Axe hangs over home filled with memories

Sybil Straughan at her flat in Horsdonside, Wooler.
Sybil Straughan at her flat in Horsdonside, Wooler.

When Sybil Straughan lost the love of her life after a marriage of more than 50 years she had to leave their home near Kirknewton.

Berwick Borough Council said there was a chance of a sheltered flat in Horsdonside at Wooler and she hurried to see it.

“When I saw this place I thought, ‘Yes, please! Please let me get it!’ It was the best thing I ever did after I was on my own,” she said. “It just felt right for me.”

That was five years ago.

Now the 25 elderly people living there have been told it must close because funds for renovating the 1970s block cannot be found.

Local people, including Wooler parish and county councillor Anthony Murray, other members of the parish council and the Glendale Gateway Trust, are pressing the housing association for time to come up with a rescue package.

“It was a bombshell – there’s no other way of saying it,” says Sybil. “When my husband died I hoped to end my days here.”

Sybil, who taught at Ford, Milfield and Kirknewton schools, has deep roots in the area.

Her husband Bill, a forester, played football for Wooler and they brought up their daughters Elizabeth, Mary and Pat there.

Bill and Sybil were both railway children, their fathers working on the many lines that criss-crossed rural Northumberland 80 years ago.

One day Bill, then a railwayman too, called at the Smith family’s trackside house at Beal to pay his respects and met Sybil, then in her early twenties. Her eyes sparkle at the memory.

He called frequently and they would chat and go for walks before they married in 1958.

“It was a very quiet wedding. We were both quiet-living people really,” she said. “Bill had a very good reputation as a footballer. He had a chance to go and train with Newcastle United, but he didn’t have any time for being a professional footballer.

“The nicest thing that was ever written that I can remember was that he was a gentleman on and off the field.”

Sybil’s family, which includes granddaughters Wynn, 18, and Maeve, nearly 16, can visit at Horsdonside – there is a cosy guest room – and she has a busy social life in and out of the housing complex.

She organises a weekly whist drive and residents can have communal tea, exercise to music once a week, the mobile library visits and there is a joint service once a month by the Church of England and United Reformed Church.

She also stays in touch with friends in the wider community, helps out at nearby St Mary’s Church, plays the organ at Kirknewton Church and was planning to take three Horsdonside neighbours to a fund-raising lunch at Kirknewton’s Methodist Church.

“This area is very much in my heart for all my life,” she said.

Sybil will be 86 in July and feels comfortable at Horsdonside.

“To my mind, this is the ideal situation for people who don’t need full-time care. We can come and go as we like.

“Some don’t venture far, but like to sit in the garden and share a word with passers-by.

“Life at the moment is pretty good.

“Life is largely what you make it, but you don’t have control over everything. You have just got to learn to adapt.

“The people who helped me when I moved here were just acquaintances, but now they are very good friends.

“I had hoped to continue here, but who knows?”