A DRIZZLY grey morning in Barnard Castle. The pavement outside the Witham Hall, the grand buff building in the centre of the main street, is gleaming wet and is being swept by a woman with a broom. Pigeons, she explains, roost in the classical portico overnight and leave their own welcome mat outside the community arts centre’s front door.

Then she introduces herself as Shelagh Avery, the new chair of the Witham board of trustees which meets for the first time today to discuss the “recovery plan”.

Shelagh retired to Teesdale last spring for a more relaxed way of life after a long career in the rail and oil industries, working most recently in Dubai, Houston and Calcutta. But she found the Witham to be wobbling.

“My intention was to go off full time to work on my retirement,” she says. “That hasn’t happened – although the thought of my retirement sitting at home, reading a book, didn’t have been much appeal, so it is my pleasure to be able to volunteer.”

She agreed to become chair of the Witham at an “uncomfortable” time in its history when her management skills were desperately needed. She was head of leadership and management development for British Rail, and for nine years was BP’s global head of recruitment; now her hands-on role as Witham chair involves sweeping up pigeon guano.

The Witham was built as a Mechanics' Institute and dispensary in 1846, and in 2013 benefitted from a £3.2m Lottery-funded refurbishment. This solved many of the structural problems – although when the Duke of Gloucester reopened it in 2015, strategically placed boarding masked damp problems on the front of the 1860 music hall – and has helped to establish it as a major comedy venue.

But the refurb could not solve the daily deficit between the Witham’s income and its expenditure. Matters came to a head last summer when it advertised for a new £60,000-a-year director.

“The candidate was identified but the finances of the Witham were so perilous that it would have been foolish for her to take up the position and for the Witham to encourage her,” says Shelagh.

“We reversed the process in July and that caused the trustees, somewhat bullied by me, to think whether the Witham needed to close because it couldn’t trade insolvent, losing £10,000-a-month.”

But, led by Jill Cole of the Northern Heartlands project, there were trustees who felt “that it was unacceptable to make a closure decision without appealing to the community for support”. On August 8, they launched a campaign to raise £30,000 in 30 days.

“At the end,” says Shelagh, checking the campaign thermometer on the wall of her pokey office, “we’d raised £42,121. There were two substantial donations of £5,000 and several £100s, but most of it was double digit stuff that demonstrated the passion and commitment of the community for the Witham.”

Durham County Council, through its councillors’ budgets, gave £60,000.

“Part of the case for the council is the prominence of the building,” says Sheila. “There are 14 empty shops on the town’s high street and a shoe shop could soon make 15, so the notion that this building – which had significant investment in 2013 – is to close was a very serious point for the council to consider.”

Losing the Witham as an active building would leave Barney looking as if one of its front teeth had been punched out.

In some ways, the fundraising took the Witham back to its beginnings in public subscription more than 150 years ago. The successful campaign has bought time for the “recovery plan” – devised by another new trustee, Ada Burns, the former chief executive of Darlington Borough Council – to be put in place.

“It is very clear to me after six months that you can’t run enough events and there’s not enough money in the tourist economy to make this building self-sufficient from its commercial activity,” says Shelagh, who grew up in Newcastle. “Therefore support in the form of grants or foundations or donors or legacies or ongoing community support will all be necessary.

“We will need a pipeline of appeals to grants and foundations. We would ideally be able to attract the support of major donors and other local businesses.

"We will need increasing levels of collaboration with schools and the Bowes Museum and Raby Castle so we can put out a widening message of the cultural offer of this south-west part of Durham.”

The fundraising also enabled the Witham to re-connect with its grassroots. Shelagh says: “There has been a view that the Witham was ‘a bolthole of the elite’ – that was a phrase used in a letter, so during the campaign we have become attuned to the needs of local community life and realised we need to extend the range of the offer.”

The building has diverse uses – from art gallery to café, from ballet classes to Pilates groups, from youth theatre to farmers' markets, from commercial offices to Buddhist meditation – and the Witham believes its spring programme of events and shows, which includes tribute bands for the first time, has a wider appeal.

“The whole purpose of the Witham is to provide community space for residents and tourists,” says Shelagh. “We still hold true to the original intentions of its founders to promote education, science, arts and to create a focal point within Barnard Castle and the wider Teesdale community to provide culture and social activity and entertainment at affordable cost.

“My ambition is for the Witham to be a place for everyone that has something for everyone. I regard it as Barnard Castle’s village hall and it needs to fulfil all the functions of a village hall as well as be a magnet for tourism.”

And that’s not to forget its role as a roost for pigeons.