‘Angels without wings’ bring coffee and cheer to isolated communities

The Rural Coffee Caravan visits Mill Green in Aldringham.

The Rural Coffee Caravan visits Mill Green in Aldringham.

Scratch the surface of even the most idyllic-looking village and you’ll often find a well of loneliness and isolation. Sheena Grant finds out about a mobile cafe that brings coffee and conversation to Suffolk’s rural communities

The Rural Coffee Caravan visits Mill Green in Aldringham.

The Rural Coffee Caravan visits Mill Green in Aldringham.

It’s just before 2pm on a fine summer’s day in one of Suffolk’s prettiest chocolate box villages when Ann Osborn and Richard Browne park their mobile cafe caravan, set out some tables and chairs and prepare to serve up a selection of homemade cakes and quality coffee.

But appearances can be deceptive. This scene in Earl Soham, smack bang on the A1120 tourist route that winds its way from Mid Suffolk towards the coast, is no ordinary pop-up cafe or roadside oasis for the well-heeled traveller looking for a latte to ease their journey.

It’s a lifeline designed to help break the loneliness and isolation that exists in many of our rural communities. Because, if you scratch away their often bucolic veneer, you will find a reality far different to the imagined idyll.

It’s the first time the Rural Coffee Caravan, a charity that’s been running since 2003, has been to Earl Soham, and Ann, the project manager, is not sure what to expect.

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“It may be that no-one turns up,” she says. “You just don’t know. But we’ve been invited to come by the parish council, so there’s obviously some sort of need here.”

The caravan serves a variety of locations ? some not quite as picturesque as Earl Soham, some even more so ? from Kentford in the west to Orford, Yoxford, Thorpeness and Aldringham in the east, and Kessingland in the north.

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“We just exist to make a difference,” says Ann, a chatty, welcoming woman who has done the job since 2004 and clearly enjoys a bit of good-natured banter with Richard, one of the charity’s trustees who regularly tows the caravan to a variety of venues. In fact, that’s how he got involved in the first place.

“I was doing a bit of work in the village hall where I live and came out to see what all the commotion was about one day when the caravan was there,” he says. “Someone said: ‘This is Richard. He has a tow bar on his car’, and that’s how Ann got her hooks into me.”

Ann laughs. It’s all clearly part of the chemistry that makes the coffee caravan such a hit with so many people.

In a promotional video that showcases their work, one Redlingfield resident describes Ann and the team, which also includes community development officer Garry Simmonds, as “angels without wings”.

You can see why. Although Earl Soham is not one of them, many of the villages they go to have no shop, pub or even meeting place. As well as providing somewhere to have a coffee or tea, cake and a chat, the charity connects people in a lasting way. Friendships have been forged, often among neighbours who had little idea the other existed until they met here.

It also acts as a mobile information service, enabling people to get the vital help they often need in their day to day lives. “We try to be the catalyst for a community to come together and we will provide whatever an individual village wants,” says Ann.

“The aim is to reduce the stress of rural isolation. That takes various forms for different people, some of whom can be very lonely. Perhaps they’ve moved to the area or lived there a long time and can’t get out as much as they used to.

“It can hit anyone. Some people need services and they don’t know how to get them. Some people just want to get to know people in their village and become more connected but they are not sure how to take that step.

“We are just there to try and make a difference, and that difference is different, depending on where you go.

“Quite often you can look at a village and think it is idyllic, but often it’s not. Even in somewhere like Aldeburgh, for instance, there are areas where people are struggling.

“In one of the places we go to we had a man come up and just leave his wife with us, almost without saying a word. He disappeared and she sat and talked to us for an hour and a half, telling us all about her childhood. It turned out she had dementia and her husband was finding it hard to cope. That hour and a half was respite for him when he was able to go off and have a little time to himself while she sat and talked happily to us.”

In July this year, David and Jacqueline Love even celebrated 50 years of marriage at one of the caravan’s Redlingfield visits with a Golden Wedding blessing service conducted by Canon Sally Fogden, one of the charity’s founders. They thought it was the best way of sharing their special occasion with everyone in the village.

The charity has also branched out into running tea dances and is being asked to go into more urban areas, attending fairs in towns around the county as more pressure is put on public finances and some agencies cut back their work.

There is no charge for the refreshments they serve (although donations are welcome) and the coffee is given by Ipswich-based Coffeelink. But Ann thinks what really draws people, from pensioners to young mums, is the chat.

“It’s that vital social link,” she says. “Friendships are often made. In one place we go to we’ve got two couples who socialise together a lot now, since getting to know each other at the caravan.

“One lady told me she thought she was fine with two or three friends, but she’s got 30 now and has never been happier. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times we’ve introduced neighbours to each other. It sounds unbelievable but these days, without a reason for people to walk around their village, they don’t. They become lacking in confidence. If there is an event happening in the village hall they might want to go, but feel shy.

“The satisfaction is seeing people talking to each other. When that happens they can find their own solutions. It all starts with conversations.”

I bid goodbye to Ann and Richard after about an hour at Earl Soham, during which time I have been the only visitor. Ann later tells me about six people turned up afterwards, all with a different story to tell and some of whom needed help with mobility issues and other problems.

The caravan is usually out 10-12 times a month between April and October and stays in each venue for a couple of hours a time.

I meet up with Ann again at Aldringham almost a month later. Garry is with her this time and instead of the caravan they have the charity’s second vehicle, a campervan, which is used all year round.

The project has been visiting the village for 12 years and many locals have come to rely on it.

“We’ve got no village hall and this means we can get together,” says Joyce Atkins. “We look forward to it. You don’t see many people out and about in the village at other times. Sometimes we will ring each other up but this is a chance to get together and have a good old chat.”

Cara Chinery, who has lived in Aldringham for seven years, says the coffee caravan helped her meet people when she moved in.

“My neighbour told me about it,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone in the village at first and this has really helped. My children come up with me when the caravan is here during the school holidays.”

Aldringham native Tony Woods was one of those who first invited the caravan to the village.

“We wanted to try and get some kind of community feel going because there wasn’t much life in the village, apart from the pub,” he says. “There used to be a post office, shop and school but they’ve all closed and a lot of houses are now second homes that aren’t even occupied a lot of the time. Having the caravan come once a month has made a real difference.”

Rural Coffee Caravan will be celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday next year with a programme of community events.

Starting in April 2016 ? the month of the Queen’s birthday ? the charity will be running a series of Queen’s 90th Birthday Cream Teas around Suffolk.

Everyone will be welcome to attend their village’s event, free of charge.

The celebrations will culminate in a garden party fundraising event in June, with tickets going on sale to the public soon.

Canon Sally Fogden, chairman of trustees, said: “The Queen is dedicated to community service and so are the team at Rural Coffee Caravan. The people we meet on our village visits and events tell us they feel the caravan is a vital lifeline, because often we are the only agency that visits them, and we might be the only people they have spoken to that week. We wanted to provide more opportunities for rurally-isolated people to come together and join in the Queen’s 90th Birthday celebrations.”

To register in advance for the limited number of tickets available for the garden party in June 2016, telephone 01379 855338 or email coffee.caravan@btinternet.com.

More information about the Rural Coffee Caravan can be found at www.ruralcoffeecaravan.org.uk

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