What’s it like to volunteer with Crisis at Christmas?

Volunteering – spending our time helping those less fortunate – is probably something we’d all love to do more regularly, however, it’s often difficult to commit to it.

Volunteering with Crisis, the charity that helps homeless people in the UK, had been sitting on my bucket list for a while and what pulled me to its Crisis at Christmas appeal was that it only required me to commit to a minimum of two days of volunteering within the Christmas period – that’s it. Many people tend to book off the entire Christmas period from work anyway, so to spend a couple of days doing charitable deeds is a no-brainer.

The Crisis at Christmas appeal takes place every year for the two weeks of Christmas, where it feeds and in many cases, houses, homeless people as winter shelters are closed. It’s a gigantic operation split across various centres in London and the UK that relies on volunteers – doctors, opticians, seamstresses (to fix broken clothes) and more – to lend their time to give homeless people support. Just before the operation each year, the charity gets donations from supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and more – and then cooks up meals on the basis of what’s been offered.

How to sign up for Crisis at Christmas

It is quick and simple to sign up to volunteer – in late October last year, I registered my details on the Crisis at Christmas website (it’s different to the generic Crisis charity website, so do a quick Google search to find it) and chose which role I wanted to do – there was everything from being a kitchen assistant, a media assistant to a general volunteer. Each shift was approximately 8 hours long and you could choose between morning, evening or overnight shifts. Crisis has homeless shelters set up all over London (and a few outside it) so I found the one closest to me (Chalk Farm). My boyfriend and I applied at the same time and selected the same shifts, so we’d be able to do it together. You have to do a minimum of two shifts.

Despite having limited cooking experience, I chose the kitchen assistant role. [It’s not necessary to be an expert, just to know basic skills such as how to handle a knife and a peeler.] The Crisis online system then informed me that I had to book onto a food safety and hygiene course before I would get the stamp of approval to volunteer. Thankfully the certificate is valid for three years, so when I volunteer again in the next two years, I won’t have to worry about this little bit of admin.

The food safety course took place on a Sunday at the Crisis Cafe in Liverpool Street, a few weeks before Christmas. It cost £40, but this fee can either be donated to the charity or refunded back to you once you’ve completed your shifts. The course took a total of about six hours, followed by a multiple choice exam. It all sounds rather serious but it wasn’t too bad – the fail rate is very, very low. I picked up lots of useful nuggets of information I could use in my own kitchen: ie there’s no point washing chicken as the only way the germs are killed is through heating the meat to a high enough temperature.

In the weeks leading up to my shift, I was emailed handy information and a briefing form for what to expect on the day.

What happens on the day/s

As the shifts crept around in December, I was doing my best to remember everything I’d learned on the food safety course. We arrived and checked in at reception, picked up our name badges and dropped off our bags before heading straight to the kitchen. We put on our aprons and hair nets, and then met the chef, who told us what we’d be cooking and what needed to be done.

As it was an evening shift (3pm-11pm), we were going to be making a two-course dinner for 400 people. It was a mammoth task: I found myself peeling at least 150 potatoes (it’s not glamorous work!), cutting them into wedges and then putting them into gigantic industrial ovens. Next I was seasoning and boiling down at least 1kg of cabbage in a pan, then helping to make beef burgers. There’s a common misconception that Crisis is just a soup kitchen – I didn’t see any soup the whole time I was there – instead we were conjuring up elaborate meals.

Working in the kitchen, it was the first time in a very, very long time that I spent more than four hours without looking at my phone (phones aren’t allowed outside of pockets), but, incredibly, I didn’t even have a chance to miss it. The music was blaring in the kitchen, the vibe was busy but upbeat, and we were all pitching in to help with whatever needed doing next. In total there were about 9 of us cooking, so it was all hands on deck. Once all the food was prepped it was time to serve – but we didn’t serve the residents directly, instead we served the volunteers who then took the plates to the residents.

After serving we got to eat what was leftover, then came the clean up. Luckily, kitchen volunteers don’t do too much washing (other volunteers are sometimes brought in for this and there’s an industrial dishwasher), but there’s lots of grease to remove from hobs and jobs like that. Gloves are provided, so pop your hands in and get busy.

What I enjoyed most about working in the kitchen was the chance to get to know the other volunteers; the sense of teamwork was immense. One girl I met was bravely doing five days of kitchen shifts in a row. It got very hot in the kitchen so my advice would be to wear layers so you can take on/off items. As you’re on your feet all day, wear the comfiest shoes you own. Stay hydrated; it’s easy to get caught up in the business but take a few minutes to grab a drink and a snack from the stall outside the kitchen. I regretted having my nails painted the day before – by the end of the shift the paint was chipped and ruined! It was an exhausting eight hours, and by the end I was ready to collapse into bed, but it was very rewarding to hear that we’d fed so many people and feedback on the food was very positive.

