“NO thanks”, says Declan, shaking his head to the offer of a steaming bowl of leek and potato soup; “We just came in to see what’s going on”. Five minutes later, young father Declan, his pregnant wife and two toddlers are sitting at one of the tables, each eagerly testing out a different variety, swapping leek and potato for Moroccan vegetable and spicy lentil. They vote leek and potato their favourite. It’s their first hot meal in a couple of days. Importantly, the soup is free and home-made. The sound of Declan’s kids giggling and chattering makes for a warm and cheery oasis on an otherwise chilly and bleak, early December afternoon. It’s the week before Christmas, and the venue is Settle Rugby Club.

A couple of weeks before, at the beginning of December, a group of exceptionally able ladies, Kim Winder, Mish Taylor and Lucy Knowles were thinking about how they could help local people to access food bank services over the Christmas period. “Settle and the surrounding villages are in a bit of a gap when it comes to food bank services”, said Kim who went on to explain that although there are very good, well-established food banks in other places such as Skipton and Keighley, there are also very real problems for people living in more rural locations in accessing this kind of service.

“First of all, people usually need to be formally referred to food banks, but not everyone who actually needs a helping hand is plugged into the system” said Kim. “There are folk on low incomes, seasonal workers and people on zero hours contracts in the area. So, sometimes help is needed short-term, and sometimes people are just reluctant to ask for help.”

Lucy is Secretary at North Ribblesdale Rugby Club in Settle, and wanted to help. She added, “Of course, this is a mainly rural area. Even people who formally qualify for food banks can have trouble accessing transport to get to them. So, for our own area, we wanted to come up with a different, more inclusive way to help people out.”

Settle is a town that’s doing pretty well for itself. The wider area has been voted ‘The Best Place to Live in England’, so the quality of life is generally good and the percentage of people claiming benefits in the Ribble Valley is lower than the national average. But with its relative prosperity, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that some people are still struggling. Many rural and farming households have recently faced a real squeeze, and incomes are generally lower here than in many other areas. Perhaps surprising to some, homelessness is also an issue in the area. Around 20 per cent of households in Settle are single-person households, and there is a higher-than-average proportion of older people in the Ribble Valley. People living on their own, those with restricted incomes and the elderly often feel isolated and find it hard to make ends meet.

So, the ladies got practical. Co-founder, Mish explained; “Plugging the gap in food bank provision was a focus, but Lucy, Kim and I also wanted to find a way of bringing people together for a chat, to give people a chance to get out and meet people. We considered how we could offer practical help in the run up to Christmas: to provide a warm meal and a space to chat.” Lucy followed on “…So we popped a notice on the local community Facebook sites to test the waters. Within hours, we’d had offers of help from the community. Settle Co-op was brilliant in providing a space for a food bank collection bin, and the Rugby Club offered their facilities for free.

The project snow-balled. Volunteers came forward, including a former mental health nurse, people who had worked in substance abuse and rehabilitation services, as well as some who had made use of food banks themselves. Others just wanted to ‘get involved’ and give a little back to their community. So, on December 20, the rugby club, with its group of helpers, an impressive array of donations (and some steaming vats of tasty, wholesome soup), opened its doors.

On the day, around 50 people popped in. By no means was everyone there for food bank parcels; on the contrary.

The majority just wanted to pitch up, to see what was going on, to come out of the cold, let their kids play in the club house – and to eat some soup! But there were some facing a tough Christmas, and those did leave with a parcel of things to make things a little more bearable.

New friendships were made, some new support arrangements have subsequently been put in place for people who had none before. Lots of people got to know their neighbours and everyone had a good time.

“It was such a success”, said Kim, “that we want to do it again. But we’d have loved to be even busier, so we want to make sure that everyone who could benefit – yes, from the food parcels, but also by just getting out of the house - gets to know about it. We’re re-branding these as ‘Settle Community Soup’ events. As an added incentive, the next one will include some craft activities for the kids and a jumble sale.”

The next Community Soup will take place on Saturday, January 28 at Settle Rugby Club, from 10am to 3pm. Perhaps you want to donate unwanted Christmas gifts to the jumble? Please drop them off at the Rugby Club between 9pm and 5pm on the Thursday and Friday before. Settle Co-op have the food bank collection bin out again.

The Community Soup team is particularly keen on donations of ladies sanitary items, soap, deodorants and toothbrushes.

“Community spirit is something for the whole year round, and not just Christmas. We’re really looking forward to our next Community Soup and hope to see you there.” - Ladies, we’ll be there.