WATCH: Drop-in centre officially opened at The Alnwick Garden

A new drop-in centre for older people has been officially opened today at The Alnwick Garden, as the world-famous attraction celebrates its 15th birthday.

The smart-looking £90,000 facility provides a warm and inviting environment, with a living room, fireplace, comfortable seating, games, puzzles and a flatscreen television, as well as a cooking area with homemade refreshments. The Stuart Halbert Drop-in Centre is the latest edition to The Garden and has been funded by the Stuart Halbert Foundation, the Rank Foundation and Sir John and Lady Hall.

The Duchess of Northumberland learns some chess moves from Derek Ward in the drop-in centre. Picture by Jane Coltman

The Duchess of Northumberland learns some chess moves from Derek Ward in the drop-in centre. Picture by Jane Coltman

It has been described as the jewel in the crown of The Alnwick Garden Trust's Elderberries Programme, which aims to address loneliness, isolation and financial hardship among older people in Northumberland and delivers events and opportunities to socialise, promoting a healthy, fulfilled quality of life.

The centre was officially opened earlier this afternoon by Maureen Halbert, wife of the late Stuart Halbert. It is a place of sanctuary to build new friendships, play games or find someone to talk to. The free facility is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, 11am to 4pm, and caters for anyone aged over 55. It is manned by volunteers, including Sue Simpson who manages the centre.

The opening coincides with The Alnwick Garden's 15-year anniversary. The attraction was the vision of the Duchess of Northumberland, who is delighted to mark the milestone and unveil the centre.

During today's launch ceremony, she said: "This really is a special day for us. I have always said that anybody can build a garden, but the real challenge is in what you do with that garden. The Alnwick Garden, like any other attraction, has been through its ups and downs, and at times it has been a bit of an obstacle race, but we have come through every time. Today is so important because this is what lies behind The Alnwick Garden.

Volunteers in the drop-in centre. Picture by Jane Coltman

Volunteers in the drop-in centre. Picture by Jane Coltman

"When I received the criticism in the early years, I knew it was because nobody would understand what we were doing here, nobody would understand when we talked about older people or children or our enterprise programme - the three charitable programmes that we have here - until they saw them in operation. That is what kept me going. I kept thinking they will see it one day when we have a facility like the Stuart Halbert Drop-in Centre, where older people can drop in and have somewhere to sit in the warmth, watch television, have a cup of tea and have someone to talk to, completely free of charge. We must be the only garden in the world that offers this sort of facility. What we are doing here with the local community makes me feel really proud."

She said that so many people have enabled the centre to happen and she thanked everyone who has supported the project, including the volunteers. She concluded: "Things are going really well at The Alnwick Garden now and I put that down to Mark Brassell, who is director of The Garden."

The drop-in centre has certainly proved popular. Elderberries user Sylvia McLoud, from Alnwick, said the facility was very good, while volunteer Maureen Thompson, who is also from the town, said it was important and it was nice to see elderly people enjoying themselves.

Louise Halbert, a director of the Stuart Halbert Foundation, described the Elderberries Programme as very unusual, but very necessary. She added: "I would like to thank the Duchess of Northumberland for her vision and creation of this wonderful garden and in particular for the charity projects that run within this garden. Four years ago, we talked about having a drop-in centre like this, and now we have one. I think it is terrific and I hope that others will take this project on and do it in other areas of the country. It is a wonderful project and much needed. Age shouldn't be a barrier and we have very much enjoyed being part of the Elderberries Programme."

Sir John Hall and the Duchess of Northumberland. Picture by Jane Coltman

Sir John Hall and the Duchess of Northumberland. Picture by Jane Coltman

Sir John Hall congratulated the Duchess on the opening of the drop-in centre, as well as the Garden reaching the 15-year milestone, adding: "The attraction has been a tremendous addition to the North East, bringing in money and creating jobs."

The Duchess chats to Garden volunteers. Picture by Jane Coltman

The Duchess chats to Garden volunteers. Picture by Jane Coltman