BRIDGES grew out of a convergence of desires. Its transformation, from a redundant chapel to a Centre where unmet needs in the community could be addressed, was, in many people’s minds, an answer to their prayers.
The Trustees of the Ebenezer Chapel, which closed in 1987, wanted it to continue in some form of Christian service, but in 1991 they felt obliged to dispose of it, applying for planning permission to turn it into a shop and offices.
However, the Town Council was not in favour of this development. Neither were the Historical Society and the Residents’ Association, both organisations being keen to preserve the chapel, built in 1808 as the first non-conformist place of worship in the area. They successfully applied for it to be listed as a Grade 2 building of historic interest.
Several of the churches of the town had been looking for a High Street base for some time – ‘neutral territory’ where they might offer an evening venue for young people to gather, or provide a comfortable place for older people to wait for the bus, or meet friends while shopping. The local Traidcraft group which ran successful Christmas pop-up shops was also seeking a town centre outlet to sell Fair Trade products throughout the year.
In those days, local people had nowhere to go for a coffee, or to wait for the bus, other than smoke-filled pubs, and even these were inaccessible to children’s pushchairs or wheelchairs. (Hard to remember those times isn’t it!). Other than the Istanbul Kebab shop, there was only one tiny café in the town, used chiefly by workmen and lorry-drivers.
In 1992, women from the Inter-Church prayer group decided to test public opinion at an open meeting, where over 30 people gave their support to the idea of buying the chapel, to create a centre for Christian service in the community, so a feasibility study was carried out. The Ebenezer’s Trustees agreed to sell the chapel to on a 4-year mortgage for the sum of £37,000. A Trust was formed in 1993, named BRIDGES, to signify its purpose to bridge gaps in the community, and fundraising to purchase the building began under the patronage of Lord Weatherill DL., the former speaker of the House of Commons.
The whole community helped BRIDGES’ Trustees to raise £105,000 in total, which not only paid off the mortgage within 3 years, but also covered the costs of the repairs and refurbishment of the building as a community centre. The BRIDGES Centre opened on 18th April 1995, for 3 mornings a week, staffed with the help of 35 volunteers.
By 1999 the refurbished 20ft x 28ft chapel was bursting at its seams, open to visitors 6 days per week, and the volunteers in its tiny galley kitchen were struggling to meet people’s needs with such limited facilities. The town was expanding, the relief road had been built to relieve traffic congestion in the High Street, and the areas between the two roads were fast being filled with private housing developments. There was nowhere for BRIDGES to expand, until….. a developer, who had bought the back land between the Centre and the relief road, applied to build 5 houses on it. This application would be turned down unless he could acquire 1m x 20m off BRIDGES’ site in order to widen the archway between the Centre and the neighbouring building, to improve emergency access to the new houses. The difficulty was that this strip would cut right through the manager’s office and the kitchen!
After prolonged and detailed negotiations, the BRIDGES Trustees agreed a contract with the developer to build an extension to the Centre, also providing car parking and green space between BRIDGES and the new houses, which would equate in value to the sum of £120,000, which an independent valuer had assessed to be the value of this ‘ransom strip’ of land.
The Centre closed in 2002, continuing its services in a limited way first at the Catholic Presbytery, and later at the Scout Hut, for the duration of the building works. In 2004 the newly-extended BRIDGES Centre was reopened to the delight of all. The new hall provided wall space for regular exhibitions of paintings, and increased the Centre’s capacity from 30 to 50 people. Subsequent improvements have included being the first public provider of Wi-Fi access in the town in 200?, and the installation of a public address system in 2015.