Key figures in the running of Durham’s markets and the maintenance of the city’s hospital have been admitted to the ranks of its historic Freemen’s body.

Colin Wilkes, who retired after three decades as managing director of Durham Markets Company last October, has been sworn in as a gentlemen freeman, in a colourful ceremony at the Guild Hall of the Town Hall.

As part of the same swearing-in ceremony Les Cleckner, a 42-year member of the maintenance team at the University Hospital of North Durham, was admitted to the Joiners’ Company of the Freemen, which, itself, dates from 1661.

Mr Wilkes, 63, brought up in Low Pittington, near Durham, attended the city’s Chorister School and then Durham School before studying law at Durham University.

(Image: Geoff Kitson)

Upon graduation he took up a post with one of the biggest commercial law firms in Newcastle, where he spent five years, before joining his family’s steel fabrication business, in Cold Hesledon, near Seaham, which was run by his father, Tom.

Mr Wilkes became a director of the Durham Markets Company in the 1990s, becoming the fourth generation of his family to have played a role in the city's markets since the mid-19th Century.

He oversaw a major refurbishment of the indoor market building, which had seen better days.

Speaking of the need for a improvements, he said: “At that time it was in a very sorry state.

“The only running water in the indoor premises was through the roof.”

By the time of his departure, late last year, the business, established by an Act of Parliament in 1851, was one of the few privately-owned markets in the country to open six-days-a-week, promoting a range of popular annual events, including the city’s Christmas Festival.

The market is home to 40 independent local businesses with its only closure throughout its history being enforced during the Covid pandemic.

Despite standing down as managing director, he remains a director of the company.

He lives in retirement with his wife Karen, on Tyneside.

(Image: Geoff Kitson)

For Mr Cleckner, 66, who retired from his role at the city’s hospital, last September, the peak early Covid period left him with harrowing memories he struggles to forget.

“It was the worst time of my life, terrible for all of us who worked there, particularly during the first few weeks.”

He said working on wards, occasionally on intensive care, with only basic protective equipment, was harrowing, but when better gowns, suits, masks and gloves, were provided it made physical work more difficult.

On getting home each night, he stripped at the door, placing his clothing in a bag, before showering.

(Image: Geoff Kitson)

Having begun his working life as a joinery apprentice with North Road-based builders, Bell and Ridley, he helped to maintain church buildings across the region, including the restoration of St Mary’s Cathedral, in Newcastle.

(Image: The Northern Echo)

Upon joining the workforce at the hospital, then known as Dryburn, he helped to renovate and replace windows and doors in nine of the old wards, while also building a temporary wooden-framed operating theatre.

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Browney-born, he remains living in the village on the outskirts of Durham with his wife Pam.

Away from the workplace, Mr Cleckner performed as a singer semi-professionally in clubs from the North East to Yorkshire.

The recent swearing-in ceremony for both Mr Cleckner and Mr Wilkes was among the last duties in the civic year for outgoing Durham Mayor, Lesley Mavin, and her deputy Liz Brown.