The end of an era at Alston Hall

Alston Hall College before its closure
Alston Hall College before its closure

The Friends of Alston Hall College, Longridge, will be gathering in two weeks time for what might possibly be their last get-together - the annual general meeting.

But it won’t be in the hall’s familiar 19th century surroundings - they have been on the market since the beginning of March with CBRE Commercial Property consultants from Manchester, who are requesting informal tenders for the Gothic-style mansion in its 9.3 acres of the Ribble Valley ... with ‘development potential.’

'Preston Proudly Presents'...

'Preston Proudly Presents'...

So, of necessity, the Friends’ meeting will be at the Norman Jepson restaurant in Fulwood due to Lancashire County Council’s former and very popular adult education college being closed permanently at the end of December.

The controversial closure was part of LCC’s massive cost-cutting exercise to save millions of pounds, the uncertain future of attendance at the historic property and other colleges having been admitted by CCoun Tony Martin at a full LCC meeting in October, two months before the college’s courses finally ended and its doors closed.

CCoun for Longridge David Smith, who fought hard to keep the hall open, had tabled a question at the meeting asking for assurances on the future of the college. But CCoun Martin had held out little hope as he revealed weekday occupancy rates for the hall and income fell by seven percent from 2013-14, weekend occupancy had dropped from 27 per cent in 2013 to 24 per cent in 2014, income had decreased from £654,000 in 2013 to £532,000 in 2014, and the building would need some £900,000 spent on it in maintenance costs.

But he added: “It’s important we continue to make available provision to teach and train our staff ... and make sure we are doing all we can so courses are viable and picked up by the public.”

To secure their own future and having submitted to the county council an unsuccessful ‘expression of interest’ for their independent use of the hall, Friends members are to discuss and vote on three proposals at their meeting on Sunday, April 24. If Alston Hall is definitely not available, the committee is to seek suitable organisations, preferably within Lancashire and promoting educational adult activities, to which to donate the Friends’ funds.

They have stated they will keep members informed of progress through the newsletter and, following the successful transfer of funds when agreed by members - possibly to other adult education groups - a special general meeting will be called and the Friends dissolved.

Also on the agenda for the 24th are reports from membership and events secretary Yvonne Hart, treasurer Keith Russell, chairman Jess Mortimer and officials from Lancashire County Council.

Mrs Mortimer said: “As chairman of the Friends I am, with the committee, very aware of the responsibility to carry out Friends wishes in this sad process of closing the association which has done so much to support Alston Hall.

“It has served the needs of adults in continuing education for over 40 years, a treasure from the days when a growing economy meant county council budget revenue increased year on year. Forty years later Alston Hall is loved by many past students some of whom have supported the upkeep of the hall as members of the Friends, which was started by former tutor the late John Selby and his wife, Sybil.

“Our final tribute will be to update and republish electronically ‘The Story of Alston Hall’ by Marian Roberts.”

l Former staff member and compiler of the college’s annual brochure listing its day and residential courses, Dot Little’s earliest recollections of ‘the Alston Experience’ go back to the 1970s when it had dormitory bedrooms and lino-covered flooring before the advent of en-suite accommodation and fitted carpets throughout.

Dot recalled: “The success of Alston Hall over a period of 65 years wasn’t just its facilities, interesting features and wonderful Ribble Valley views - for me it was the special ambience which made it unique and so conducive to liberal adult education – education for the sheer joy of learning. We must not forget that it was through the vision of Mr WR Tuson, Preston’s Chief Education Officer, that Alston Hall in a pretty derelict state, was bought in 1949 for £5,000, initially welcoming ‘day release’ students.

“Over the next six years £40,000 was spent on it, enabling the building to also open as a residential college with Jack Lightfoot as warden. Jack built a firm foundation, which the principals who followed added to - Ann Lightfoot, Brian Leighton and Graham Wilkinson all encouraging national and internationally renowned tutors to share their skills and knowledge with the people of Lancashire.

“During the 35 years I worked there, I grew to love and value the building and its work with a passion and, although deeply saddened by the hall’s closure, know that some wonderful memories will be treasured by all who enjoyed and benefitted from what was a very special place of learning.”