29 months has passed since our last AGM, at which time the word COVID was not in our vocabulary and the thought of months of lockdown, social distancing and restrictions on spending time with friends and family was incomprehensible. It’s those activities with friends and family that are one of the mainstays of why the YKRA and the Village Hall exist – to provide a venue for people to gather, socialise, celebrate and relax.
Whilst many Village Halls saw the vast majority of their revenue dry up as lockdowns hit, we have been fortunate enough that our main user, Bybrook Pre-School, remained open for much of the time when we were getting used to remote working, masks and distancing, providing a critical service to key workers and enabling children to continue to get the best possible start to their early education and social development.
In parallel, most of our other regular users have paused their activities, but it is wonderful to see the Youth Club, Rainbows, Brownies, Table Tennis Club, Ballroom Dancing and fitness classes begin to restart, bringing life and activity back to the hall in the evenings.
Although our ad-hoc bookings were non-existent for the bulk of 2020 and much of 2021 to date, we now see a steady flow of gatherings returning to the hall.
Another symbol of a tentative return to normality was the return of the Village Fete in what may perhaps be its new regular slot in September, with amazing weather and a record crowd enjoying a wide range of activities, stalls, music, food and drink.
At our last AGM, we reported that we were struggling to complete refurbishment of the Read Room, previously unused changing rooms which were in a state of disrepair. Through a combination of fundraising, valuable grants from Wiltshire Council and a commitment from a long-term hirer, we were able to complete the work during 2020, with the room being used since early 2021 to provide office space for Bybrook Benefice and a venue for many of the important services that they provide to the community. The transformation of the space is incredible, delivered to a high standard on a tight budget, and I was very pleased to be able to show the space to Tony Read, after whom it is named, before it was occupied.
In the main hall, we have been able to refurbish the flooring, and carry out some decoration work, whilst further fundraising has allowed us to install a high quality cooker and a sensibly sized fridge freezer, further improving facilities for hirers.
Our playground continues to be hugely popular, after the school day, at weekends and during holidays. We continue to invest in the equipment, with new items added following fundraising by local residents, and improvements to fencing around the younger childrens’ play area due to be completed in the Autumn. The cost of high-quality, safe equipment is surprisingly high, and whilst we continue to fundraise and direct a good portion of our income towards the play area, we will also be seeking some financial support from the Parish Council once the Persimmon development is underway and begins to provide funding under its planning obligations.
Alongside our income from rental of our spaces, we have been fortunate enough to benefit from COVID-related grants which covered our lost income and enabled us to keep investing in the site through a difficult period. In previous years, donations from the village Events group and Fete have been significant, and without large gatherings during 2020 this left a hole in our finances, meaning we were particularly grateful for both COVID and Chippenham Area Board support for our projects.
Earlier in 2021, we took the decision to tackle the perimeter boundary behind the hall, backing onto the footpath from The Street through to Biddestone Lane. The wire fencing originally installed by the MOD when the site was transferred to YKRA was in very poor condition and the trees were overgrown and out of control.
Although we have had to break some eggs in order to make an omelette, we are confident that now the boundary fences are back in place, our planned planting of natural hedging and a number of larger specimen trees along the perimeter will quickly mature and improve the area significantly. Planting work will go ahead in the Autumn, and we will select specimens that are manageable in the future to avoid returning to a similar overgrown state.
Elsewhere, the grounds continue to be maintained to a high standard by Jim and his team.
Finally, a word of thanks to the Committee. We are a small group, all with other commitments, and facing increasing requirements around health & safety, in particular relating to COVID, and I would like to extend my thanks once again to each of you for facing in to the challenge of keeping our hall and surroundings maintained, improved, safe and enjoyable. The feedback we receive from our hirers is consistently strong, and that is thanks to the work that you all put in to the YKRA.