How humble acts of kindness in Harrogate have grown to heartwarming motion for loneliest day of the year

A motion in kindness sown by the seeds of goodwill is to help ease the burden of isolation on the loneliest day of the year.

Food Angels. Pictured from the left are Sue Cawthray, Katie Dickens and Stephen Wilkins. Picture by Simon Hulme

Sometimes all it takes is a knock on the door or the cheerful peal of a bell, festive volunteers in the spa town of Harrogate have said, to know that you are not on your own.

Some will be delivering Christmas dinner, others will be cooking it. Still more will be on duty for hamper deliveries, funded by donations, while thousands are to ring a bell from their doorsteps.

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In a year like no other, when loneliness has become such a part of the patchwork of daily life, there are many moves nationwide to make Christmas a little bit special.

Food Angels. Stephen Wilkins loads up the van. Picture by Simon Hulme

Invention, it seems, truly is the mother of necessity in this little pocket of society when it comes to the giving of a gift of good cheer.

“There is a willingness there,” said Sue Cawthray, the chief executive of Harrogate Neighbours, which through its meals service, Food Angels, will be delivering hot Christmas dinners.

“The pandemic has brought out in communities across the country this real need to support people.

“So many people have been isolated for so many months. People have been humbled by that reality - so many volunteers have come forward.”

Mary Beggs-Reid, of Harrogate, who has suggested ringing bells on your doorstep on Christmas Eve. Image: Mark Bickerdike Photography

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The Harrogate woman organising a doorstep sleigh bell ring on Christmas Eve

This is the district famously dubbed the nation’s happiest, but is also one for which, with an older population, loneliness has long been a challenge.

In Knaresborough, former firefighter Bruce Reid is readying to serve up hot dinners on Christmas Day. First the cricket club volunteered its centre, then the Methodist chapel, keen to help if it could. Further down the road, in Starbeck, Food Angels has arranged to deliver to people’s doors.

Having never operated on Christmas Day before, the non-profit organisation had asked a few staff to stand by. They will not be needed, as so many volunteers have stepped up.

“It means that someone is going to have a knock on their door on Christmas morning, with a smile and a hello,” said Ms Cawthray.

Closer to the centre of town is Harrogate’s Wesley Chapel where, nearly four decades ago, a group of widows and widowers had arranged to spend Christmas Day together.

The following year, they each brought a friend. It grew, to the point where parishioner Philip Goodwin stepped in to take a more professional role in organising.

Last year, well over 100 people attended its 35th Christmas Day luncheon, cooked by professional chefs, with dozens of volunteers hosting.

Dozens more were on driving duty, giving up their own family celebrations to pick up pensioners in festive cheer.

'Heartwarming'

“For a lot of people, paradoxically, Christmas Day is the loneliest of the year,” said Mr Goodwin. “It has always surprised me. There has always been a big need.”

The luncheon was a ‘non-starter’ this year, said Mr Goodwin, who instead set about creating modest hampers, with the ambition of delivering small gifts to 60 people on his list.

He has since watched, astonished, as donations grew to £1,700 after his niece, Esther, posted the idea on social media and set up a fundraising page.

It’s “heartwarming”, Mr Goodwin said, stunned, as sums started to rise, just “wonderful” to see such an outpouring of public goodwill.

“Loneliness is a terrible thing,” said Mr Goodwin. “It can really get to people. This is an interim measure. It’s got to be on Christmas Day. For some people, they won’t see anybody else.

“This is just to remind people, just to let them know, we haven’t forgotten them. That goes deep.”

Mr Goodwin, himself a father and grandfather in his 80s who has not seen his family for some time, knows only too well the challenge this year has brought.

“The grandchildren - though they’re bigger than me now - would pop in every other day,” he said. “We miss that dearly.

“People never think about loneliness. For most of us Christmas Day is the busiest of the year. Nevertheless, for lonely people, it’s the worst.”

Determination

The Food Angels team in Harrogate is preparing meal deliveries for more than 70 people, with more coming forward every day.

There is a determination that those who might be on their own will start Christmas morning with a knock on a door, and festive cheer from someone with a smile on their face.

“It’s a long time to have nobody knocking on your door, and that’s a worry for us,” said Sue Cawthray, the chief executive of Harrogate Neighbours. “People have felt so isolated this year. It will make a difference to a lot of people’s lives.”

One woman’s idea to spread festive cheer in her hometown will today ‘ring a bell’ for loneliness on the doorstep of Downing Street with the Prime Minister.

Mary Beggs-Reid, who had urged neighbours to reach out on Christmas Eve, has now been backed by almost half a million people after the campaign went global.

Now she will today meet with Boris Johnson to ring a bell from the doorstep of Number 10, before joining his fiancé Carrie Symonds to make festive phone calls to people living alone.

“It was a simple idea to show that even at a time when we can’t all be together, we can still do something that sends a message of hope and togetherness,” she said.

'Togetherness'

Ms Beggs-Reid’s call had started as something that could “end 2020 with a bit of magic, hope and togetherness” in her hometown.

The idea had been for people to stand on their doorsteps at 6pm on Christmas Eve to ring a bell and, having been shared on social media, has drawn huge support.

She has teamed up with the Great Winter Get Together and Christmas Together campaign, and is calling on everybody to ‘give someone a bell this Christmas’. This could be through calling someone or by becoming an NHS Volunteer Responder, to ring a doorbell and say hello from a distance, or by sharing the festive cheer on Christmas Eve.

“It was supposed to be something me and a few friends in Harrogate would do - it’s now got almost half a million people signed up to take part,” said Ms Beggs-Reid.

“It’s an incredible response, it shows how much we want to be there for each other.”

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