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Friday, 24 October 2014

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The A-Team bows out at the Beacon

TWO women who have a terrific knowledge of local history and have devoted a combined 40 years of their work-ing lives to the local museum service have completed their last shift at The Beacon, paid off in the wake of council spending cuts.

Both now in their 70s, visitor hosts Anne Cook and Averil Dawson had carried on working after retirement under short-term contract agreements with Copeland Council. But these have not been renewed.

Both Anne and Ave were there at the start of The Beacon, when it opened as a new visitor attraction for the town in 1996, and have become very well known in the local community (the A-Team!) valued for their extensive knowledge of local history.

They both draw satisfaction from the fact that though The Beacon came in for a lot of criticism in its early days, people were so very supportive recently when its future came under threat, up in arms at the news it might close. (Currently there are ongoing talks between Copeland and Sellafield about a rescue plan.) In its first year The Beacon had 26,000 visitors; in 2012, that figure had risen to 82,000.

The pair will be especially remembered for their excellent outreach work, visiting local clubs and societies, care homes and hospitals across Cumbria, in all 125 venues, giving talks about a range of subjects illustrated with museum artifacts ... and sometimes a bit of dressing up.

“We found villages we didn’t know existed and made friends in each one,’’ said Ave. “I think we became the face of The Beacon for a while, but we were just one part of a very successful team.’’

Their last job was to help compile the current Treasures Exhibition at The Beacon which highlights some of the special artifacts held by the museum. Ave’s favourite was the Blair sword, which belonged to a brave White man. In contrast, Anne’s choice was a delicate black Victorian cape of silk, lace and beading.

“It’s very difficult to choose just one object”, said Anne “but this is a beautiful example of how skilled people were.’’

Anne’s history with the museum goes back to before The Beacon existed, working with then curator, Harry Fancy. For Ave however, it was a totally new experience as her previous job was with an engineering drawing office at Chapel Bank, made redundant when it moved to Sheffield in 1992. A bit of temping work followed, then Ave enrolled for a tour-guide course at Charlotte Mason College, Ambleside. She hadn’t completed the course when her tutor drew her attention to the advertised job vacancy. “I was shocked, and a bit apprehensive, when Barbara Barnes said I’d got the job as one of the first eight visitor hosts. It was a very exciting time being in at the beginning of something like that.’’

Ave was born in Gravesend, Kent. Her father had moved to the south coast in the 30s looking for work when the Workingon shipyard closed.

Anne and Ave have both loved their job at The Beacon, watching it grow from its early years to a nationally- accredited, award-winning museum and visitor attraction. Anne’s passion for local history saw her spare time spent in research and she published a book about Whitehaven’s history. As part of her job she delivered many town trails, taking visitors around Whitehaven and relating the stories behind the town’s fascinating Georgian gems. Anne produced six town trail leaflets for visitors and Ave too compiled a Copeland at War book.

Other highlights of their career include jointly winning silver for Outstanding Customer Service in 2006 at the national England for Excellence awards, winning the North-west Tourism award for Customer Care in 2005 and meeting various members of the Royal family, including Princess Anne after foot and mouth, and the Queen during her Whitehaven visit in 2008. Ave was tasked with escorting Prince Philip on a tour of The Beacon and found him chatty and easy going, very knowledgeable and interested in everything. There was a trip to the Queen’s garden party at Buckingham Palace (which was hit by a deluge of rain), and to the Queen’s Golden Jubilee garden party at Carlisle Castle. Then there was the Dinosaur exhibition which attracted thousands of people to town.

Both Averil and Anne are sad to have finished at The Beacon but agree that their time working there had given them some wonderful and memorable experiences. They are glad that Whitehaven people now have the museum they always wanted, but are sorry that a question mark still hangs over its future.

Said Ave: “We’ve met people from all over the world and have had a go at everything that has been thrown at us.....Anne even persuaded me to do an overnight ship-watch on the Endeavour while it was in town. Sleeping in a hammock was an interesting experience....and we had to repel three lots of ‘boarders’ – people trying to get on the ship when it was not open!

“We got the Boxing Board of Control to loan us a Lonsdale belt, the replica Crown Jewels to come for two weeks and invited the Queen to open the refurbished Beacon.”

And most embarrassing moment? Having to explain to Spanish visitors why Whitehaven didn’t want a Chillida sculpture!

Treasures Exhibition can be seen in The Beacon’s Harbour Gallery, Wednesday to Saturday, 11am to 4pm, and Sundays, 12 to 4pm. Entry is free.

Have your say

This is such a sad time for the town. Even much smaller towns have their own heritage centres and Whitehaven, which has played such a big part in the country's maritime history as well as being important in coal mining and slave trade is now to be left with no museum of its own but most likely another Sellafield Visitor's Centre. As a teacher, I have worked with the Beacon and my students on some projects which were very exciting - video conferencing with Averil in the Anderson Shelter for a History Project and also staging our own multimedia show to compliment the fantastic exhibition which involved the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Rosehill Theatre featuring the life and work of Oliver Messel. I very much doubt we will see anything of a similar calibre in Whitehaven Town again!

Posted by Alison Phillips on 24 April 2013 at 10:56

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