A Meals On Wheels service has been £5,000 boost by County Durham Community Foundation. Peter Barron goes out on a delivery round to see why the service is so vital

FOR Bob Potts and Billy Atkin, it’s business as usual as they climb into their white van and check the names on today’s list. “We’re like The Pony Express,” smiles Bob. “We’ve got to get through, no matter what.”

It’s Bob’s way of putting the importance of the Meals On Wheels service, run by Wheatley Hill Community Association, into perspective. For many old and vulnerable people in the former pit villages of this part of County Durham, it’s a lifeline. Bob, born in nearby Horden, is a retired engineer and, at 72, he could be forgiven for putting his feet up. Instead, he puts in more than 30 hours a week as a volunteer Meals On Wheels driver and all-round good egg.

He came 12 years ago to project manage an extension to the Greenhills Community Centre, got talked into joining the board of trustees, and has been part of the furniture ever since.

“I just do it because it’s something that’s very clearly needed and that’s it,” he says.

Billy, the other half of the delivery double-act, has been community centre caretaker since he was made redundant from the Electrolux factory at Spennymoor a few years back. Being caretaker has lots of responsibilities and one of them is taking the meals into the houses while Bob parks up outside.

“For a lot of them, I’m the only face they see,” says Billy. “You get attached and, sadly, we’ve lost a few lately.”

With “clients” passing away through old age or going into residential care, the delivery list changes frequently but something like 120 meals are ordered each week. A meal typically costs £4, with a 50p delivery charge for places outside of Wheatley Hill.

Orders come in from Thornley, Shotton, Wingate, Station Town, Hutton Henry, Haswell Plough and Ludworth. “All of them had a pit once but they’ve all gone and there’s been nothing to replace them,” says Billy. “Nothing.”

The community association started its Meals On Wheels operation in 2010 because of increasing local demand due to mobility problems amongst the elderly and those suffering ill health. It has grown into a service which many couldn’t do without yet it relies heavily on volunteers and donations.

News of a £5,000 grant from the E.ON Butterwick Moor Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund, managed by County Durham Community Foundation (CDCF), has come as a real shot in the arm.

“The support we’ve had over the years from County Durham Community Foundation has been invaluable,” says Hilary Jamieson, operations manager for Wheatley Hill Community Association. “Whatever else happens, the Meals On Wheels service has to continue. It’s our core service, and grants like this are a massive help.”

Hilary also acknowledges that it’s all down to a real team effort. As well as Bob and Billy, there are other volunteer gems, like John and Kathleen Whinn, while the chair of trustees, Evelyn Robson, also chips in with deliveries. Cook Nadia Hammond does a sterling job and she’s helped by kitchen assistant Jean Atkin and another volunteer, Scott Kirby.

The menu changes daily, with the food freshly prepared. Today, customers have a choice of “Panackelty” – a mix of corned beef, potatoes, sausage, bacon and onions, served with a stottie – or chicken salad with new potatoes. It’s home-made apple and berry crumble with custard for pudding.

“They like good, wholesome traditional dinners round here,” says Nadia. “Mince and dumplings fly out the door.”

On the first of two morning runs, “The Pony Express” heads off through Wheatley Hill and onto Thornley, stopping at houses along the way to drop off orders.

Ronnie Collingwood, 78, is disabled and lives alone these days, though he manages to visit his wife Rebecca twice a week in a nearby care home. Ronnie, who had a milk round for 26 years, is clearly delighted to see Billy come through the door with his grub.

“Oh, I look forward to it every day,” says Ronnie, who pays a bit extra – (£6) – for a soup, sweet and dinner. “You couldn’t get food this good so cheaply anywhere, but it’s also the human contact that means so much.”

The service continues seven days a week, all year round, with chilled meals delivered on Christmas Eve to cover Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Afternoon tea is also an option and, believe it or not, the deliveries even include a Bonio for a customer’s dog.

“For me, and people like me, it’s nothing short of a lifeline. I don’t know what I’d do without it,” says Ronnie, putting his apple and berry crumble to one side for later.

“I always save me sweet for teatime so I have summat to look forward to,” he explains.

With a friendly wave, Billy’s back out the door and into the van. The Pony Express is on its way to the next stop – but it’ll be back tomorrow.

It has to be.