It is six years this month since David Nelson died of a heart attack – and the anniversary coincides with a remarkable milestone in the campaign launched in his memory. PETER BARRON reports

AS she reflects on what has been achieved since she lost her dad suddenly six years ago, Gillian Hutchinson can take comfort in the way his legacy has grown across his beloved dale.

“I’m sure he’d think we’d all done him proud – he’d be amazed,” she says, wiping away tears.

David Nelson was part of Weardale – a member of the angling and leek clubs in Frosterley, where he was born – and there was never a chance of him leaving the dale.

He settled in Hill End with his wife, Linda, their daughter, Gillian, and son Andrew, and made a living as a self-employed builder. A one-man band, his blue van was as familiar in Weardale as Postman Pat’s red one in Greendale. Completely fearless, he’d always find time for a bit of craic with passers-by, no matter how high he might be on a rooftop or church steeple.

“Everyone knew him and it was such a shock when it happened,” says Gillian.

In January 2015, David began suffering from what was thought to be chronic indigestion – perhaps the result of over-indulgence over the festive period. As the pain worsened, his family called 111 for medical advice, and were told an ambulance was on its way, and would be there soon. Unfortunately, the nearest available ambulance was at North Tees Hospital and took 40 minutes to arrive. David collapsed and went into cardiac arrest 20 minutes into the wait, despite the air ambulance also being despatched.

“There was nothing anyone could do – it was too late,” recalls Gillian.

The tragedy served to expose the vulnerability of the dale: there were no first responders on call, and not a single defibrillator anywhere in Weardale.

“We were a dale without a safety net,” says Gillian.

Three months after David’s funeral, family and friends gathered around the kitchen table at the family home, and decided to launch a memorial fund to address the issue.

A neighbour of Gillian’s, Nigel Mitchell, had gone through a similar experience in Teesdale when his brother, Stephen, died of a heart attack in 2010. A memorial fund had led to the installation of a defibrillator in Middleton-in-Teesdale, and Nigel’s advice proved invaluable.

To start with, the aim of the David Nelson Memorial Fund was to raise enough money for a couple of defibrillators – one at Hill End and the other at Frosterley. But the generosity of the people of Weardale was underestimated.

“When we decide to do something up here, we do it properly,” says Gillian, who headed the campaign with her sister-in-law, Allison Nelson. “It absolutely snowballed.”

A snowstorm of posters and flyers was whipped up, along with raffles and a giant tombola at Wolsingham Show. Gillian ran the Great North Run, and she and five others braved a zip-wire from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art at Gateshead. By September, 2015, there was enough in the pot to buy six defibrillators.

The decision was to keep going, so that all of the villages of the dale were covered. As the snowball kept rolling, the appeal was extended to include hamlets spread right through the dale.

Now, Weardale has 20 public access defibrillators – from Cowshill to Thornley. In addition, the appeal has purchased five defibrillators for local primary schools, another for Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue, plus a cabinet to enable public access to a defribillator at a caravan site at Westgate.

Had it not been for the pandemic, Gillian would have run her 17th Great North Run last autumn. Instead, she took part in the virtual event, running through Weardale, past many of the defibrillator points, from Killhope Wheel to The Grey Bull at Stanhope, with locals cheering her on and sounding air-horns.

By the time she’d completed the 13.1 mile route, another £1,000 had been pledged. The Virtual Great North Run total has since risen to £2,108 and – to coincide with the sixth anniversary of David’s death – the magnificent milestone of £50,000 has now been passed.

“The support from the people of Weardale has been fantastic – more than I could have ever imagined – and I can’t thank them enough,” says Gillian. “The ambulance service has also been incredibly supportive, giving advice, and organising training sessions.”

David had four grandchildren – Sophie, Aaron, Harry, and Bobby, who was six when he became the youngest in the dale to be trained in how to use a defibrillator.

Their grandad’s legacy will go on because the memorial fund will be kept “ticking over” to pay for the new batteries, pads, and general maintenance of the 21 defibrillators that bear his name.

And the best news of all is that one of them has now been successfully used to save a life in the dale.

Weardale had no safety net six years ago. Now it can claim to have the best of any rural area in the country. Yes, David Nelson would have been proud, alright.

WHEN it comes to fundraising, these strange times call for creative thinking.

Well done, therefore, to the Mayor of Darlington, Chris McEwan, for pulling off something very different to mark Burns Night.

Chris was born in Greenock and, although he left when he was just six weeks old, he’s always maintained an affinity with the Scottish town.

And so, on Saturday night, he managed to team up with the Greenock Burns Club – the oldest in the world, and known as The Mother Club – to stage a virtual Burns supper 200 miles away in Darlington.

Meals were provided courtesy of the Mercure Darlington Kings Hotel, which everyone still calls The King’s Head, and delivered by 1AB Taxis. Then, paying guests were able to use a computer link, on Zoom, to watch as Greenock Burns Club piped in the haggis, and provided music and speakers.

A Scottish quiz, expertly devised by Darlington Rotarian Steve Rose, and a stand-up comedy routine by the brilliant Patrick Monahan rounded off the night, which raised money for St Teresa’s Hospice and the Mayor’s other charities.

It was a surreal experience to compere the evening in black tie from my home in Hurworth-on-Tees, but a privilege too. With such dependence on technology, anything might have gone wrong – The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley – but, somehow, it all came together.

When we look back on the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ll remember the hardship and tragedy. But we’ll also remember the resilience and invention.

FINALLY, someone pointed out during the virtual Burns supper that, before March 2020, Zoom was just an ice lolly from when we were kids. For many, it is now part of daily life – and it’s proving to be rather Fab.