Sophie proves a tonic

The Countess of Wessex was in the North-East to visit a hospice yesterday.

The Countess of Wessex was in the North-East to visit a hospice yesterday. Patients and staff at St Cuthbert's Hospice in Merryoaks, Durham, welcomed the Countess to open its £3.2m inpatient unit.

The wing, which has 10 beds, is part of a 24-hour palliative care operation for patients whose lives are severely limited by illness.

A large proportion of the building's cost was funded by the charitable efforts of people from the area.

While yesterday was its official opening, the unit has been in use since last September and has already cared for more than 100 people.

Hospice chief executive Angela Dinsdale said: "It was absolutely wonderful to have her here. She gave a lot of time to our patients and staff and spoke to them all individually.

"She was also very knowledgeable about the hospice movement and was very impressed with the set-up here. She had a lot of very nice things to say.

"The unit has been a big help. It's the only inpatient unit in Durham and before, we had only been able to provide day care to our patients.

Later in the day, the Countess opened the £475,000 Streatlam Galleries at The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

She toured the exhibits before unveiling a plaque to mark the occasion. She saw the Silver Swan musical automaton before viewing the exhibition Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which opened earlier this month.

After taking in all the museum had to offer, the Countess met traders from Barnard Castle Farmers' Market, who set up on the terrace of the museum.

Representatives of local community groups met the Countess in the museum's Jubilee Room, refurbished in 2002, the year of the Queen's golden jubilee.

Museum director Adrian Jenkins said: "We were pleased to welcome the Countess of Wessex on her first visit to the Bowes Museum, continuing the royal association begun by the Queen Mother. We are also delighted that she has declared our prestigious suite of Streatlam Galleries officially open."

The galleries were named after the ancestral home of John Bowes, one of the museum's founders.

He and his wife Josephine built up a private collection of fine and decorative arts, including furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics and textiles, before creating the museum more than 100 years ago.

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