Bringing Christmas early to the elderly

Guests waiting to start tea at a Meet the Lions event.
Guests waiting to start tea at a Meet the Lions event.

This month’s Morpeth Lions Club article by Chris Offord looks at how one of its main annual events has developed over the years.

LIKE many of our readers this is an especially busy time for Morpeth Lions. To help get us in the Christmas mood we start with our Charter Dinner in early November.

For the second year in a row it was held in Eshott Hall and once it was over, members quickly moved on to making the final preparations for our annual Meet the Lions, which started more than 24 years ago.

It is an early Christmas Party for the elderly and some of the disabled residents of Morpeth. We serve food, arrange entertainment and give out prizes and a small gift to take home. Nowadays we hold the event on a Sunday afternoon in late November, though it did used to be on a Friday evening.

Meet the Lions first took place at Northgate Hospital. There was a concert hall with a large stage and small kitchen facilities. The stage was fully equipped with lighting and sound.

The hall was large and there were no problems of capacity. There was also ample space to lay out the food beforehand in a room adjoining the kitchen, with even more space for performers to prepare and wait for their turn.

The only drawback was having to transport everyone from around Morpeth to Northgate. This was achieved by a mixture of hired coaches and private cars.

Coaches would start in Stobhill, Kirkhill and at the Town Hall, each manned by two Lions, and pick up from various points en route and in town. In addition, cars were dispatched to other locations en route or to collect those who found it difficult to climb into coaches.

In those days, Meet the Lions was in the early evening but it was usually dark by the time they arrived at Northgate. Luckily, the area in front of the concert hall was well-lit but the access roads and parking areas were less well illuminated.

Other Lions would be deployed with torches on parking and traffic duties, which was no fun if it was a cold and wet evening. At the concert hall, more Lions would receive the guests and take them into the hall.

It was panic stations the year the buses failed to turn up as it was a cold and snowy Friday evening. We hastily organised a fleet of cars to collect as many as were still left standing.

The firm Arriva generously provided buses free of charge for the return journey – that was when the depot was in Dark Lane.

In the early days, Meet the Lions was organised by Dick Gee. We have a prize each for the oldest male and oldest female at Meet the Lions. Usually it is a tin of sweets (but no toffees in case of dentures).

Dick was still organising the event when he was over 80 and in his last years we calculated that he should have won the prize for the oldest male there – but of course he had to concede to someone younger.

The use of Northgate went on for several years and it was there that the processes gradually evolved so that nowadays we know pretty well what we are all doing, that is if the President’s wife or partner has been associated with the Lions for a couple of years or more as we always look to them to organise the teas.

There have been a couple of occasions when this has not been the case and the President’s wife has gone in ‘blind’. Just imagine a newly-married wife being told on return from honeymoon she is organising catering for more than 200 elderly guests – almost grounds for an immediate divorce.

Luckily, there are many other wives to help and while it seemed a daunting task it was ‘alright on the night’. I know this because it was my wife!

The facilities at Northgate Hospital began to disappear as the services became rationalised. It was a great concert hall, but all good things come to an end.

The crunch came one year when our current Meet the Lions organiser, Robin Cooper, had determined everything was in working order a couple of weeks ahead. But Robin, being Robin, went to Northgate the day before the concert just to double check.

Horror upon horrors, all the lighting and sound equipment had been removed from the stage. He did not panic, well not much, and sought the help of the Pantomime Society who came up trumps with their sound and lighting systems.

Since then we have been based at our present home, Riverside Lodge on the High Stanners. The concert room is not quite as large and we have to be a little more strict on numbers, particularly the carers.

As it is in central Morpeth, the transport by coach can be scaled down somewhat and quite a few guests can now walk there. Liz and Bill Durning and their staff have made us most welcome and have been especially helpful.

The only problem is with cars seeking to park nearby, but St Robert’s Church has been most obliging and let us use its parking area on the Sunday afternoon. We are always well clear by evening Mass. This should not be a problem this year as the church is being refurbished after a fire.

All was going well at the Riverside until the 2008 floods as it was out of action for two Novembers running. This gave Robin quite a headache, but luckily Longhirst Hall came to the rescue.

The management team was tremendous, giving us the loan of the function room and their staff for free. Not only that, for two years the President’s wife had an easy time as Longhirst did the catering. My wife missed that treat as I was President the years before and after we were at Longhirst – as she reminds me at this time of year.

In 2010 we returned to the Riverside Lodge. We were worried about the venue after the recent flooding, but Liz and Bill assured us all is well for the end of November.

Work starts on arranging the programme early each year so that we can get our date in diaries before they fill up.

We try to showcase local talent. In the past we have booked The Newminster Touring Choir, The KEVI Big Band and Jazz Band, pupils from several local dance schools, entrants and winners of the Wansbeck Music Festival, a singing (Morpeth) Lion, The Morpeth Panto Society, St George’s URC Ceilidh Band, Irish dancers, the Pipe Band, a local magician and a local professional group The 3 Shillings, who performed free of charge in the year of the flood. We have very much appreciated their input over the years.

Lion Dave Livesey has compered the proceedings for several years. He cannot resist trying out his comedy routine – for years the butt of David’s jokes was his father-in-law.

The audience either laughs or groans at examples such as: “My father-in-law admitted to being addicted to brake fluid. When I quizzed him about it, he reckoned he could stop any time.”

Another of his jokes was as follows: “My neighbour knocked on my door at 2.30am this morning, can you believe that, 2.30am – luckily for him I was still up playing my bagpipes.”

One year we had a local comedian who launched into what was obviously his night-club routine that was really blue. He was met with complete silence, probably because most of the folk present didn’t understand the language let alone the ‘jokes’. We had to curtail the act very quickly.

We always have a bingo session which is run by David Hicks. We have had many versions of bingo machines over the years, most of which have worked, though not always. Carers are helpful marking cards on some tables but not every call of ‘bingo’ is correct.

The Mayor of Morpeth (previously Castle Morpeth) attends and meets all our guests. We do give the Mayor a spot for a speech and our Mayors are all very good, not taking more than a couple of minutes, possibly a record for politicians. They never miss the tea and buns though!

The Red Cross has been in attendance with local volunteers since the inception of Meet The Lions, for which we are truly grateful. Luckily, they have had few emergencies over the years.