The second shift I did (day shift, 7.45am-3.45pm), we were making two meals; breakfast and lunch. I knew what to expect this time around, and we were making a full English followed by a roast chicken dinner and macaroni cheese. Time flew even quicker on this shift, and it was nice to see a bit of daylight as we left that day.

It felt good to know we’d helped the residents in some small way, and given our time to a worthy cause. Of course, Crisis at Christmas is only a part of the charity’s work, and they are looking for year-round volunteers, but this is a good way to lend a hand at Christmas, to those that need it most. After Crisis at Christmas is over, the charity hosts a party to thank all the volunteers, so you have a chance to reunite with new friends, too.

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Step into London’s Bake Off tent: could you be crowned star baker? Plus, speed dating meets baking

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Have you always wanted to take part in the Great British Bake Off? You’re in luck – a baking tent has popped up in Tooting and you can head down and compete for the chance to be crowned star baker.

As well as baking competitions, the tent is also the setting for something a little more unusual: a speed-dating baking event, First Bakes. It’s a bit like First Dates meets Bake Off, and it’s a laughter-filled evening – much less intense and cringe-inducing than bog-standard speed dating.

You don’t need to be a pro baker to sign up – you’re provided with the recipe, ingredients and equipment, and there are helpers floating about all the time to give you a hand if you need it. The ladies stay at their stations and the men rotate every 10 minutes. While I don’t want to give away too many details, it’s a formula that does work: there are rarely awkward silences because you’re both focused on building a brilliant bake. As you’ve instantly got something to bond over the conversation flows easily and by the time the 10 minutes are up, you’ve also got a sense of your date’s culinary prowess. If you’ve dabbled with online dating apps previously, think of this as a good way to cut out days of swiping/sending introductory messages back and forth, as you can decide straight away whether you feel there’s a connection.

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Just like on the television programme, the competition really heats up at the end: time’s up and you have to bring your bakes to the head table for inspection. The judges – sadly no Mary Berry, but some bubbly hosts – sample the delights and pick a star baker. The lady chosen must then pick her best male helper (plot twist!) and both get to take home a lovely little gift. You can taste each other’s bakes and take the rest home. Plus, there’s all of the mess and none of the washing up – whoop.

The love bit: after the judging you submit your scorecard – stating who you would consider going on a date with, who you’d like to be friends with, and who you wouldn’t want to see again. It’s all calculated there and then, and you get a lovely handwritten note with any mutual matches and their contact details.

I headed down for the launch event on Valentine’s Day, and although it suffered the same problem that most speed dating events do – too few men and too many women (8:10) – it didn’t matter too much. Although learning that the organisers had to ship in their housemates/friends to fill spaces was a tiny bit annoying, considering the £47 ticket price. Having a cameraman pointing his screen at you during sections of the evening was a bit unsettling but on the whole it was a brilliant night – and I may or may not have come away with a hot date match and a friend match…

Big London Bake takes place in the garden section of the lovely Castle Pub in Tooting.

Win a gift card for London’s new “Free Willy” extreme water sports experience

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Thrill-seekers will be able race across London’s Victoria Dock in a high-powered whale-shaped watercraft – a hybrid of a speedboat and submarine – from February next year.

The extreme water sport experience takes place in an 18ft Seabreacher vessel (call it Free Willy, if you like), and can reach speeds of up to 60mph on the surface, and 40mph submerged underneath the water.

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Adrenaline junkies can experience tight turns, doughnut spins, jumps above water (up to six metres above the surface) and more – just tell your pilot how wild or mild you’d like your ride to be, and do put in a request for that Free Willy jump.

The Seabreacher is a millionaire’s toy – costing upwards of £40,000 to buy – so this is your chance to take the plunge and experience a whirlwind ride.

Passenger rides start on 1st February. To win a gift card worth £99 so you can be one of the first to get a ride, simply provide your name and address below by 12th December 2017.

 

One gift card worth £99 is available to win. The winner’s name and address will be shared with Predator Adventures, who will post the voucher to the address specified.

I think I met a serial killer… Speed dating in St Paul’s

“Never again,” I’d decided after a nauseating speed dating experience three years ago. Where I’d expected cute, dateable men; instead I found a lot of desperate wife-hunters with mental checklists in tow. “Do you eat meat?”, “Are you religious?”, “Do you smoke?” were the sorts of questions fired my way, along with the bog-standard, “Where do you work?” Boring.

I’d also made the classic errors of a) failing to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ straight after each speed date, and b) failing to make any notes to distinguish each man from the next. As a result, by the end I’d confused myself entirely as to who was who and had a banging headache, so I hastily ticked a few boxes on the scorecard before handing in my slip – only to regret the entire thing the next morning, when I emailed the organisers and asked them to remove my scorecard from the count. WUSS! But in my defence, speed dating was a bit much for my 23-year-old self.

So, last night – three years on – and armed with another single friend, a new scorecard and a renewed sense of optimism, I gave it another punt. It was the same formula: women sit at tables around the room, men move from table to table every three minutes when the whistle is blown – and it wasn’t actually that bad.

I should interject before I go on that I do think speed dating should come with a firm caution along the lines of: ‘It is entirely possible you’ll have crap, awkward dates where the three-minute slot may feel like an eternity. This is perfectly normal. We cannot be held accountable for the shittiness of the talent on offer.’

I didn’t walk away from the night with the feeling that I’d met my Prince Charming, but I did meet an entire spectrum of men – from the weird one who gave off a serial killer-vibe (more on him in a second), to the beardy man who chatted to me for an extra 40 seconds after the whistle was blown. Aw!

This time around I was on top form: I made the ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘friend’ selection on my scorecard as the night progressed, and I made notes too. My notes mostly consisted of a word or sentence that reminded me of the date – for example, for the one mentioned above I wrote ‘big beard’, another I wrote ‘Egyptian’, and another I wrote ‘gay?’

Conversation flowed and some guys actually came prepared with interesting icebreaker questions – for example, one asked, ‘if you could host a dinner party, who would you invite?’ Even if he did use the same line on all the ladies, it did make it a more positive experience.

I also appreciated the fact that there was a ‘friend’ option on the scorecard of the Original Dating event, which meant you weren’t outright rejecting, just friendzoning.

Just as I was starting to relax and actually enjoy the night, the scary/weird/odd man, who I’ve decided to nickname the ‘serial killer’ came to my table. He had a stone-cold look on his face as he sat down, and when I asked his name, he grabbed my scorecard and wrote his name down rather than telling me it, and he asked me to do the same. He wrote his name in big angry capital letters too.

Next he said, in broken English: “I’m [insert name], I’m 31 years old and I’m looking for a girlfriend.” *Conversation killer!* I wracked my brain for a quick fire back, and came up with some generic questions about where he lives, what he does for a living and what brought him to London, etc. Bearing in mind he’d been talking at me for about a minute by now, there was a pause as I thought of something to try and continue the conversation. He rudely interrupted my thoughts with the question: “So are you going to ask me a question or what?” DEMANDING.

Ok, I came up with the topic of films: films should be the winning topic to save the day, I thought. “Do you like watching films? Films?” I asked as I wasn’t sure if he could totally understand me. “Yes, I like films with blood. You know, killing.” The background noise was getting louder and my expression may have suggested that I couldn’t hear him. At this point, he reiterated his point, saying “killing films” and made wild stabbing gestures towards me with an imaginary knife to illustrate. That was when I thought, “Errr, when’s that f*cking whistle going to blow? I’m about to die here.” I picked up my drink and took a long, long sip. The whistle still hadn’t blown. I took another sip, and did it again. Then I inquired as to whether this was his first time speed dating. No, he said – it was his third time because the last two times he didn’t get any matches. No bloody surprise! Then the whistle saved me. Hurrah.

That entire experience did, however, make me question the number of male speed daters who turned up to speed dating alone. Is that weird, or is it just a very female thing to want to take a friend everywhere you go?

Aside from the serial killer, there were 15 other men I met at speed dating – one I found really boring because he wanted to talk about politics, another piqued my interest as he revealed bits of his bucket list to me and asked me to do the same, and one offended me straight away by saying he thought my name was odd. Of the 15, I actually enjoyed talking to about 5 of them. It was a real mixed bag, and I think that with speed dating, ultimately you won’t know what you’ll find till you get there.

One cool thing about the Original Dating event was that you didn’t have to give your scorecard in to anybody at the end of the event – you could take it home and have a think before entering your choices into its unique smartphone app, Mixeo. This buys you time to make an objective decision the next morning. The app then tells you who you matched with and links your profiles so you can use its private in-app messaging system to chat to them if you want.

Would I speed date again? Probably not. But I met a serial killer and survived, so here we are.

PS Top trick for speed dating: one girl at the event revealed that she ticks ‘yes’ to every speed date to see who matches her before deciding who she’d actually like to talk to or date – I suppose it’s a bit like swiping right to everyone on Tinder. If you’re brave enough, you could do the same.

