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Businessman And Key Hospital Craftsman Latest New Arrivals

14th May 2024
Businessman And Key Hospital Craftsman Latest New Arrivals
A retiree, whose family links with the Durham Markets Company reaches back over a century, has been given a special honour by the city’s freemen.

A retiree, whose family links with the Durham Markets Company reaches back over a century, has been given a special honour by the city’s freemen.

And, at the same swearing-in ceremony, a hospital joiner, who admitted the Covid epidemic was “the worst time of my life,” was also welcomed into the freemen’s ranks.

Colin Wilkes, like his father, grandfather and great grandfather, have all played an important part in the business of the in-door and open-air markets since the mid-19th century. He stepped down last October after three decades as managing director and was sworn-in as a gentleman freeman at a colourful ceremony in the Guild Hall on May 13.

Sixty-six-year-old Les Cleckner, for 42 years a key member of the maintenance team at the University Hospital of North Durham, was admitted into the Joiners’ Company – its own history stretching back to 1661.

Colin, now 63, lived most of his childhood in Low Pittington. He attended the cathedral’s chorister school and then Durham School before studying law at the city’s university.

After graduation he joined one of Newcastle’s biggest commercial law firms and stayed for five years before switching to the family steel fabrication business in Cold Hesledon led by his father Tom.

He became a director of the markets company in the 1990s, about the time it was decided major re-investment was needed as the 21st century approached.

“At that time it was in a very sorry state. The only running water in the indoor premises was through the roof,” he said.

Now the business, established by Act of Parliament in 1851 and one of very few privately owned markets in the country, is open six days a week and promotes a range of popular annual events. It is home to 40 local independent businesses and throughout its history has only been closed during the Covid outbreak.

Colin has enjoyed a healthy working relationship with the freemen and its officers, which produced the launch of the Christmas Festival and introduction of the Durham Pointers.

He also set up the “Sitting Gentleman’s Breakfast Club” which meets indoors once a month and welcomes guest speakers – as diverse as the Bishop of Durham and former Sunderland club captain, Gary Bennet, currently a BBC radio match commentator.

Despite stepping back from leading the company, he remains a director. Married to Karen the couple have a daughter, Alice, a nursery school teacher who married last month. Colin and Karen now live on Tyneside.

For Les, who retired last September, some of the last years of his working life left him with harrowing memories he will find hard to forget.

“Covid was the worst time of my life, terrible for all of us who worked there, particularly during the first few weeks.

“In the early days of the epidemic we worked wards, and on occasion in intensive care, with the only basic of protective equipment. The gowns, suits, masks and gloves we were finally given made us more safe but wearing it made physical work more difficult.

“Hospitals wards are warm places and inside that equipment we were constantly sweating. Every night when I got home, the first thing I did to try and protect my family was strip at the door, seal my clothes in a bag and step straight into the shower,” he said.

He started his working life as a joinery apprentice with builders Bell and Ridley, based in North Road and spent much of his decade maintaining church properties across the region. He spent months at St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle, replacing doors, renewing staircases and fitting a new altar.

When he switched to the hospital, then known as Dryburn, a key part of his work was replacing windows and doors in nine of the old wards. At one stage he helped build a wooden-framed operating theatre, a stop-gap measure in the transition between the old and new complex.

Les, was born in Browney and for the last 40 has lived there with his wife Pam. The couple have two sons, Steven and Anthony and four grandchildren, Megan, Lewis, Evan and Annabell. The couple spend time when they can at their static caravan on the coast in south Northumberland.

He has been singing since he was 18 and performed as a semi-professional in clubs across the north east and Yorkshire. He helped with fund-raising concerts during the miners’ strike to raise money for struggling families and went on to form a duo with Pam and the a karaoke business which helped put their sons through college.

More lately he has been actively involved with a local group of men in his community, working to raise the profile and value of early prostate cancer screening. They recently raised over £3,000 which has been divided betwen leading hospitals on Tyneside and national cancer charities.