There are obvious risks in asking a community exactly what they would like to see happen to a building. That didn’t deter the All Roads Lead to Whithorn Trust, which did exactly that. Then they remarkably realised local dreams with last year’s unveiling of the transformation of Whithorn’s New Town Hall into a multi-faceted, inspiring community hub and a sparkling new bunkhouse, with other projects mushrooming impressively alongside.
A Victorian dame that had no future
“We didn’t just ask the community what they wanted,” smiles the Trust’s secretary Julia Muir-Watt. “We filmed their input not just to make sure we recorded what they said to help push on the project, but also to make a film – ‘All roads lead to Whithorn’ - that would be fascinating to keep for posterity for the town.”
We can only imagine what Scotland’s current hottest boxing talent (and Commonwealth Games medallist) Whithorn-born Tyler Jolly made of seeing his much younger self on screen. But he must be delighted with how the New Town Hall has turned out. Before it was opened the acclaimed local boxing team, Bravehearts ABC, had to shift between halls and then set up and take down all their gear at every session. Now they have a dedicated boxing gym with state-of-the-art equipment. Everyone over the age of nine is welcome and the first session is free here with the hub’s unlikely anchor tenants.
Not many community hubs have their own boxing gym, but then not many community hubs are quite as remarkable as the New Town Hall. It is fashioned in an old Victorian dame that had no future and was becoming dilapidated. Julia tells the story: “We are a small volunteer group of charity trustees, who fought to save and provide a use for a B Listed Building in the centre of Whithorn's conservation Area. We managed to raise £3m towards the refurbishment and carried out extensive consultation, with the result that we focus on community health and fitness to improve the area’s statistically poor health, and large community events and clubs where people can get together. We aim to combat loneliness and also rural poverty.”
The Central Point of the Town
They host everything at the New Town Hall. We’re talking Christmas pantomime (pantomimes don’t make it to this corner of Galloway), ceilidhs, karate, bingo, dog training, craft events, Halloween pumpkin carving and Pilates. There is a more serious side to all these fun clubs and events. In school holidays, they also have a free lunch club that has been very popular. And a much-needed youth club. There are Christmas dinners for more mature locals too, with over 100 attending the most recent one. Being the New Town Hall there were three courses, music and gifts for all the attendees.
“Access is really crucial,” says Hazel Smith, chairwoman of the Trust. “We are a central point in the town, and the New Town Hall works as a community hub for groups with spaces to meet and classes to attend. There is access to computers and printers for homeworkers, students, and other groups, too. And we try to make everything as affordable as possible.”
The New Town Hall also sports a gym that has state-of-the-art facilities and is open to all. Again, it is no ordinary gym, as Hazel illuminates: “We are proud of offering a modern gym and finding so many local people signing up. Often, they are members of a gym for the first time, and we have kept costs to a minimum because of local poverty.” The New Town Hall building also boasts a flexible hall for different clubs and users.
Temporary Locals Welcome
This community hub is impressive enough, but there is the bunkhouse too. This purpose-built, warm, welcoming space is firmly aimed at walkers and cyclists and is at the heart of the Whithorn Way, a 149-mile route from Glasgow to Whithorn and the Isle of Whithorn that traces the footsteps of mediaeval pilgrims. The bunkhouse is state-of-the-art, too, with handy extras like e-bike charging bike racks and offers affordable accommodation that all comes with ensuite bathrooms. And – nigh essential these days – properly good wifi.
“We travelled around Scotland checking different places out, picking up good ideas that we thought would work well here,” explains Julia. That includes making it – like the community hub – accessible with ramps and a lift. The hard work has paid off already, with Visit Scotland awarding the Bunkhouse four stars and a 9.1 rating on Booking.com. “Everyone is using it, from SCOTO-style ‘temporary locals’, through to Duke of Edinburgh Award students and people looking to move into the community as they seek a permanent property,” adds Hazel. “And all the elements come together in unexpected ways. A French group at the Bunkhouse were delighted to find a ceilidh on in the hall.”
The Bunkhouse has a financial role to play, too. “The Bunkhouse is doing a good job of bringing money in from outside,” says Julia. “It helps to subsidise the rest of the facilities. We never aimed to charge the going rate for the gym for example. That would defeat the whole aim of benefiting people’s health. The Bunkhouse is about 80% of the takings and guests when they realise they are contributing directly into the community as ‘temporary locals’ are more than happy to help.”
For All Ages
Another aim of the New Town Hall was to foster better links between the generations, and again it has already been a success. “A great example,” explains Julia, “was the Coronation. We were packed, and one old gent was delighting the younger people with his colourful tales of previous coronations he’d witnessed. We are also partners with other charities within the town who provide the heritage experience unique to Whithorn and also training for young people in heritage construction and crafts.”
Rolls Royce Paths
A revamp of the local stretch of the Whithorn Way was another project that has been a serious success. Julia explains: “The old path was rough along the cliff. We’ve invested in the Rolls Royce of paths as part of the final miles of the Whithorn Way. We have been astonished at the public support - people jog, cycle, walk dogs and take the family out along it. It is designed to be accessible for as many people as possible. It gave us particular pleasure to see it rapidly adopted: locals were using it before it was finished. One family even came from England to walk the path before we even had signs on it!”.
The Community Vote with their Feet
Not done there, we talk of affordable housing on a plot the Trust already owns. The idea currently is for accessible housing to suit individuals or families who can struggle with more mainstream accommodation. There is talk too of more path development. Julia and Hazel half joke they want to develop the first-rate path all the way to Glasgow. If anyone can, they can.
The All Roads Lead to Whithorn Trust is nothing short of an inspiration. Julia beams, “We hopefully show as a small community group if you have the ambition, you can get it done. It’s not an easy journey, not a walk in the park by any means, but big community things can happen in unlikely places.”
Hazel talks positively of volunteering and their project: “We can all make the world a better place if we volunteer and help regularly. Volunteering makes you feel better and everyone else too, so I encourage everyone to do it in their communities. It’s so lovely to see our spaces being used and people really making the most of them. The community has voted with their feet.”
Another central tenet of SCOTO is communities working together, and here again, this Trust inspires: “Lots of groups come to visit us. They come to see our facilities, and we’re happy to share our knowledge. Lots of buildings are becoming available throughout Scotland, so there are opportunities if communities can figure out what they want, work out how to do it, be aware of the pitfalls, and make it all work. Community empowerment legislation and community asset transfers are happening, and we’re happy to share our experiences of delivering well-used assets the community asked us for, and we’ve happily been able to provide.”