Work has started on a long-awaited new in-patient unit at Lanchester’s Willow Burn Hospice after a benefactor’s £1.5m donation for a cause close to her home and close to her heart.

The new building should be ready by the end of the year and be open in time for Willow Burn’s 30th birthday in 2019.

It will house six en-suite bedrooms, each with its own terraced area providing stunning views over the landscaped gardens and Derwent Valley.

The project – which even Willow Burn’s staff and supporters thought might never happen – has been made possible by the generosity of local businesswoman and philanthropist Helen McArdle, who was born in Derwentside.

Her sons attended St Bede’s School, Willow Burn’s neighbour, and family friends and staff who used to work in her company’s care homes are employed at the hospice.

Son Mark McArdle, who attended the ground-breaking ceremony alongside North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock, said: “It’s difficult because we receive lots of requests for donations to help charities, but this is top of Helen’s agenda right now.”

His mother decided to help after visiting Willow Burn. “We’ve been talking to the hospice for quite a long time and it was something we wanted to get involved in.  She was just overwhelmed by the fantastic job staff do despite, if I’m honest, in a fairly decrepit facility,” he said.

Paul Jackson, chair of the Willow Burn Hospice board, said: “She’s opted to help us and leave a legacy behind which we are really going to use to help the community in this part of Durham.  This area’s a bit of a backwater, really, and there’s not a lot of money about – so this is really tremendous.”

Chief executive Vicki Dale praised the work of her staff and volunteers:  “What people do and the way they do it – you see the difference it makes to people and their families.

“You’re still going to have that loving, caring and respectful side of everything that we do – but in a state-of-the-art new facility.”

Laura Pidcock MP said: “The staff work incredibly hard…and the fact that they’re going to get a brand new facility is absolutely fantastic.  I’m blown away by the donation and the commitment of the staff. To have this resource is fantastic.”

Willow Burn Hospice was set up in 1989 by two local women – Irene Mortimer and Valerie Davison – to provide end-of-life care for people living in Derwentside.  It was established on the site of the derelict Maiden Law Hospital.  The hospital’s last remaining buildings have now been demolished and some of the bricks will be used in the foundations of the new unit.

Clinical leadMargaret Webb, who has worked at Willow Burn for 25 years, said: “We’re a bit out of the way and because we’ve worked on a derelict site, people didn’t realise that Willow Burn was still operating.

“In the past I’ve seen a few sets of plans and we’ve had our hopes built up a few times, but I never thought it would happen.”

She added: “We’re so grateful to Helen McCardle.  It’s a fantastic gift to the people of Derwentside.”

For more information about the work of Willow Burn Hospice visit its website https://willow-burn.co.uk/