A group set up to tackle loneliness in County Durham is proving more important than ever in the wake of the pandemic – and one member has good reason to be especially grateful. PETER BARRON reports

THERE’S a buzz of excitement in the hall as the old friends greet each other and take their seats, like schoolchildren being reunited having had their fill of the summer holidays.

The Friends Together group meets at Crook Community Centre on Thursday mornings, and it’s good to be back.

I’d last visited the group to give a talk in September 2019, discovering then how the group had been born out of health care worker Eunice Smith’s determination to do something positive about isolation in her local community.

Friends Together had proved to be an instant hit, and was even celebrating its first marriage proposal. Bill, 74, had gone down on one knee to pop the question to 79-year-old Ci after taking her for a drive in the Durham Dales and serenading her. Top of the World, by The Carpenters, was the chosen song because it summed up how she made him feel.

Little did any of us know back then that Covid-19 was about to rear its ugly head within a few months. It’s been a hard time for everyone since then but, even when meetings couldn’t be held, Friends Together still proved to be a lifeline.

“We rang members throughout Covid to make sure everyone was OK and dropped Christmas presents outside their doors,” says Eunice. “People having to isolate made it more important than ever that we stayed in touch, and we’ve been getting more and more enquiries.”

When lockdown finally ended, a 'welcome back' party was arranged, and regular meetings have gradually got going again.

“It’s been amazing to see people back with smiles on their faces,” says the group’s secretary, Susan Hall.

Being back together clearly means a lot to everyone, and it’s nice to see that Bill and Ci are still going strong. “If anything, the pandemic has brought us even closer,” smiles Ci, glancing at Bill next to her.

But, in the light of recent events, perhaps the person best placed to talk about the value of Friends Together is Hazel Campbell. That’s because the group has played a vital role in her rehabilitation following a terrible car crash that left her in a coma just before Christmas.

Hazel, a Friends Together trustee, suffered life-changing injuries, including a brain trauma, broken ribs, pierced lungs, liver damage, and multiple fractures in her hip. By a quirk of fate, her husband, John, was travelling in the opposite direction, and held her while the emergency services were on their way.

Eight months on, Hazel is still working her way back to fitness with the help of Sharon Stewart, a rehabilitation assistant with Neuro OT, which provides specialist brain injury occupational therapy in the North-East.

While attending Friends Together meetings with Hazel, Sharon has come to appreciate the group’s importance. “It’s a massive lifeline for these people, helping them to deal with loneliness and bereavement, and the community spirit in the room is incredible,” she says.

“It’s a long road for Hazel but the group has been a huge help to her in rebuilding her confidence. At first, she was anxious about where she would fit back in. Memory, planning, organisation, and emotions have all been affected. But she’s making great progress.”

The thought of returning to Friendship Together became an inspiration for Hazel as she went through recovery: “It gave me a goal to aim for and, now we’re back, it gives me a sense of belonging and a trigger to get back into life. People have been so kind and supportive,” she explains.

Hazel also attends gym sessions in the community centre to build up her strength, and is now involved in talks with Headway, the brain injury association, about setting up a branch in the area.

Meanwhile, with the reputation of Friends Together spreading, bids are being made for funding so the group can expand, with the possibility of an extra weekly meeting on Mondays as well as Thursdays.

But that’s for another day. My talk over, the members are fully focused on today’s game of bingo. The hall is full of chatter, Hazel Campbell is confidently calling out the numbers, and it’s heartwarming to see a full house at Friends Together again.

The Northern Echo:

ALMOST a year ago, I took a cryptic call from a businessman called Peter Bell, asking if I'd meet him in Durham to discuss “a mad idea” he needed help promoting.

It turned out to be the launch of a new charity called The Walk and Talk Trust, with an ambition to improve public health through the power of walking…and talking.

After months of planning, the charity was formed, and it went on to launch a campaign called The Big Smile, a series of 50 fundraising walks, through beautiful northern countryside, adding up to 1,000 kilometres.

The first walk took place at Raby Castle, near Staindrop, on June 21 and the last leg was completed amid popping champagne corks in Durham City last Friday.

Schools, businesses, public sector bodies, and individuals signed up, with The Northern Echo providing welcome publicity.

The value in terms of physical fitness and mental health is incalculable, but the money raised in the first year will buy more than 1,000 pairs of walking boots for children.

In the midst of Covid-19, inspiring a new generation of walkers strikes me as a very noble objective, and this is just the beginning, with thoughts already turning to The Big Smile 2022.

Peter Bell has been generous in his praise of others for the part they’ve played, not least walk leaders Keiron Young and Richard Ellis, who hiked the full 1,000 kilometres.

But it was Peter's vision and he should take a bow.

Not such a mad idea after all, was it?

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, my star of the week is Lisa McArdle, who won the Best Dressed Lady title on Ladies' Night at Redcar Races on Saturday.

It was a pleasure to compere the event and to discover that Lisa had driven to Redcar from her home in Castleford after a 7pm-7am nightshift at the Warburtons bread factory in Wakefield.

On just three hours sleep, she managed to look glamorous in a chic black and white outfit with a feathery hat, and red shoes and bag (sorry, but that's about as far as my fashion sense will take the description).

Her triumph in the fashion stakes has now featured in newspapers, as well as on BBC Radio Tees, racing websites, and no end of social media channels.

Surely, she deserves a night off from Warburtons in return for generating such an appetising slice of positive publicity?

The Northern Echo: