Following on from a very popular visit for cream tea at Minsteracres last year, Wheels to Meals – a community initiative dreamed up and developed in Stanhope, County Durham – brought two minibuses full of customers and volunteer helpers for a lunch of soup, scones, tea and cake.

For an annual membership of £1, and a contribution of £10 per trip, Wheels to Meals collects clients from their homes and delivers them to pre-arranged events. Pubs, restaurants, theatres (and even the odd retreat centre) play host to a lively group of Weardalers.

Quite apart from the obvious attraction of enjoying good food in the company of friends, Wheels to Meals has proved a lifeline to many. “I wouldn’t get out at all without it,” says Elizabeth Gatiss, nodding to her wheelchair. “It’s made big difference to me. I reckon I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for them.”

“It’s a fantastic service,” adds Nancy Garthwaite. “I’ve been with it since it started a year past February and go out with them an awful lot. So far this week we’ve been to the Little Theatre at Gateshead to see ‘Ladies of Spirit’, Barnard Castle for a shopping trip and here to Minsteracres. And it’s only Thursday!”

Community transport based at The Hub in Stanhope was the starting point for the initiative. “Transport is the key,” explained Steve Day, who with Gillian Herron is one of the founders of Wheels to Meals, and is also one of the drivers for the day. “Giving people a meal only sees to nutrition. The social side is equally, if not more important.”

He laughs off suggestions that the logistics of collecting everyone from home must be daunting. “I know from experience that you can schedule it to within 5 or 10 minutes if you plan it and you know your customers and their needs.”

Gillian and Steve plan the events and negotiate with the venues. “We have great suppliers. They love what they do and they make an effort to deliver good value and great quality. It’s worth it to them of course because people enjoy the experience and will go back again with friends and relatives.”

The volunteers enjoy it as much as the customers, and for similar reasons. Harry Marwick joined recently. “I’m not in paid employment at the moment, so it means that I’m getting out not sitting indoors.”

The £10 fee is set to make it affordable, but the service would be less so without the help of Durham County Council who contribute towards the transport and other costs. “The council recognises that what we do provides a valuable service. Our vehicles transport local people to appointments, and Wheels to Meals contributes in a very real way to improving people’s emotional well-being as well as their physical health.”

For their part, the Minsteracres team enjoy the visits. “They’re a wonderful group of people!” says Sr Therese O’Regan. “They are a lovely presence in the place. They appreciate home-cooked food and enjoy chatting – in fact they enjoy the whole place. “I’m sure they’ll be back!”