Despite reaching the 80 mark, and suffering from a stroke, evergreen Peter Walton shows no sign of stopping in his lifelong quest to showcase his beloved sport of badminton. PETER BARRON reports


ASKED why he’s still so busy chasing shuttlecocks around the North-East, Peter Walton acknowledges that it’s “a very good question”.

“My sons ask me that all the time,” he says. “But the truth is that it gets me out of the house – and, if I didn’t do it, there’s no-one else.”

Peter was 80 at the start of the year, and suffered a stroke in February, but continues to be the region’s Mr Badminton – running several clubs and doing his best to net new members.

“We mustn’t let it die, so I can’t pack it in,” he declares. “I couldn’t just sit back and go for a walk, or do the shopping, and see the kids doing nothing – it would break my heart,” he adds.

And, when someone like Peter Walton asks for help, it’s impossible to say no – so here goes with his remarkable story.

He was born in Stanhope in 1941 in the days when it snowed so hard, villagers would be cut off for weeks.

Dad, Sidney, ran the Co-op store up the dale in Rookhope, while mum, Eileen, was a talented dressmaker in her spare time, and Peter was one of three children.

His love affair with badminton began at 16 when he started playing at the church hall in Union Street, in Darlington. It was a passion that continued to grow when he joined The Army and played for the YMCA in the Home Counties League.

After a stint with the Scots Guards in Germany, Peter played for various clubs and also started umpiring, going on to officiate at 24 international matches during his career.

He started coaching for Darlington Borough Council in 1973, going round schools and local villages – progressing to Level 3 – and, in two years, he'll have clocked up a half century as a coach.

Although he has made his living as a professional coach in recent years, his jobs have included being a dog trainer, commercial manager for Bishop Auckland Football Club, and running the lottery for Darlington Football Club.

But badminton has always been his real passion and Peter still helps to run several clubs in Darlington, Sunderland, and Newton Aycliffe, as well as going into schools, although the pandemic has had an inevitable impact.

Dolphin Premier Badminton Club Juniors, which meets weekly at the Dolphin Centre in Darlington, was welcoming more than 30 young players to its meetings before Covid, but saw its membership decline sharply after lockdown. Now only around ten players attend each week.

Peter, who now lives in Aycliffe, said: “After months of restrictions, it’s more important than ever to get kids involved in sports and physical activity.

“If we’re honest, there simply isn’t enough support for grassroots sport, and certainly not for badminton. We’ve found that far more children start playing tennis but give it up quickly, whereas those who get into badminton tend to stick with it.

“I want anyone who is interested in playing badminton to feel they’re welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing for years or a total beginner, if you’re in a wheelchair, or if you have any additional needs which make engaging in sport more challenging.

“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.”

On February 2 this year, while on his way to the dentist, Peter suddenly found that his legs wouldn’t work. He ended up in hospital, where a stroke was confirmed.

“Obviously, I have to be careful now, but I’m rebuilding my strength and I just want to get going again,” he says. “With luck, I’ll be back playing in another couple of months.”

So, how long does the father-of-three and grandad-of-two intend to carry on? “Well, if I recover properly, I’m sure I can do another ten years,” he insists.

The world of grassroots sport is held together by some wonderfully dedicated local heroes – and Peter Walton is up there with the best.

  • Dolphin Premier Badminton Club Juniors meets at the Dolphin Centre on Sundays at 1:30pm. Sessions last two hours and cost £3.20 per person. To adhere to Covid regulations, any new players are asked to notify the coaches by emailing before attending.

ONTO another sporting local hero – celebrated World Cup referee, George Courtney MBE, who is 80 on Friday.

A former headteacher, George started refereeing around Spennymoor in 1961, and rose to become the country’s most illustrious football referee.

Glittering highlights included the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, and the 1980 FA Cup final between West Ham and Arsenal.

I’m indebted to George for his kindness and support at several of The Northern Echo’s most memorable Local Heroes Awards nights.

Always generous with his time, a fine raconteur and perfect gentleman, he has done the North-East proud.

Happy birthday, George.

The Northern Echo: George Courtney

LAST Thursday, the funeral took place at St Michael’s Church, in Heighington, of Maurice Gatiss, a gentle, unassuming man.

It was a pleasure to meet Maurice in 2014, when I was asked to host a fundraising event involving one of his sons, the celebrated actor Mark Gatiss, whose credits include The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes.

Maurice kindly helped me prepare for the event – an on-stage ‘This Is Your Life’ style interview with Mark at Carmel College, organised by that year’s Mayor of Darlington, Councillor Gerald Lee.

It went so well that a follow-up event was organised in front of a packed audience at Darlington Civic Theatre, this time raising money for a memorial at Darlington Police Station, honouring police officers who had died, including Mark’s brother-in-law, Detective Sergeant, Dave Storey.

Maurice patiently filled me in with the details of Mark’s life, and supplied pictures from the family album. His pride in both his sons – Mark and brother Phillip – was clear though he was never the type to boast.

A Ferryhill lad, Maurice had been an apprentice with the National Coal Board, and helped maintain machinery underground at the Dean and Chapter Colliery. He later got a job as a maintenance engineer at Aycliffe Hospital.

He retired to School Aycliffe, loved ballroom dancing with his beloved wife, Winnie, and doted on their four grandchildren. He was 89 when he died.

Councillor Lee, who knew Maurice as a loyal friend, said: “He was a really good, firm, steady man – someone you knew you could trust. Always positive, always ready with a smile, he'll be greatly missed.”

Rest in peace.