FOR countless communities, they are not just a building where parish councillors meet to debate grass cutting costs.

Village halls also serve as a social centre for the young, old and often the lonely.

So when the management committee at Rowhedge Village Hall entered it into a Best in Essex competition, it had plenty to prove.

But it beat 24 other entries and has won a £1,000 cheque from the Rural Community Council of Essex.

Those judging the Essex Village Hall of the Year looked at matters such as fundraising events, a typical month’s diary bookings and enrolment of new members and trustees.

Yvonne Gibbs, centre manager, said: “We were absolutely delighted because it is the first time we have entered it.

“When they came out to do the inspection, they only gave me half an hour’s notice.”

Ms Gibbs, 67, of Church Hill, Rowhedge, has been involved with the hall’s running for nine years.

She said it played an extremely important role in community life, adding: “All of the groups who use us, with the exception of one or two, are local.

“We have things, like the weekly bowls club, and the pre-school runs everyweekday and caters for all the children in the village.

“Weekday evenings are fully booked with sports, street dance, youth club, Brownies, Cubs, Beavers, table tennis, pilates, ballet and as a rehearsal hall for the Essex Concert Band.

“Saturday mornings are booked again for table tennis and a new group to the hall on alternate Sunday mornings is the Colchester Model Car Club.”

The hall is also used by a national league table tennis team who also hold their championships there each year.

One of the events held at the Rectory Road venue is the monthly Village Lunch, a regular social occasion.

It has a reputation for offering a light, £3 lunch in pleasant surroundings with an opportunity for a get-together with friends and neighbours.

It’s headed up by villager and former Colchester mayoress Barbara Sanderson.

Mrs Sanderson, who is now 80, has been involved with the lunch club since it began.

She said: “It all originated from a Lent lunch that the curate formulated some years ago and that brought together the parishioners.

“We then set up the group in the village hall and it has been running for 25 years now.”

Mrs Sanderson, the widow of former respected GP John Sanderson, said she had a band of willing volunteer helpers who make the home-made soup served there, wash up and put up the tables and chairs.

Even people who have moved out of Rowhedge to other parts of Colchester still return for the lunch club.

She added: “I really don’t know whether it is the highlight of their month, but certainly people pop into the kitchen and thank us for what we do. It is a social occasion they look forward to and enjoy.

“It is important and I would hate to see its demise. I hope every village has got something similar to enjoy. The activities that go on at the hall are tremendous and it has grown and grown.”

Village hall committee members are now scratching their heads over what to spend their winnings on.

Suggestions have included new tables and a trolley for them, a new filing cabinet and new driers in the toilets.

Such cash injections are crucial as the hall committee is a not-forprofit organisation and gets funding from the day-to-day users to keep the building in shape.

The village hall, now 27 years old, was built by the East Donyland Community Association as a replacement for the old pavilion.

At the time it was the only public building in Rowhedge where meetings and indoor events could be held.

Back in the Eighties, there were fewer grants available for community projects than now, and vigorous fundraising efforts were necessary, ranging from taking part in the London Marathon, to running a charity shop for secondhand goods.

The building project took place in two phases with much of the internal finishing being carried out by volunteer labour.

The small hall was handed over in November 1983 and the whole building was finally opened in 1989.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Rowhedge wins award for having the best meeting place in Essex ‘