After 65 years, it’s time for dedicated duo Monica and Beryl to say farewell to annual festive feast

Monica Thomas and Beryl Rowe

Monica Thomas and Beryl Rowe - Credit: Archant

If you’ve got stuck with Christmas dinner duty this year and think you’ve got the short end of the stick, spare a thought for Beryl Rowe and Monica Thomas.

Monica Thomas and Beryl Rowe

Monica Thomas and Beryl Rowe - Credit: Archant

They’ll be rustling up a turkey feast with all the trimmings for a select guest list of 60 this year,

What’s more, they’re both 83 years old and have been putting food on the table at this time of year for most of their lives – this year sees the 65th anniversary of their annual community lunch in Lilley.

But once the washing up is done at the Cassel Memorial Hall this time around it’s time for both of them to take a rest.

Monica and Beryl have been welcoming guests to the annual event ever since they were 18.

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The tradition began in 1950 when Monica’s father Ted Holmes was involved with the village youth club, and felt the younger generation should do something for the old folk of the village.

Beryl explained: “We had a club running, and he thought that as a club we should do something for the elderly.

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“There were lots of them in the village in those days and they didn’t go out a lot like now, and we wanted to pay them back.”

Beryl, Monica and the other teenagers used to deliver individual invitations throughout the year, as it wasn’t originally just a Christmas event.

Beryl added: “It was a major operation! We had around 50 guests who all had lunch, then we would organise some entertainment. At the end we would give everyone a present.

“We don’t get so many from the village now. But a lot of the ones who used to help at the start all moved away, and now it’s more of a reunion party – all of our guests are over 60, some in their 70s and 80s.”

Monica and Beryl get help from a team of helpers, including Beryl’s daughter Libby Tavener and Beryl’s niece Rose Geary, both grew up in the village.

Rose and Libby are both in their 50s themselves, and have been part of the team for years.

They do all the shopping on the Friday, but Beryl is still in charge of the turkeys.

Others in the village rally round, too, and the hall has a kitchen with all mod cons – but it wasn’t always so easy.

In the early days the hall hadn’t even been built, and the lunch was hosted in the village school.

Beryl recalled: “In the beginning we had to borrow everything, different people used to cook different things and we’d gather it all up. Back then there were quite a lot of us!’

Though Monica and Beryl are looking to hand on their positions of chief organisers they both hope that the tradition will live on after Saturday’s big lunch.

Beryl has already put a notice in the village magazine to try and recruit replacements for next year.

Lunch is an all day event, and the ladies and helpers set up the day before on the Friday.

This year the children’s choir from Offley Primary School is providing the afternoon’s entertainment.

There’s no charge for the lunch but donations are welcome to cover the costs. A raffle is also run with villagers and businesses donating prizes.

On the menu this year is a three-course meal.

Guests will be treated to a starter, a turkey main course and a choice of desserts, cheese and biscuits and coffee. There will be a glass of bubbly and cake to celebrate the anniversary.

The hardest thing about Christmas dinner, Beryl says, is making sure that the food is all hot when serving – and making sure that the turkey is not overcooked. “That’s where our band of helpers come in, and we are very grateful to them,” she said.

And when Christmas Day comes around, they’re still sticklers for tradition. Beryl will be tucking in with daughter Libby in Pirton, while Monica will be joining her family for all the specialities of the season.

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