It’s been more than five years since the former Caerphilly Miners’ Hospital reopened as a community centre, breathing new life into an “iconic building”.
Thanks to the tireless work and ambition of volunteers, the original Beeches Mansion part of the hospital was saved from demolition and has since helped keep people connected during the coronavirus pandemic.
One of those volunteers is Katherine Hughes, the secretary of Caerphilly Miners’ Centre for the Community.
Speaking with Caerphilly Observer, Katherine, 71, said it would have been “a travesty” if the hospital was completely knocked down.
“Many people were born here and had family born here. It’s an iconic building.”
While the hospital was demolished to make way for housing, the Beeches building remained and was converted into its present-day use.
Despite being born and brought up in London, Katherine has called Caerphilly her home since 1971. Her daughters, Vicky and Kate, were both born in the Miners’.
Having spent two years living near Washington DC as a teenager, Katherine moved back to London before going on to study economics at the University of East Anglia.
She then moved to Cardiff to do a Masters in town planning. Here, Katherine “fell in love” with south Wales.
Fifteen years ago, news that the Miners’ Hospital would be closing made its way to Katherine, who lives a stone’s throw away from the site.
Over the course of her working career, Katherine worked with community and voluntary groups as a consultant, worked in local government, with charities and at a university.
She also spent 17 years working with the Welsh Consumer Council before setting up her own business in 1994.
While self-employed, Katherine worked from home, an experience she described as “isolating”.
To beat this sense of isolation, Katherine joined various committees, housing association boards and volunteering committees.
The experiences gained during her working life meant Katherine was well equipped for the journey she was about to embark upon.
Immediately after finding out about plans to close the Miners’ Hospital, Katherine knocked on her neighbours’ doors to gather their views.
She said: “Everyone wanted to keep the hospital. Some wanted it to stay as a hospital, but others suggested it could be used for respite care, a museum or a community centre.”
By 2008, a group was set up with the aim of preserving the hospital for community use.
The group had around ten members, including the then-Assembly Member for Caerphilly, Jeff Cuthbert (now the police and crime commissioner for Gwent).
Katherine agreed to be the secretary of the group – a position she still holds today.
The council’s Local Development Plan (LDP) at the time suggested the hospital site would be used just for housing, but Katherine commissioned Planning Aid Wales to challenge this.
In 2010, a “real milestone” was reached when the council said it wouldn’t challenge plans to maintain part of the hospital site for use as a community centre.
From that point, regular coffee mornings were held in Caerphilly, with around 60 people attending each time to share their ideas for the proposed community centre.
The following year, Caerphilly-based United Welsh housing association, which built the housing on the former hospital site, signed an agreement to keep the Beeches building intact.
That year, the hospital closed and the Miners’ Centre for the Community became a registered company, before becoming a charity in 2012.
From here, it was all about fundraising to make the ambition a reality.
Lottery funding of £250,000 was given to the project. This, combined with donations from other bodies, including the council and Welsh Government, as well as the public, helped the project reach its £925,000 target.
Before moving into the centre, groups and activities began running from other venues in Caerphilly. But even after the Miners’ Centre was officially reopened, there was still work that needed to be done.
“It took a lot longer than we had hoped,” Katherine admitted.
“When we opened, we didn’t have heating or IT – lots of things we just didn’t have. Contractors were still putting on toilet doors.
“But it was fabulous to finally open. We held an AGM in the September and the place was full to bursting.”
Since then, a variety of activities have been running from the centre, including arts and crafts, language learning and more.
Katherine’s role within the centre is to support various projects, such as the knitting project, and help with the day-to-day running of the centre.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many classes held at the centre moved online, with the centre offering support to older people on how to use video conferencing apps like Zoom.
“The older people have been absolutely amazing. Almost all who endeavoured have managed to learn how to use Zoom.”
More recently, and prior to the latest lockdown, the centre has been running hybrid classes, with some people attending in person while others attend virtually.
Discussing how the pandemic has changed the Miners’ Centre going forward, Katherine said: “Things won’t be the same. Some older people may never go into crowds again. We have to offer different ways for people to access things.
“We’ve never been more connected – many close connections have developed and it’s a warm feeling, but one thing I hate is seeing children in masks. The sooner we can get rid of the virus the better.
“Coronavirus will change the way we do things, but not the essence of what we do.
“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. We could have put our heads down and done nothing.
“We’ve had to show resilience throughout this and work together, using all our resources.
“Our challenge now is to encourage people back into the community while protecting their health. We have to strike a balance.”
Katherine’s dedication and commitment over the years hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In 2015, Katherine was awarded a British Empire Medal for her services to the community. Two years before that, she was presented with the Mayor’s Civic Award by the then-mayor of Caerphilly County Borough, Cllr Gaynor Oliver.
More recently, Katherine was nominated to be part of the ‘Champions Gallery’ – an online display featuring community figures from across Wales, which has been created by the Senedd.
South Wales East Senedd Member Delyth Jewell, who nominated Katherine, described her as “a true community champion whose work deserves to be recognised”.
Ms Jewell said: “Over the past few months, Katherine has invested her skills and time into running projects to keep people connected.
“Her tenacity and determination to help people has resulted in her finding funding for equipment to help people stay connected through lockdown – and she’s even found time to run competitions and online events around Easter, May Day and VE Day.
“I think that Katherine’s story is inspirational, and I know that even now, she’s working hard to find new ways of connecting people. She should be applauded for the brilliant work she’s done – she’s helped so many people.”
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