It is a year to the day that the nation was thrust into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

No-one knew exactly how long restrictions would last, with many hoping for a return to normal by summer 2020. But as the weeks went by, it was clear that things would not be 'normal' for some time.

For many people who could not work, furlough was a godsend, but for those who had only just ventured into the world of self-employment, or set-up their own business employing their own staff, 2020 brought many obstacles, which put resilience to the test, and at times, left many in despair.

For Darrener Suzanne Halliwell, who took over Dolly's Tearoom in Darwen just before the pandemic hit, the last year has been a bumpy ride.

Here, the former corporate communications officer speaks about her vision for transforming the 50 cover restaurant into an evening bistro serving quality local produce, and how she and her staff survived the unimaginable.

Suzanne Halliwell who runs Dollys tearoom, Darwen

Suzanne Halliwell who runs Dolly's tearoom, Darwen

She said: "It was Friday, March 20 and news of the coronovirus pandemic reaching the UK had been dominating the airwaves since early March.

"Nevertheless, the messages coming from Government seemed to be “stay home if you were vulnerable” and life could continue as normal for others.

"We were fully booked for the weekend ahead as it was Mother’s Day, and at 4pm I was leading a staff meeting at Dolly’s.

"It was just over a month since I had taken over the business and staff were getting used to me, new ways of working, and coming together as a new team.

"We were talking about plans for the weekend, and how we were going to work together to ensure a great experience for our guests."

Its been a tough year for Suzanne Halliwell and her staff at Dollys Tearoom in Darwen.

It's been a tough year for Suzanne Halliwell and her staff at Dolly's Tearoom in Darwen.

With no forewarning of what was to come, Dolly's had taken already delivery of £2,000 worth of perishable stock, but in the middle of the meeting, a breaking news alert put their Mother's Day plans in peril.

Boris Johnson was to address the nation and announce the country would be heading into lockdown from midnight.

The message was clear - everyone should stay home and restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels would all close.

Mrs Halliwell continued: "Our weekend service and that of many weeks to come, would not be going ahead.

"We were stunned.

"My team and I rallied, and staff came to work the following day, ringing our customers and arranging where possible to send takeaway afternoon teas and meals out instead.

"But not everyone could receive this, so losses were significant, and we gave away what we could trying desperately not to waste food.

"I don't think I initially realised the seriousness of the position we were in.

"While the Chancellor set about announcing grants for businesses and the furlough scheme for workers, it seemed all would be ok.

"In addition, I had taken out business interruption insurance that said it would pay out in the event of a pandemic.

Its been a tough year for Suzanne Halliwell and her staff at Dollys Tearoom in Darwen.

It's been a tough year for Suzanne Halliwell and her staff at Dolly's Tearoom in Darwen.

"My major concern was for the staff though, I could not see them out of work, but had no idea how we would pay them, so was grateful for the furlough scheme.

"But all that would mean nothing if I could not keep Dolly’s going."

In the weeks that followed Mrs Halliwell's business interruption insurance refused to pay out, claiming it was not the pandemic that caused them to close, but a change in the law brought about because of the pandemic.

Despite a later Supreme Court ruling that the insurance should be paid, Mrs Halliwell has yet to receive a single penny for lost business.

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Things gradually nosedived, as intricacies around her business rates meant she was also denied access to a £10,000 Local Government Revenue Support Grant.

She added: "This was a body blow, and I was reeling when we discovered this.

"And the final nail in the proverbial coffin was the fact I was newly self-employed meant I was one of the three million who failed to qualify for a self-employed grant too.

"I am not a quitter, and even though there was no sign of any financial help heading our way, I knew we needed to re-invent Dolly’s or risk closure, and the jobs of the employees."

One of the takeaway Sunday roasts being served up by Dollys

One of the takeaway Sunday roasts being served up by Dolly's

Furloughing the majority of her staff led to loneliness, but Mrs Halliwell made the decision to keep two of her most recently employed staff members who did not qualify for furlough, on hand to help keep Dolly's afloat.

Luckily, things worked in their favour, and due to their established customer base and being a valued local brand in Darwen, as well as people turning to independent businesses to 'support local', they were able to offer takeaway afternoon teas, picnic platters for outdoor gatherings, and lunches for people still going to offices and workplaces.

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She said: "It was a lonely experience, going into my once vibrant restaurant and seeing it empty.

"Working alone in the kitchen, being kitchen porter, chef, buyer and delivery driver all at the same time.

"But I got through four months of lockdown in this way with some help from part time weekend staff."

The dino deliveries in Darwen were a roaring success

The dino deliveries in Darwen were a roaring success

A year on, and Dolly's is still closed, with many of the restrictions, such as the rule of six, 10pm curfew and substantial meal requirements, meaning they've had just four months of restaurant service all year.

But when the rules changed again in November, Mrs Halliwell was able to flexi-furlough staff, and bring team members back in part time.

She continued: "With the return of my chef, we have been able to offer restaurant quality take-away at the weekends, and fabulous Sunday roasts.

"We are still sending out afternoon teas, with hundreds delivered over Valentine’s and Mother’s Day weekends.

"And the Government came good for us in the end with a much-needed discretionary grant fund, that has helped us to pay our rent just as our savings looked set to dry-up.

"As we approach a year of closure, I look back on the disaster that was the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which frankly was absolute madness and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, and wish we had been closed for a little longer into the summer to try and get control of this disease.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing however, and my husband Paul and I feel very lucky that we have such loyal customers, that we have made many new friends, and are blessed with a staff team that remains committed to making Dolly’s the fab establishment it promises to be when we emerge to a “new normal” way of working in the not-too-distant future."

The dino deliveries in Darwen were a roaring success

The dino deliveries in Darwen were a roaring success

Mrs Halliwell is determined to re-open Dolly's in June, using April and May to see how the land lies for other businesses who can operate with outdoor seating.

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She is also adamant that by the end of 2021, she and her staff will have emerged stronger, safe in the knowledge that resilience has seen them through one of the toughest years.

But despite that prevailing strength, the last year has brought sadness as well, as some of Dolly's regular customers won't be returning, having sadly died during this pandemic.

Mrs Halliwell added: "We will miss their friendly faces, their tales of lives well lived, and their humour.

"But we are looking forward to making more new friends and further establishing ourselves as a key destination in our local community.”