Mary is ninety-two years old. She’s lived in Downderry for more than seventy years.

“My boys were christened here,” she says as she sits with her friends enjoying lunch in St Nicolas’ Church. “Now one’s sixty-two and the other’s seventy.

“One of my boys was a choirboy. But he wasn’t a bit like a choirboy. He was the bane of the poor vicar’s life.

“It was a much smaller village when I moved here.”

Friends Sandra and Mary

“I’m not really a church person,” Mary adds. “But this is lovely, a good place to meet friends.”

She jokes that at her age she’s living on borrowed time.

Her friend Sandra tells her she shouldn’t say such things. But she agrees that they all appreciate these hot lunch events held at the church twice a month.

“They bring people together, they really do,” Sandra says. “They’re a way of catching up with people. They really keep the village going.”

Their friends Paul and Elsa feel the same.

“It’s good company and good food as well,” says Paul as he tucks into his homemade steak-and-kidney pie.

Elsa and Sandra

“I love coming here and I’ve encouraged other people to come,” Elsa adds. “It’s so good for people who are on their own, or who can’t do their own cooking.”

She also commends the efforts of the volunteers who run these events.

“They’re very good people,” she says. “They work very hard for the church.”

At the age of eighty-three, Elsa herself still serves as a steward at the Methodist chapel just a few hundred yards up the road. Like many of two dozen people who regularly attend these lunches, she continues to support the local community.

Tim Pullin, a member of Downderry’s Parochial Church Council, sits at a large table with his friends Jackie, Sue and Geoff.

Tim, Geoff, Jackie and Sue

“These lunches bring in a lot of people who don’t normally come into the church,” Tim says.

“Lots of people who usually eat on their own can come in and eat with other people,” Sue adds.

“You could go a couple of weeks and not see anyone if the weather’s bad,” Jackie explains. “It’s nice seeing everyone, especially when you live on your own.”

“Many of the people here we wouldn’t get to see from one week to the next except at events like this,” Geoff says.

The organisers deliver meals to people who aren’t able to come along in person. Tim says that also helps them to check that anyone who’s not turned up is okay.

Geoff adds that this is a regular event that people in the village have come to depend on.

“They rely on it for companionship, fellowship and wellbeing,” he says.

Originally from the Orkneys, organiser David Watters has devoted a lifetime of work in service to his faith, and now serves as Reader for the parish.

“Our growing conviction has been that it’s something that’s good for the community,” he says. “Many people give donations but we don’t charge for it.

“You certainly learn a lot about your neighbours coming here! It’s a really good community turnout. It’s all ages. It’s a good place where anybody and everybody is welcome.”

David Watters

The initiative started several years ago. In the months before the Covid-19 crisis, it could attract more than thirty people at each lunch. Since the easing of the pandemic, those numbers have gradually returned to similar levels, as local people have developed the confidence to go out and socialize regularly again.

This year, with the steep rises in the cost of living exacerbated by energy price hikes, the Downderry initiative has received special funding from the Diocese of Truro to support these important efforts.

“We’re very grateful for the grant,” says volunteer Rosemary Stevenson. “It seems to be important to local people, not just for the food – though a hot meal is important in cold weather – but also for the opportunity to get together and meet people.

“We believe that the church should reach out to find out what people need, both people on our doorstep and in the wider world. That’s our purpose, isn’t it – otherwise, why would we exist?

“Hospitality is a very good way of sharing our faith in a practical way. A lot of the people who come to these lunches don’t come to church, but that doesn’t worry us. That’s not the point, is it?”

These twice monthly hot homemade lunch events are run, cooked and served by volunteers like Rosemary and David. The team at the Church of St Nicolas also run spin-off events including ‘soup and pud’ lunches some Saturdays. Following a hugely successful platinum jubilee event last summer and a collaborative carol concert with the local primary school at Christmas, they’re now planning a big ‘bring and share’ community lunch on the Sunday of coronation weekend next month, laying the church out with long communal tables and festooning it with appropriately patriotic bunting.

“The jubilee one felt amazing,” says Sue. “It was absolutely fantastic.”

“It’s how it used to be when we were children,” Jackie adds.

Volunteers Rosemary and Margaret

They offer real coffee and homemade shortbread after Sunday services. There’s a hospitality tray at the side of the aisle, replete with kettle, cups, tea and long-life milk, to offer a warming drink to parched travellers on the popular coastal walk which runs through the village.

They’ve collaborated with a local fairtrade company and will even go out of their way to prepare a delicious vegan meal on a wet April morning for a hungry visitor to one of their twice-monthly Wednesday lunchtime events.

Margaret volunteers here and also with the foodbank which serves the area. She understands the value of true, unconditional hospitality. She also happens to be, all agree, a very excellent cook.

“I think food is a remarkable way of bringing people together,” she says. “It’s exactly what Jesus did. He ate with people. He knew that food was a brilliant way to bring people together. Where I can help, I will.”