As 2022 begins to unfold, PETER BARRON takes an affectionate look back to some of the special people he’s written about over the past year...

JANUARY: It was the sixth anniversary of the death from a heart attack of David Nelson, a much-loved character in Weardale. His family and friends launched a memorial fund in his memory and, six years on, £50,000 had been raised to install 21 life-saving defibrillators across the dale. “I'm sure he’d think we’d done him proud – he’d be amazed,” said his daughter, Gillian Hutchinson. A wonderful way to begin 2021.

FEBRUARY: The spotlight was shone on Beth Davidson, an international veteran fencing champion from Darlington. Beth had launched a project to use the sport of fencing to enable Muslim women to stay fit, build their confidence, and break down cultural barriers. “It’s really opened my eyes to the challenges facing these women,” said Beth.

MARCH: As Alasdair MaConachie – known as ‘Mister Darlington’ – celebrated his 75th birthday, he stepped down as Vice Lord Lieutenant of County Durham. It provided an excuse to pay a heartfelt tribute to a remarkable philanthropist, businessman, community campaigner, and charity champion. “It has been the most enormous privilege to be in business, but to also to try to make a difference whenever possible,” he said.

APRIL: Toby Simpson, 25, of Darlington, announced plans to cycle 5,000 kilometres around the country in just 40 days in aid of two charities close to his heart. Toby went on to complete his mission, raising more than £12,000. It was split between The Eve Appeal, which supports cancer research, and The Walk and Talk Trust, which supplies free walking boots to children. “There were dark days, but the key thing with endurance challenges is to think about the reasons for doing them and that’s what gets you through those difficult moments,” he said.

MAY: Vicki Robertson, of Darlington, told how she would be donating a kidney to a stranger to save the life of her fiancé, Kevin Taylor. The couple were taking part in the UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme, which enables pairs, who are incompatible for direct organ donations, to be ‘pooled’ with the aim of finding successful matches. “I was initially disappointed that I couldn’t give my kidney directly to Kevin, but I know I’ll be helping someone else and, by doing that, Kevin also gets the chance of a life with some kind of normality,” explained Vicki.

JUNE: Evergreen Peter Walton, of Newton Aycliffe, reached 80 at the turn of the year, and suffered a stroke in February, but continued to devote his life to helping young people to enjoy the sport of badminton. “I just want to get more young people playing, whatever their background or circumstances because they are, after all, the future of the sport I love,” he said. What a star!

JULY: I had the privilege of climbing to the top of the belfry at All Saints Church, in my home village of Hurworth-on-Tees, where Ken Pattison, a villager for 51 years, had installed 32 nesting boxes for swifts, which are in serious decline across the country. Audio equipment had been installed to emit the mating cry of a swift. “It was hard work getting the boxes up there because it’s a tight climb, but it’s a case of trying to do our bit to help,” said Ken.

AUGUST: Lyndon Longhorne, who grew up in Crook, finally achieved his dream of competing for Great Britain in The Paralympics. The Northern Echo has followed Lyndon’s emergence as a top-class athlete ever since he was struck by meningitis as a baby, leading to amputations of his right leg above the knee, his left leg below the knee, his right hand, and the fingertips on his left hand. Lyndon swam in eight Paralympic races in 10 days, achieving his target of reaching a final in the S4 100 metres freestyle, and setting a new British record. “It’s only three years to the Paris Paralympics, and I want a medal this time, so there’s work to be done,” he told me.

SEPTEMBER: It was a pleasure to meet Mike Johnson, still blowing his heart out as a cornet player with Spennymoor Town Band 65 years after he joined as an eight-year-old. The band was preparing to represent the North of England at the National Brass Band Finals of Great Britain. “I’ve had so much personal enjoyment from the band over the years: the thrill of entertaining, and bringing music to so many people, young and old,” he said. The band might not have won, but the members did the region proud, and Mike has no plans to hang up his cornet just yet.

OCTOBER: Ken Longstaff, of Darlington, has seen his life torn apart by a devastating illness, Guillain Barre Syndrome, which left him in a locked-in state for seven weeks. He is now confined to a wheelchair and requires 24-hour care. Despite all of that, Ken, pictured bottom left, is flourishing as a talented artist – even though he needs help squeezing his tubes of paint. “I still find it hard to hold a paintbrush for a long time but I just love it – it keeps me sane,” he said.

NOVEMBER: What a joy to attend the 100th birthday party of Molly Ingham, at The Croft Spa Hotel, in Croft-on-Tees. It emerged that Molly had been one of the first women in Darlington to learn to drive, and her wartime service as a driver included having General Montgomery as a VIP passenger.“It was quite an honour – who’d have thought it?” she smiled.

DECEMBER: The 13th Christmas that Joan Lawrence – mum of missing York chef Claudia Lawrence – has been waiting for news of her daughter. During a walk in South Park, Darlington, Joan revealed that she’d made 80 Christmas cakes for Malton and Norton Lions Club, to be distributed to those who are housebound and isolated in the part of North Yorkshire where she lives. Always caring for others, Joan had used a recipe handed down by her grandmother. “The ingredients are a secret, but my dream is to be able to hand the recipe over to Claudia one day,” she said.

...And, finally, a heartwarming end to the year as, Madi, the lovable little mongrel, began her career as a therapy dog by visiting the children’s wing at Butterwick Hospice Care.

She’d been dumped in a rubbish bin in Romania as a puppy but rescued and brought to this country thanks to the efforts of two admirable women, Carol Hewett and Jenny Laidler, who help run a charity called Dogs In Distress.

Madi was found a home in Newby, near Middlesbrough, with Maaz Rahman, Nicci Knight, and their four children. She was found to have the perfect temperament to work as a therapy dog, and there are now plans to visit hospitals, care homes, and schools this year.

"It was really special to see how much joy she brought to the room at the hospice," said Maaz.

Here’s to shining the spotlight on more special people in 2022.