Plea for help as Newport navy club is threatened by closure
It hosts everything from bingo clubs to foodbanks to open mic nights, its team has raised thousands for charity and it has been a friendly port for the town's veterans for more than 30 years – but Newport's navy club now needs the public's help if it is ever to reopen.
The Royal Naval Association in Newport is one of the town's hidden gems, its adaptable function room and bar lovingly decorated with unique naval souvenirs.
It has occupied its clubhouse in Bellmans Yard, just off Newport's High Street, since 1985 - but the club itself has existed in some form ever since a chance meeting in a pub between veteran Pete Bunting and a fellow ex-navy man in the 1970s.
Today it has more than 100 associate members who regularly visit the club for companionship and good music, including 11 serving or former Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel.
There is bridge on Mondays, meetings of Harper Adams University's rugby club on Wednesdays and bingo on Thursdays. People book the club for birthdays and private functions, and Friday nights are usually dedicated to raising money for charity.
Visitors span generations, with those attending the Tuesday open mic nights ranging from 13 to 70.
The Newport Foodbank and Food Share UK also both use the club to pack food parcels to give to the needy.
Coronavirus has taken its toll on the club – its doors last opened to the general public in March, meaning the volunteers have not been bringing in money from visitors but have continued to pay their rent and utility bills.
Even now that restrictions on venues are being lifted, the continuing ban on indoor live music and the size of the clubhouse mean it is unrealistic for them to reopen without completely overhauling the space, with associated costs they cannot afford.
A £10,000 grant from Telford & Wrekin Council has helped the club survive so far, as has the government's furlough scheme which applies to the club's only paid employee; steward Jez Price.
But that will only go so far and the leadership predict that if they are unable to open safely before October, it will spell the end for the club.
Mr Bunting, a founder member and the chair today, said: "If we are not open by October somebody will start loading the guns.
"We feel it is unfair because we have worked so hard to keep the club available for so many different services. It just seems to smack you in the face."
It would be especially cruel as the club was designated an Asset of Community Value by Telford & Wrekin Council on October 1 last year, with the council's notice saying it "furthers the social wellbeing or cultural, recreational or sporting interests of the local community".
"We have weathered a few storms when times have been tough, and it can't be coronavirus that sinks us. It can't," said Pat Brown, the club's treasurer/secretary.
She has been counting the costs of the to-do list the club would need to complete to reopen any time soon, including buying Perspex screens, scores of rubber gloves and masks, hand sanitiser, floor tape and barriers to make social distancing easier, as well as the completion of risk assessments. "It all adds up," she said.
One kind contributor, Peter Webster of TLM Marketing, has already donated 12 face visors, one for each committee member and one for Mr Price.
The committee now hopes that the generosity of supporters and members of the public can help the club open up again safely before the crucial crunch time in October, whether by donating small pieces of PPE or equipment, or lending some of their time to help the volunteers access grant funding.
"It would be a very small thing: a bit of time, something small, a bit of practical help – but for us it would be a very big thing," said Mrs Brown.
"I think Newport is a place that is quite community-spirited.
"There are a lot of people who don't even know we are here or what we offer here."
Mr Bunting is especially keen for those with business acumen to get in touch and help the committee prepare a business plan that would allow them to apply for more funds.
He has been heartened by the many people he said have stopped him in the streets to ask him about the club's reopening, but the committee is dedicated to making sure the time is right before returning.
One event he particularly wants to see again is the veterans' breakfast, a new initiative which was held twice just before the lockdown began. He said he was delighted to see some new faces at the breakfasts and the camaraderie on display.
"We have lots of members that we want to come back to the club. We understand how they feel and the trepidation about coming back in such an uncertain situation, but we won't open our doors until we are sure that we've got it right."
If you feel you can help the club in any way, please visit facebook.com/newportnavyclub/ or call Mr Bunting on 01952 813193.