilliant news! Well done to all kindred Bank Hall campaigners, past & present. And a big thank you, John, for your report and involvement that created the initial spark!

John Quirk said...

Cheers, Carol. Am I right in thinking you got involved too, early doors? The years do strange things to that thing called memory...