Collection of wacky antics that raised more than a laugh

Morpeth Lions make the arduous ascent of the North Face prior to conquering the Market Square Summit.
Morpeth Lions make the arduous ascent of the North Face prior to conquering the Market Square Summit.

OUR monthly look at the work of Morpeth Lions Club continues as CHRIS OFFORD shows the fun side of street collections.

LAST month, I wrote about the Lions’ involvement with the 2008 floods. I ended by hoping they never happened again and looking forward to the implementation of the flood protection scheme.

Unfortunately, early on September 25, they returned and affected some 47 properties in Morpeth.

Together with other charitable bodies and individuals, Morpeth Lions were on the streets again ‘can-rattling’ for victims of the flooding.

This month, I am looking at street collections carried out in previous years, many of which were in far happier circumstances.

The Lions’ can-rattle on town-centre streets usually takes place once a year and is in accordance with licences issued by the local council.

In emergencies, such as following the floods, we can apply for a special licence and take up more than our one allocation a year.

We usually collect in the autumn in order to finance our Christmas activities, such as the Meet the Lions concert for the elderly, or our Christmas parcels for children in need. In December, we are grateful for permission given by Morrisons for a collection in store to fund our Christmas hampers for the elderly and needy families. There will be more about that another month.

This year, we were due to hold a street collection on October 6, but this has been postponed as we took part with others in the flood-relief collection last month and felt it unfair to be asking for further donations so soon.

We will, however, be hoping for your generosity in our rearranged street collection date in mid-March.

There was a time before health-and-safety regulations became more stringent when we were somewhat adventurous with our ideas for street collections. One of our best-remembered collections was the Lions’ horizontal assault on the north faces of mountains Bridge Street and Newgate Street. This took place in November 1989 in the year of Alan Taylor’s presidency.

Two teams were set to race to the summit of an ‘Everest’ constructed in the Market Square.

The proceeds from the street collection taking place alongside the climb were for further facilities at the Pigdon Scout Camp and in memory of former Lion Mike Bolton, who did much work for the Scouts.

Prior to the event, the teams were said to be undertaking intensive training in the Cheviots, but seemed to concentrate on planning the assault from the warmth of the Joiners Arms and other public houses in Morpeth.

Northumbria Mountain Sports sponsored the climb and equipped us for the assault. They also came up with two experienced climbers to give the whole exercise some authenticity and to ensure no one fell off the treacherous slopes.

We had the full mountaineering kit, including axes, ropes, clamps, harnesses, crampons and helmets.

Some of us foolishly shunned the helmets and everyone did without the oxygen equipment.

On November 25, conditions were perfect for making the assault.

There was some frost and a little ice, but visibility was good. Base camps were set up at the ends of Bridge and Newgate Streets. In spite of our intensive planning, we quickly found an unexpected hazard in the form of deposits left by mountain dogs who roam the area. Remember, this was before it was common practice for owners to carry little plastic bags for such an occasion.

It is amazing to think that we safely climbed/crawled up the sides of the two main shopping streets without half the road closed off with bollards and tapes. Drivers would stop to see what was going on and make cash donations through the car window. Nobody seemed to mind as the traffic crawled slowly down the road.

We undertook the whole exercise exactly as you would climb a mountain, but in this case we were horizontal. We eventually made it to the Market Square summit thanks to several stops for refuelling; often supplied by the shopkeepers as we climbed slowly by. In the end, we raised £450 for the Scouts, which was an excellent sum for a Saturday street collection over 20 years ago.

Around 10 years later, we came up with another idea to boost collection takings. It was very loosely based on the BBC TV series Ground Force, which ran from 1997 to 2005.

The series starred Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh.

We had the idea of a temporary make-over of the Market Square and, in particular, the two flower-beds which used to be in the Square before it was refurbished by the council.

These flower-beds were often looking the worse for wear due largely to the actions of revellers coming out of the bars in the weekend evenings and amusing themselves while waiting for taxis.

Permission for tidying up the flower-beds, albeit temporarily, was given by the council.

We needed to borrow some greenery and Chris Dentice, of Stanton Hall Nurseries, kindly lent us a number of shrubs with a variety of leaf shapes and colours, including some in flower.

Heighley Gate Garden Centre provided garden ornaments, not gnomes, to give that renaissance look. Bob and Caroline lent us some flowers from their market stall. Finally, Absolut Print and Design printed us some large posters advertising Ground Farce Day.

At 10am on the Saturday, we cleared the beds of rubbish and dug them over. Various Lions took the roles of Alan, Charlie and Tommy.

However, the most splendid and centre of much attention was the late Roger Atkinson in a red wig as Charlie Dimmock.

We never did find out what his students at King Edward’s thought about the transformation.

Ground Farce Day gave a focus to the street collection and created a lot of interest. We had several requests to keep the plants in the flower-beds, but unfortunately it was just for the day.

A few years later, the Market Square was given a full make-over in the form you see today.

One of our secret weapons are the Pyrenean Mountain Dogs owned by Nigel Wright. They are big, white and fluffy, as well as being very docile. They never fail to attract much interest when Nigel is collecting. They are also well-trained, unlike some of the mountain dogs on the Street Climb.

One year, our collection coincided with Hallowe’en. We dressed up in suitable costumes, such as ghouls, ghosts, skeletons, Dracula and witches. The piece-de-resistance was the coffin in the Market Square from which Eddy Gebhard emerged at regular intervals. It certainly drew the crowds.

There was no truth in the rumour that some of the Lions required no make-up or fancy dress to frighten the children.

Since then we have avoided Hallowe’en as the collection date clashed with the Poppy Appeal. It is difficult enough raising money without being in direct competition with a very worthy cause.

You often see Lions helping out with other organisations’ street collections. This is usually up to individual Lions, but as Morpeth Lions, we do organise the collection at the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering to raise funds for the annual event.

The club also gives support in numbers for the Marie Curie Cancer Care annual collection where volunteers are always much-needed.

Finally, thank you for all the financial support you have given the Lions over the past 40 years. It is much appreciated and well-spent on many good causes.