Val celebrates 50 years with Eastlight

In 1974, Val and Michael Ahern moved onto Witham’s Templars Estate, part of a generation of Londoners who moved to Essex in the 1960s and 1970s in search of a new life - and employment.

Main image: Estate Safety Officer Mark Garnham presents Val Ahern with flowers to mark 50 years on the Templars Estates. Right: Val at home, and being presented her British Empire Medal.

50 years on and Templars remains Val’s home – the place where she raised a family and tirelessly supported her community – work which saw her receive a British Empire Medal back in 2012.

But it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

“It was difficult at first, but I love it now,” Val said: “We came here because there was no work in London.

“You couldn’t get a council house back then without being married, and it took ages to get my name on the tenancy as well as Michael’s.

“On the day me and Michael moved in from London, it was snowing, and we had no heating all weekend, as it was set up separately back then.”

Sadly, Michael has passed away, but Val still lives in the same house with Bert, one of her three children. The Templars Estate is a series of courts in Witham in which many Eastlight families have settled over the years.

“It was built as courts so children could play safely,” Val explains: “There were lots of empty homes, back then, but as more people moved here, there were big families but no trouble. We never fell out with our neighbours.

“They still look out for me now. They’ll get my shopping if I need it, and they know that if my kitchen window is open, then I am ok.”

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You are an inspiration to a lot of people, with your love, understanding, caring and giving and, most of all, for being you

Community hero

Like many, Val was spurred to get involved in her community to tackle problems on her estate – in this case a spate of anti-social behaviour around 25 years ago.

She joined the Templars Tenants and Residents Association, and her determination and plain-speaking manner soon paid dividends.

Val said: “I decided to join because I realised there was no point moaning about things when you could actually do something about them. So, I joined the committee and worked my way up to Chair.

“Working with Eastlight (originally Braintree District Council, then Greenfields Community Homes), and other organisations, we have added CCTV, fixed the streetlights, improved the paths, have regular litter pickers in place, and have changed the service so that a check is carried out in residents’ homes by Eastlight prior to them moving out.”

On one occasion, Val highlighted the lack of lighting on her estate by inviting Greenfields’ Housing Director to walk around Templars in the dark, and the problem was quickly resolved.

It’s not just safety that Val cares about – she wants all her neighbours to feel part of something: “The association has had rubbish amnesties, Fun Days, Christmas events and a Dickensian Night. It’s good fun to bring the community together. The last one was a turning point – I put a note in the shop to thank the youths for coming, and you could see things changed for the better after that.”

It’s this passion for community that led Val to receive a British Empire Medal in 2012, including a visit to Buckingham Palace.

“The medal was due to teamwork – you’re only as good as your team,” she says. Val continued to chair the committee until 2018. Mark Garnham, an Eastlight Estate Safety Officer who has worked with Val for many years, helped her to find the right “stalwart” successors.

After all, as Val says: “If you have somewhere nice to live, you take pride in it.”

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