Angels on the streets who can be an answer to your prayers

It's a chilly Saturday night in Skipton and the nightlife is just warming up.

A couple of girls, shivering in short dresses, weave arm in arm down Sheep Street, their high heels catching on the cobbles. Some young lads in thin T-shirts lurch noisily past on their way to the next pub.

Keeping a careful watch over the scene are Skipton Street Angels, a group of Christian volunteers who spend their Saturday nights helping revellers in their hour of need.

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Rather than curling up on the couch on a Saturday night or preparing for church the next day, they are patrolling the streets until 2 o'clock in the morning, picking party-goers up from the pavement, hailing taxis and, in some cases, calling for an ambulance.

It may be beyond the call of duty for most parish priests to watch over their parishioners until the early hours of the morning, but the Rev Louise Taylor-Kenyon seems to have found a calling.

"Most nights we have one person who really needs help," she says. "It is part of being the Church in the community and not just within the walls of the Church. We are not here to teach people how to behave, we are here to help them."

Susan Broadhead, a retired deputy head teacher, adds: "Generally we are there to calm things down when people become over-exhilarated. If we see a woman on her own, we'll go and ask her if she's OK."

It's nearly a year since the Skipton Street Angels first took to the streets and the number of volunteers has steadily grown to 36. The Skipton group is part of a nationwide church project

which originated in Halifax four years ago.

Before setting off from their base, the Street Angels sit in a circle while the leader for the night, or "Ark Angel", says a short prayer for the people they will be going out to help that night.

Dressed in special fluorescent jackets, thermals and woolly hats, the Angels hover around in threes, swooping in to help pub-goers and clubbers in trouble. They often witness some pretty unholy behaviour.

The first patrol comes across a rowdy pack of lads piling out of a minibus at the top of the High Street. Glasses are smashed on the cobbles and lewd comments are shouted at passers-by. The Angels carry radios to contact the local police and they quickly decide the situation warrants a call.

As the shouts and laughter echo through the market town, a couple of elderly women outside Trinity Parish Church nervously say they have been waiting for a taxi for 15 minutes. The Angels put a call out and a taxi is summoned within minutes.

"Part of the point of us starting this up was not just for the young people out drinking, but to make the town a safer place for everyone," says Louise.

By being the eyes and ears on the street, the Angels have even perhaps saved a few lives. During the recent cold snap, the temperature had plummeted to –8C when the team found a very distressed woman cowering in a doorway, wearing only a very thin dress. Luckily, they were there to call an ambulance.

"Another night we came across a couple of lads sleeping by the side of the canal," recalls Louise. "One had his feet sticking over the edge of the canal so we tried to wake him up and move him to a safer place."

The Street Angels are greeted warmly by many of the people out on the town and are given hugs and handshakes. Retired deputy head teacher

John Tomlinson appears to have a sobering effect on some of the former pupils he comes across.

"The only abuse we get is from some of the middle-aged people out on the town," he says. "They say things like, 'You shouldn't waste your time on these young people, just leave them in the gutter'."

As the night wears on and more people spill out of the pubs, the second trio of volunteers set off for their round. The Angels try to stick together at all times, but Brian Appleby, a 75-year-old Methodist preacher, becomes separated by a crowd of young lads who are dancing around with his woolly hat. As we double back towards him, he looks alarmed, but brushes it off.

"When they want to hug you, you have to suspend your suspicion," he says. "But sometimes we can be sworn at and insulted."

While on patrol, they pick up glasses to return them to the pubs and throw away any glass bottles, which they view as potential weapons.

In future they are planning to carry flip-flops to hand out to women who lose their shoes.

It could be said the Street Angels are filling in for the missing bobby on the beat, but the local police have nothing but praise for their work.

"I have been very impressed with the work the Street Angels do," says Inspector Craig Linton from the Skipton Safer Neighbourhood

Team. "Their low-level intervention and help to those who need it often goes under the radar, however I know that their efforts and caring attitude can and does defuse possible flash points."

Back at the Skipton base, there is tea and a slice of home-made chocolate cake.

"The church is going out to the people," says Martin Taylor, who has been with the group since the beginning. "But we are not being churchy. It isn't evangelism."

The scheme has touched lives in other ways too. Halifax man Damian Andrews, 37, says working as a Street Angel turned his life around.

"Before I started volunteering as an Angel, I had alcohol problems and I was self-harming. Now I volunteer most weekends. I've met a lovely bunch of people and I've started going to a church in Bradford," he says. "At the end of the night I know I've helped someone to get home safely."

From its humble beginnings as a drop-in centre at a Fairtrade Cafe in Halifax, the number of Street Angels projects has expanded to 40 across the country, with many more inquiries from other towns planning to set up a similar scheme.

In Yorkshire alone, Street Angels are now patrolling the streets of Hebden Bridge, Huddersfield, Hull, Sheffield, York, Wakefield, Bradford and Leeds.

Fresh from meeting the Queen to pick up his MBA for services to the community last week, Street Angels founder Paul Blakey says: "The idea initially came out of Churches Together in Halifax who wanted to do more than just meet on a Sunday morning. At the time, Halifax was a notorious place for violent and sexual assault and we wanted to do something to help.

"When we started, it was just a simple idea of can we make a difference? Within six months crime was being reduced considerably."

In fact, according to police figures, crime fell by a staggering 42 per cent in the Street Angels' first year with month on month reductions since.

It's difficult to quantify how much of this is down to the Street Angels, but at a time of increasing alcohol-related problems, the Christian volunteers are certainly a sobering presence.