Secret Cinema: things to know before you go

On set of the Secret Cinema, Back to the Future event

On set of the Secret Cinema, Back to the Future event

Approaching Hackney Wick station on the Overground, we’d noticed a few people dressed up like us – felt fedora hats draped over men’s knees, and women with headbands and vintage circle skirts were the giveaways. We gave each other the eyes and a nod. Our stop arrived, and as we disembarked the train, that’s when we saw them – hundreds of others in 50s attire. It was like we’d been taken back in time, and that really was the essence of the evening to follow: we were about to enter a parallel land – a recreation of 1955, Hill Valley in California for the Back to the Future Secret Cinema.

We were met by American-accented Secret Cinema attendants who guided us down the road, to the next attendant – who then proceeded to give us directions to the next attendant. We walked from attendant to attendant for a good 15 minutes – they were making us work for this. Finally we reached the secret destination, and on the way we’d been mobbed by a couple of men in tight jeans and denim shirts, who made crude jokes and sniggered a lot, before running off. At first we didn’t quite get it – who were they? Were they also part of the audience, like us? It turned out that they were actors in character – a couple of baddies from Biff’s gang in Back to the Future, and it was a taster for the experience to come.

How to describe what Secret Cinema actually is? It is an outdoor interactive cinema experience, where you have about 3 or so hours to explore a recreation of the set of the film (it’s like a whole new world, and it isn’t small – it’s the size of about four football pitches), interact with actors who are portraying characters from the movie, take part in a parade or stunt, and buy food and drink. In the Back to the Future Secret Cinema, you can go into Marty McFly’s house and see what’s in his room, write a postcard at the Post Office, get cash from the cash machine at the Bank of America, have a boogie at the Under The Sea dance, or order food from Lou’s Diner.

The Hill Valley parade, with characters waving American flags

The Hill Valley parade, with characters waving American flags

There’s even a Ferris wheel, a petting zoo, rides to go on, and memorabilia to buy. Every minute detail has been thought of to take the audience back to another era, and give the feel that they’re in another country – right down to the accents of the actors, to everything being priced in dollars. It’s a creative masterpiece. To top it all off, the film is shown on a big screen – and the movie is brought to life with real on-stage stunts.

I don’t want to give away ‘secrets’ of Secret Cinema the film, but here are a few things to know before you go, and some dos and don’ts.

  • Do dress up – if there’s a theme, make an effort to dress the part. The majority of people who go are also in full character and it helps to make the experience even more authentic.
  • Do prepare for your mobile phone to be confiscated. When you enter the experience, your “calculators” or “communication devices” are confiscated – you hand them over upon arrival and get them back at the end. But it might take a while to get it back – especially if you leave at the time everybody else is leaving.
  • Don’t take a camera, you’re not allowed to take it in. The experience does however have disposable cameras on sale (£6) so you can buy one inside. It really takes you back – somehow you’ve got to go back to an age where you take pictures and can’t actually see what the picture looks like until you eventually get the film developed!
  • Do take something to sit on, and something to cover you if it gets chilly – you’ll be outdoors the whole evening. A blanket will do.
  • Don’t assume there will be a cloakroom to leave your bags. There isn’t.
  • Don’t take any food or drink – you’re not allowed to take anything in. You have to buy it once you’ve entered.
  • Do take cash. Card payments aren’t accepted at the bars or foodie stalls. There are a couple of cash machines inside, at the Bank of America, though. Price-wise, a hot dog is £6, a can of beer is £4, and a can of Pepsi is £3. The choice of food is great – there’s everything from burgers and chips to crepes, apple pie and sweets and popcorn. There are plenty of pieces of memorabilia to buy, too.
  • Don’t just enter the experience and then go and sit on the grass to bag a spot for the film – you have a good few hours before it begins and there’s plenty of exploring to do.
  • Do talk to the actors – one of the highlights of my evening was meeting Dr Emmett Brown (the mad scientist). We also enjoyed talking to an actor in the character of a journalist from the Hill Valley Telegraph. She asked me who my character was (they tell you who your character will be before the event) – and we got into a full-on conversation, both in character. It was mind-boggling but amusing.
  • Don’t jaywalk on set – the cops in character will scream at you or come and mob you! In fact, do it, just for the reaction…
  • Don’t be afraid to take children. It is a family friendly event.
  • Don’t wear uncomfortable footwear – you’ll spent most of the time on your feet, so avoid high heels or footwear which pains after a while.

Secret Cinema is an incredible immersive experience – I’ve never before seen anything like it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Better go and find a place that actually accepts old-school photography film to process…