Jane Ritchie ploughed £5m of her inheritance into fulfilling her dream of creating a facility which would encourage vocational learning in County Durham. Martin Walker finds out more about the Work Place…
Jane Ritchie might not be a name familiar to many people on Aycliffe Business Park, but we have the Yorkshire woman to thank for one of our hidden treasures.
Nestled behind large hedges along Heighington Lane, The Work Place opened in 2008, born out of an extraordinary story involving former careers advisor Miss Ritchie and her burning desire to create an educational legacy.
The philanthropist inherited a cool £9m in 2005 when her distant cousin, Margery Freeman, left her the bulk of an enormous £12m estate after passing away shortly before her 101st birthday.
But instead of living a life of luxury, Miss Ritchie gave much of it away.
After paying a large tax bill, the cash was ploughed into two charities she immediately set up – with the majority, £5m, going to the Vocational Learning Trust, which now owns The Work Place.
The money went into funding the cost of the building, with some help from the then One North East.
Miss Ritchie, now 65, has recently published a fascinating biography of her family and how her legacy came about. Named ‘Grit in the Oyster’, it describes in great detail how she wanted to make sure the money she inherited could be transferred into something of value.
Indeed, the Grit in the Oyster metaphor relates to how the oyster would protect itself from the irritation of a piece of grit that gets into its shell by coating it with a substance, which would eventually turn it into a pearl.
And with her inheritance, presumably providing the irritation, she formed The Work Place, a state-of-the-art, multi-functional conferencing and events venue which would turn her irritation into something beautiful.
The Work Place has now been open for seven years, and Miss Ritchie says she chose Aycliffe because of its location and her previous career in education.
“I began work in 1974 in the careers office in Bishop Auckland and started by visiting a lot of local employers,” she explains.
“Employers were concerned that youngsters didn’t have employability skills so we set up the South West Durham Careers Association, to try to work with employers to get teachers, parents and young people to work together with them.
“The Work Place was built for the benefit of all young people (all ages and abilities) to provide a vocational learning environment. Underpinning any learning that takes place is the development of the ethos of employability skills and inspiring young people.
“I wanted this to be a Centre of Excellence for Education Business Partnership for the North East region. This was one of the larger industrial estates with a lot of employers who can contribute to economic development and wellbeing by giving young people a better idea of what employers wanted.”
The Work Place was all made possible by her wealthy cousin’s frugal lifestyle.
Margery Freeman never had children, and after the death of her ship’s captain husband Reginald about 30 years ago, she lived alone in Wensleydale, in the Yorkshire Dales.
She spent most of her time tending her garden. She used her widow’s pension to pay her bills and barely spent anything on herself. Her shoes were plimsolls bought from Woolworths, she wore the same old clothes which relatives would darn, and her coat was held together with string. In winter she heated only one room to cut bills, and she tended to eat vegetables because meat was pricier.
Despite living like a pauper, she became rich. She inherited some cash when family members died and her money was shrewdly invested for her in stocks and shares. Over the years her fortune grew and grew. When Mrs Freeman moved into a care home the fees were paid for by her late husband’s pension.
Miss Ritchie, who had been a regular visitor for years, knew her relative was well off but had no idea how much she had amassed, although she says Mrs Freeman always spoke about leaving her cash to a cats’ home.
Luckily for Aycliffe, most of her estate went to Miss Ritchie, and she was able to set about her dream.
It was initially set up as a vocational learning centre with two learning zones providing various activities linking the world of work to education.
Thousands of young people from across the region used the facilities in the first two years. The Work Place concentrated on developing innovative programmes to support the Health and Social Care and Design and Technology curriculum.
More recently, some of the activities for students include County Durham and Darlington Fire Service’s safety carousels for Year 6 pupils, and Durham Constabulary’s Drive Wise event for year 11 students.
In addition to the programme offered to students The Work Place provides excellent conference and meetings facilities, with a lecture theatre that can accommodate 150 people and nine meeting pods of various sizes, as well as break-out areas and free WiFi for casual visitors.
The car park has been extended ready for use at the end of April, and The Work Place has recently agreed a contract with a new caterer to provide an on-site café and event catering services.
“We would like to see our new café area become a hub for business to meet and dine,” says manager Angela Wilkinson.
“Our latest developments will enhance our conferencing facilities greatly. We’re getting more and more visitors using The Work Place for a variety of reasons.”
The Work Place is home to some of Durham County Council staff, County Durham Healthwatch, Darlington College and the Schools Centred Initial Teacher Training team. Hitachi Rail Europe also has their design team based here.
“The centre has inevitably evolved,” adds Miss Ritchie. “And will continue to do so in future. The Work Place management team are fully invested in the ethos and aims of the charity and are continually looking for opportunities to work with others to offer training and support to the young people of County Durham and Darlington.
“We still think The Work Place is a fantastic venue which is true to its original ethos, but clearly it needs to pay its own way, and Angela and the team are doing a sterling job in making sure it’s self-sufficient.”
• For more information about the Work Place, call 01325 375900, email [email protected], go to www.twpa.org.uk or visit them on Heighington Lane, DL5 6AH.
• Grit in the Oyster, by Mike Keeble, is available from The Work Place, priced £12.00.