PUBS are locked all over the country and regulars are gagging for a drink amongst their friends. But the locks on the pub in one North-East village have a bearing that goes beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s because the locals in Long Newton – just off the A66 between Darlington and Stockton – are more determined than ever to buy The Vane Arms and unlock an important part of community life.

Shortly before lockdown, on March 4 to be exact, this column revealed how the villagers had  launched a campaign to save ‘The Vane’ from being turned into housing and, instead, become the first community-owned pub in the Tees Valley.

Two months later, it seems a good time for a progress report on ‘the call to Arms’. Has the lockdown dampened the spirits of the campaigners? Or are they more pumped up than ever?

The latter is clearly the case. On March 12, as lockdown drew closer, a public meeting attracted 120 residents, with initial pledges to buy community shares in the pub approaching £200,000.

A not-for-profit limited company – The Long Newton Community Hub Ltd – was established as a result, and has been officially accepted as a member of the Plunkett Foundation, specialists in helping communities take control of local pubs. Not only does that give the campaigners expert mentoring but a £2,500 bursary to support the process.

Stockton Borough Council’s decision to categorise the pub as an “asset of community value” has been ratified following a challenge by the owners. However, in the past few days, they have signalled their intention to test that potentially crucial ruling in court.

Meanwhile, a recent Zoom presentation by steering group members to the parish council led to the authority confirming its support.

Further backing has come from CAMRA – the Campaign For Real Ale – with national planning officer, Paul Ainsworth, lodging a detailed objection.

Due to the number of objection letters, and the level of support, Stockton Borough Council has granted a minimum four-week extension to the consultation period over the planning application by Camfero Homes to convert the pub into a five-bedroom house with another property in the beer garden.

“If anything, the pandemic and the lockdown have galvanised the villagers,” says retired firefighter Nigel Dennison, one of the founder members of the steering group.

“We have a Long Newton Facebook page, which has become a forum for helping people to cope with the crisis, and the pub has become a focal point for the community spirit that’s come to the fore.”

Ideas to support the campaign continue to be developed, such as plans to use the beer garden – with stunning views of Roseberry Topping and the Cleveland Hills – for a farmers’ craft fair.

Discussions are also underway to use the garden and accompanying allotment for “horticultural therapy” to boost well-being and mental health.

“The village is more close-knit as a result of the pandemic, there’s no doubt about that, and we passionately believe that owning the pub will play a part in the community, not only recovering, but being stronger once we emerge from the lockdown,” says Nigel.

Andrew Abbott, the pub’s owner, was given the opportunity to give his side of the story but his father, Jim, “politely declined to comment” on his behalf.

In normal times, another public meeting would now be held but, instead, copies of the prospectus will soon be distributed, under social distancing rules, to residents. The aim is to attract more investors, to raise another £100,000. The minimum share is £500, with a maximum investment of £40,000, and the average dividend has been set at three per cent per year.

With a court hearing now pending, and the planning application expected to go before councillors in approximately six weeks, these are interesting times for Long Newton and the pub that has been part of village life since the 18th century.

Yes, the fight for The Vane Arms is brewing up nicely.

TIMING is all-important when you’re a journalist, and so it proved when I set out to cover an admirable fundraising feat by a little boy in my village last week.

I’d already previewed a plan by seven-year-old Cian Crang, of Hurworth, to run seven miles in aid of St Teresa’s Hospice, which had cared for his grandparents.

His mum, Tina, promised to let me know when the run was going ahead, so she sent me a text one evening last week: “He’s doing it in the morning and he’s scheduled to finish at 8.15am,” she said.

So, there I was, ambling through Hurworth, just after 8am, having given myself plenty of time to get into position to video Cian’s homecoming.

Suddenly, car horns blared, and applause rang out as Cian, accompanied by dad Peter, appeared at full pelt and turned into the road where he lives.

I started to run but, even after seven miles, Cian was too quick. I couldn’t catch him and, instead, I was left puffing and panting over a garden wall.

Up ahead, Cian burst through the finishing line outside his house, as family, friends, and neighbours cheered him home.

“I’m really sorry,” I gasped. “But would you mind doing the last 100 yards again?”

Cian, pictured bottom left, duly obliged along with his dad, while the supporters clapped, whooped, and waved their balloons all over again.

And what’s really important is that St Teresa’s Hospice will benefit to the tune of £4,000.

Cian you’re a star – just go a bit slower next time!

The Northern Echo:

DID you see the brilliant portrait of comedian Matt Lucas on a baked potato the other day?

It was painted by artist Nathan Wyburn, who produces masterpieces using foodstuffs and household items.

Surely, this one deserves to be in The Taty Modern.

The Northern Echo:

A FINAL thought on the Dominic Cummings saga which thrust County Durham into the international spotlight.

Of all the questions that remain, the one I can’t get my head round is the claim that anyone would go on a 60-mile drive, with their wife and child, to check their eyesight.

It smacks of “what the hell can we come up with to explain that bit?”

It is complete and utter eyewash.

The Northern Echo: