Saying goodbye to decades of community life

Ritchie Waddell and Ken Gray.
Ritchie Waddell and Ken Gray.

Two Alnwick councillors have called it a day, after 90 years of service between them.

As Ken Gray ends 39 years as an Alnwick councillor, during which he was mayor four times, he is saying goodbye to a way of life.

He and his late wife Vi, who served beside him on local councils as a Liberal Democrat, have been devoted community volunteers, giving generations of children outings and treats.

For more than two decades they ran parties at the community centre for well over 100 youngsters and took 100 children and 10 parents to every panto at Alnwick Playhouse.

Thanks to Vi’s prolific fund-raising from selling baking and her exquisite knitting, thousands of pounds every year went into local causes, from the Duchess’s High School choir to North Northumberland Hospice. “Kindness was her middle name,” he said.

Even when a patient in the cancer ward at Alnwick Infirmary, she bought a TV for the hospital. Ken’s last meeting fell on the eve of the fifth anniversary of her death.

His plans now focus on their four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Born at the Wedge in Bailiffgate in 1937, the son of George, a valet to the Duke, and his wife Christobel, he began his working life at Bolams Nurseries in Howling Lane.

But he was a miner at Shilbottle when he met nurse Vi Grey from Stobswood while a patient at Alnwick Infirmary. Eight weeks later, they were married.

“I can still hear her mother saying, ‘It’ll not last’,” he laughed. They were together 49 years.

Among his many roles were chairman of the cemetery committee since 1984, founder member of Alnwick Community Association, of the Gallery project and the Multi-Agency Crime Prevention Initiative. In 2009 he was appointed an honorary alderman of the district council.

“There’s some fantastic memories,” he said.

Not off to the best of starts

Ritchie Waddell’s introduction to Alnwick did not seem to augur well.

He had not even heard of the town when his bosses in Scotland sent him for interview for the manager’s job at Jennings agricultural machinery firm.

He arrived on a snowy November day. “I didn’t like the place at all,” he said.

He would have been surprised to learn he would serve on Alnwick councils for 51 years, be mayor a couple of times and at the heart of change.

There was nearly more change than anyone could have handled. In the 1960s came a notorious proposition to demolish the Georgian buildings on the medieval street pattern in the town centre.

The all-powerful urban district council began to ponder it, until “there was hell let loose – the whole town went mad,” he said. “It would have been horrible.”

Now he is 85, he and his wife Annice are looking forward to a quieter life.

They met in Dumfries when he sold farm machinery to her father, but are now rooted in Alnwick. A highlight of his civic life was their visit to a Buckingham Palace garden party in the 1960s.

As chairman of the UDC, he often found himself working with the late Duke Hugh on local projects. They jointly opened the town’s Charles Nelson swimming pool and the A1 bypass.

It could be unexpectedly lively. He was in the chair when one councillor complained about pigeons on the roof of the Northumberland Hall, before reaching into his jacket and releasing one into the council chamber.

Ritchie is proud that the old council, abolished in 1974, built houses that exceeded the local government yardstick and it often insisted on a stone finish in keeping with the town.

Ritchie and Annice have three daughters and seven grandchildren and a new milestone to celebrate on April 25 – their 60th wedding anniversary.