We'll be working this Christmas

Christmas gives us a chance to indulge ourselves. We can bring in the firewood, close the curtains and tuck ourselves away with our families. But there are some unsung Suffolk heroes who will be out delivering a little festive spirit to other people.

Christmas gives us a chance to indulge ourselves. We can bring in the firewood, close the curtains and tuck ourselves away with our families. But there are some unsung Suffolk heroes who will be out delivering a little festive spirit to other people. CHANTAL HADDON investigates.

Mick Watson

Meals on Wheels volunteer

Mick worked for 24 years as a sales manager for Allied Bakeries in Ipswich, but following two heart attacks he decided to take early retirement.

Six months later, he joined the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. Founded in 1938 to help civilians during the Second World War, the WRVS now works to give vulnerable people dignity and independence in their own home.

He said: “I had worked crazy hours as a sales manager and that took its toll on my health so I decided to retire at 52 but when you suddenly go from a 12 hour day to nothing it's pretty hard and you need to find a way of adapting. After six months I was bored and I thought life would disappear so I joined the WRVS in 1993.

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“There are male and female volunteers of all ages and it has certainly kept me out of mischief.

“I deliver meals to about 12 different homes each week in Ipswich so you do get to know people. I always make sure I spend some time having a chat with the people I see, most of whom are elderly and housebound.

“I was one of the only people to deliver meals on Christmas Day but there are quite a few of us now. My family and I open presents early on Christmas morning and then I go out and deliver roast turkey with all the trimmings to other people. If someone is on their own without family I am often the only smiling face they see on the day and we have a laugh and I always pull a cracker before I leave.”

Darren Squire

Public halls manager

Darren and his team are responsible for the huge variety of events that take place throughout the year at two of Bury St Edmunds' most important civic buildings - the Athenaeum and Corn Exchange. Originally from Greenwich in London, Darren moved to Suffolk in 1985 after being offered a job at a hotel in Newmarket. Nine years ago he became Bury's public halls manager.

He said: “We are really hectic over Christmas. Our Christmas Fair lasted for three days with a French market on Angel Hill, fairground rides and around 200 different stallholders. We've held the fair for the last three years and it's really popular, we have thousands of people visiting. Straight after the Christmas Fair, Bonhams the auctioneers held a winter Athenaeum sale and then we were into the ball season.

“We have 16 balls and dinners in the run up to Christmas, finishing with the Major's Ball on December 22. We can have up to 450 guests so it takes a lot of work. While most evenings might finish at 1am we're often still there at 5 or 6 in the morning, tidying up and preparing for the next day, but we all get a lot of satisfaction out of it. We treat each event individually and I'm always pleased if people have had a good time and we've met their expectations.

“There are also charity luncheons and meetings in the daytime so I don't get much time to do Christmas shopping - I don't just panic about what to buy for my family, I also worry about when I'll get the time to go shopping but Bury has so many good places I've always managed to find something. I love the town, it's beautiful and things are much easier now I live five minutes from the centre. During my life I've moved 32 times and I certainly don't plan to move again.”

Philip Hawes

Chimney sweep

Philip has worked as a chimney sweep for nearly 30 years. He has lived in Suffolk all his life, was born in Melton near Woodbridge, and he now lives in Wickham Market.

He said: “I'm always absolutely flat out in December right through till January. I love my job and feel very lucky. I meet a whole variety of people from all walks of life and with some families I've seen the whole generation grow up. I've been a lucky charm at quite a few marriages and I recently kissed the bride at one wedding, she looked lovely, then I realised I'd known her as a little girl kicking her heels while I was sweeping her mum and dad's chimney.

“I've travelled all over Suffolk sweeping chimneys from Felixstowe to Southwold on the coast and inland as far as Trinity College, Cambridge, which was a great experience. Depending on how far I have to go I can do between four and five chimneys a day and I do always end up working on Christmas Eve but I leave the evening free for another job I do. Every year I dress up as Father Christmas and ride through Ufford village on a sleigh collecting money for the Heath Road Children's ward. I started it when my daughters were small and now I do it for my grandchildren. It's great fun and we usually finish up with a nice drink in the pub.”

Robert Baker

Turkey farmer

Robert has been rearing Christmas turkeys for over 40 years. His 17th century farm in Crowfield is home to around a 1000 birds from June to December.

He said: “I took over the turkey part of our business from my brother in 1977. Initially we did produce turkeys for bigger retailers but now I deal directly with my customers- they are more interested in flavour than price and many people have come back to us year on year since we started - I usually open the order book on October 1st and one chap always rings me the same day.

“We rear three different types of turkey, the white the bronze and the Norfolk black - that's the one I probably enjoy most, it's rather an odd looking bird, much longer and bonier than the other two, closer to the wild bird, but it has an absolutely wonderful flavour. We start planning for Christmas in January ordering the birds from two specialist breeders, we spend the next few months preparing our barns and feeds. We're quite unusual in that we produce our own feed - the birds have an entirely vegetarian diet, free from growth enhancers, antibiotics and GM crops.

“The day-old birds finally arrive in June and then I'm with the pullets almost constantly - they really benefit from lots of attention and I do get very attached. Christmas itself is incredibly busy our last customer usually turns up at about 7pm on Christmas Eve but in some ways we're lucky, we get a daily reminder from June that Christmas is coming and most of our own shopping was done by mid October.”

Simon Bashford

Pantomime dame

Simon has been playing one half of Cinderella's gruesome sisters for 20 years.

Although he knows Ipswich well this is the first time he has performed panto in the town and he is looking forward to working with his acting partner, comedian Adam Daye and Strictly Come Dancing star Letitia Dean.

He said: “Actors either love doing panto or they don't - I do. It's really one of the only times the whole family all go to the theatre together and it's a great audience to play to. The Ipswich Regent has had a big facelift, the whole house has been redecorated and it feels like walking into a brand new theatre, so it's really exciting. Adam and I really enjoy working together and we've got some wonderful costumes this year, very 'Lily Savage'. Letitia Dean is the fairy godmother, I know her well and she's lovely.

“Pantomime is physically tiring but terrific fun. Every performance is two hours long and there are two a day with just one day off a week - the days tend to merge a bit after a long run so Christmas Day is really important, that's when you know you'll see your own family.

“Last Christmas was a very difficult time for the town and we want to make Cinderella a really feel good show.”

This article first appeared in the December issue of Suffolk magazine.

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