CENTURIES ago, before services were bought and sold with money, there was a system of bartering.

The loan of a plough could be exchanged for a coat, a day's labour might be swapped for a week of food.

Fast forward a few hundred years and welcome to the world of the Time Bank.

Under the system, volunteers use their skills to earn credits.

Everyone’s time is valued equally. Volunteers may do an hour of gardening or painting, teach the piano, write letters, teach Spanish or knit. The list is endless.

The credits earned can, in turn, be used to buy other services.

It means someone who is a bit of a dab hand at mechanics, but perhaps not so good at cooking, might build up credits through car repairs, which can be cashed in for some culinary advice.

The principle is breathtakingly simple – which is why the Colchester Time Bank is proving an overwhelming success.

In 2012-13, more than 4,500 volunteer hours were logged in the Time Bank in Colchester.

More than 20,000 hours have been logged this year so far, and the total is still rising.

As well as individuals taking part, more than 50 organisations are signed up, including Colchester Borough Homes, Colchester and Tendring Women’s Refuge and Colchester Gateway Clubs.

Tracy Rudling, chief executive officer of Colchester Community Volunteer Services, which runs the Time Bank, said: “It works with an army of more than 250 volunteers who donate their time to help people in a variety of different ways.

“I still find the individual stories of kindness humbling. Some people could cash in their hours to receive volunteering support themselves, but many don’t because they simply enjoy the process of helping others.”

The Colchester scheme has been such a success it is now being introduced in Tendring, Harlow, Epping Forest and Uttlesford, and could be replicated across Essex.

Tracy said: “If it spreads across Essex, it may mean you could do dog walking in Colchester and then your parents in Chelmsford could get help with their computer.”

Grandmother Glenys Goodman is a strong advocat of the system.

Glenys, 60, who lives in Colchester, has earned credits by visiting a lonely person at home.

She also knits squares which are used by charities to create blankets or clothing.

So far, she has earned 33 credits, but is not in a mad rush to spend them. She said: “I just get so much pleasure out of doing it.

“Some people think they have nothing to offer, but I truly believe everyone has something to give. That is the reward in itself.”

Retired engineer John Richards has earned 227 credits through his charitable deeds.

He fixes equipment which is donated to St Helena Hospice and has volunteered for the Salvation Army and the Wimpole Road Methodist Church, in Colchester.

He has used his credits to learn languages including Portuguese.

He said: “There are lots of people involved in the Time Bank who have certain talents and skills one can rely upon.

“At first, they didn’t know anybody who could teach me Portuguese, but they eventually found me a chap. We got to be good friends.

“After retiring, I found I wasn’t doing anything useful, so I joined various charities to increase my skills for the benefit of the community.

“Time Bank tends to unify lots of charities as well as other community organisations, which is of great benefit.”