The Big Lunch 2011: Love thy Leeds neighbour

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: City centre dweller Rob Wilson has organised a Big Lunch in Park Square.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: City centre dweller Rob Wilson has organised a Big Lunch in Park Square.

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Getting to know our neighbours is fast becoming a lost art. Grant Woodward reports on an event happening this weekend in Leeds that hopes to change that

HOW well do you know your neighbours? Well enough to invite them round for dinner? Or just enough for a quick nod and smile as you rush through the door in a desperate bid to make it to the sofa in time for Eastenders?

For most of us these days it’s usually the latter, with increasingly busy lives often leaving little time for social niceties like getting to know the people who live down our street.

It’s why the Big Lunch was launched.

A very simple idea from the Cornwall-based Eden Project, its aim is to get as many people as possible across the whole of the UK to have lunch with their neighbours in a simple act of community, friendship and fun.

This year it’s happening this Sunday and a record number of people are expected to take part.

One of them is Leeds city centre dweller Rob Wilson, who finally decided he’d done enough nodding and smiling and wanted to get to know his neighbours properly.

“I saw the event online and there’s nothing really like that for people who live in the city centre,” he said.

“I’ve lived in the middle of Leeds for nearly three years now and I don’t know any of my neighbours.

“I see the same faces in the lift and say hello but that’s about all, there’s not really the opportunity to strike up a conversation and actually probably not much to talk about.

“By doing the event I’m hoping it will give us a reason to start talking to each other.”

A Big Lunch can be anything from a few neighbours getting together in the garden or on the street, to a full-blown party with food, music and decoration that quite literally stops the traffic.

Since starting in 2009, thousands of Big Lunches have taken place in all kinds of communities across the UK and the best part of a million people get involved each year.

Around 30 are taking place in Leeds this Sunday, with lunches planned for everywhere from Headingley and Cross Green to Roundhay and Middleton. Anyone interested in going along can log on to the Big Lunch website at: www.thebiglunch.com and find the one nearest to them.

Rob, who’s 35 and works in customer services for Leeds City Council, is organising a big picnic in Park Square.

He has advertised on Facebook and, with the help of a couple of sponsors, even produced 10,000 glossy flyers to promote it.

“I’ve been around all the big apartment blocks,” he said. “I did City Island last night and it took me three hours because each flat has got a separate letterbox. Now I just hope a few of them turn up!”

Among the invitees is the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Alan Taylor, who has given the picnic his backing and is set to put in an appearance.

Rob has also drummed up plenty of support among local businesses who have helped with everything from promoting the event to providing entertainers and DJs on the day.

“There is certainly going to be a lot more going on than just a few people sitting around having a picnic,” said Rob, who’s keeping his fingers crossed that the weather stays fine and at least a couple of hundred people come along.

“I just think it’s a brilliant way to develop community spirit. I was brought up on a council estate and I’ve lived on housing estates where you don’t get much of that spirit, it’s almost been forgotten about.

“You might say hello to your neighbours as you’re going out but you’re not going to stop and have a conversation with them.

“I think life is lived at a faster pace these days and there’s a lot less of a focus on the community these days.

“I know when I was a kid we used to have the youth centres, the scout groups and everything like that. People don’t seem to do that kind of community-based activity quite so much any more, maybe because no one’s encouraging them to.

“Hopefully something like the Big Lunch will help to bring some of that back.”

One Leeds resident who found that the Big Lunch sparked a renewed interest in community activity is Matt Tamplin.

Matt, of Chapel Allerton, formed social community group CARA (Chapel Allerton Residents Association) on the back of a hugely successful Big Lunch two years ago that involved four local streets.

CARA won an award from the Leeds Initiative, a scheme run by Leeds City Council for the best Big Lunch in 2009. The group was also shortlisted for community project of the year in last year’s Yorkshire Evening Post Community Awards.

“When I first saw an ad for the Big Lunch I was intrigued and thought it was a great idea,” said Matt, who this year is having a street party-style event with plenty of food, dancing, live music and outdoor games.

“What a great experience that could be – get to meet loads of new people, share some food and drinks and have a laugh.

“Thanks to the Big Lunch I went from a normalish 32-year-old guy to being chairman of a residents’ association and social community group. Sometimes I think, how did that happen?”

Rob is hoping his own event will have a similar effect and that the Big Lunch will be the starting point for some big ideas, with residents coming together to make a difference.

And he’s already got a couple of ideas about the sort of projects they could take on.

Derelict

“I live at West Point and there’s a big derelict space right next to our block where a new development was supposed to be going up.

“It’s two minutes from the middle of the city and it would be perfect for a green area. So it would be great to bring people together to do something like that and I’m sure local businesses would be prepared to fund some landscaping to give us a space people could use.”

Meanwhile, he’s busy keeping a close eye on the weather forecast as he makes his final preparations.

“It’s been time-consuming but it’s been a lot of fun and I’m sure it will be a good day on Sunday. I just hope people are there.”

So does he plan to do this kind of thing again?

“It would be great if the picnic became an annual event but we’ll see how it goes on Sunday,” he said.

“If it does go well then I’d definitely like to do more things this year, especially with it being the start of the summer – maybe barbecues and things like that.”

Even just having something to chat about with his neighbours would be a start.

* For more information on the Big Lunch visit www.thebiglunch.com

Barry McGrath.

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