A Year of Firsts

The past year has seen John and Diana Wheatley of the Higham Active Retirement Association (HiARA), in Kent, organise a lot of firsts for the club – including the group’s first ocean cruise – as Carrie Drage discovers.

John and Diana Wheatley

John and Diana Wheatley

John and Diana Wheatley have a strong partnership that has earned them the nickname ‘the dynamic duo’ for their efforts organising day excursions, short breaks and holidays for the members of HiARA – the Higham Active Retirement Association. The couple have been with the association for more than five years and Diana was given her first position as Secretary within a year of joining. She says, “I held this position for 18 months after which I became Chairman. John was voted in as Events Officer at the same time; this is the third year we have held these titles.”
The club itself has been running for almost nine years and is one of 80 countywide ARAs that make up KentARA. Although each ARA is run independently by a team of appointed volunteers, members are also invited to take part in KentARA activities.
HiARA is open to local people over the age of 50 who each pay an annual membership fee of £7. John explains, “The members meet once a month for a general meeting at Higham Memorial Hall. There are also weekly activities at the Hall like a film show, kurling and short matt bowls; these are charged at 50p each.” On top of these activities, the group also enjoy events on a grander scale such as horse racing evenings or the annual variety show in March.

“I put together a photo album to entice more people to join us.”

In addition to the couple, there are six more officers that help to administer the activities of HiARA. John explains, “The ex-Chairman produces a monthly newsletter with details of anything planned for the coming months.” In addition, John produces posters, which are displayed at the general monthly meetings. Diana adds, “I put together a photograph album to entice more people to join us.”

On a turkey and tinsel break at the Shanklin Hotel on the Isle of Wight.

On a turkey and tinsel break at the Shanklin Hotel on the Isle of Wight.

A year of firsts

John and Diana’s programme of trips extends to three holidays a year and one day excursion a month. Most of these visits are booked through Jewels Tours in Gravesend. John says, “We decide the destination and itinerary and the coach firm books all the separate elements for me.” Diana adds, “Once John’s sat down with them to discuss the itinerary, they take care of everything. We can then sit back and enjoy ourselves without the added worry of having to organise everybody.”
The pair are always looking to branch out with their programme and, in March this year, organised their first long weekend break to Richardson’s South Downs Holiday Village at Bracklesham Bay. Diana says, “We normally go away mid-week so this was the first time we’d been away over a weekend. The package was all-inclusive, which suited us perfectly, and there were tons of activities for the members to participate in day and night.”
A few months later in May this year, the HiARA members enjoyed another first – an ocean cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. The 11-day cruise round Norway attracted 44 members, the majority of whom were first-time cruisers. Diana remembers, “Everything was wonderful. We received a coach transfer to Dover, all our luggage was taken care of and the food was brilliant.”

To complete the hat-trick of new experiences, John organised their first mystery tour for their members in October. The group ended up at Warner Leisure Hotels’ Littlecote House Hotel in Hungerford for a two course meal and tea dance. Diana comments, “It was the first time we’d been out together as a group on a Sunday and the members were made up because it meant they didn’t have to cook Sunday lunch. They’ve already asked to do another.”

Outside the coach in Bavaria

Outside the coach in Bavaria

HiARA holidays

Of the association’s three annual holidays, the majority of destinations are based in the UK. John says, “We don’t organise many overseas trips because, with our members being elderly, it causes a lot of logistical problems if they have a fall or injure themselves abroad.” One of the rare exceptions was the 12-day holiday to Bavaria three years ago. Diana says, “The trip also included a day excursion to Prague where we had a guided tour of the city on a road train and enjoyed a riverboat cruise.”
The same year, but a little closer to home, the group holidayed in Scotland for five days. As part of the itinerary, the group enjoyed an excursion to Edinburgh. John says, “We visited the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was lovely. There was a lot on view to the public so you could imagine what it would have been like for the royal family sailing on it.”
Another holiday enjoyed by the group was the four-night visit to North Yorkshire in 2008. During the break, the group travelled from Goathland to Pickering on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. John says, “The smell of the old steam locomotive brought back a lot of memories.”
More recently, in June this year, the members enjoyed a four-night break at Warner Leisure Hotels’ Gunton Hall Coastal Resort in Suffolk. Diana remarks, “There was wonderful entertainment each night.”
Also popular with the members is the annual four-night turkey and tinsel break. The Shanklin Hotel on the Isle of Wight has been a past venue as has the Clifton Park Hotel in Lytham St Annes.

At the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

At the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Quick jaunts

HiARA’s programme of day trips covers a diverse range of activities, one of the most popular being riverboat cruising. For instance, in 2008, the group sailed from Gravesend to Whitstable onboard ‘MV Princess Pocahontas’. John says, “If there’s food and water involved, the members love it! On this occasion, we enjoyed a delicious ploughman’s lunch on the outward journey and a cream tea on our return.”
Visits to stately homes also feature on the group’s itinerary, including an excursion to Sandringham House, in Norfolk, in July 2008. John says, “The House is beautiful and there’s also a museum in the old coach houses and stable block.”
Although the horse racing evenings at Higham Memorial Hall are always well attended, they do not compare to the thrill of live horse racing, which the group experienced in May this year with a visit to Newmarket. Diana says, “We had an excellent guide at the National Stud where we learnt all about breeding thoroughbreds. We also visited the National Horseracing Museum before ending up at the races.”
Another excursion that always leaves a lasting impression on the members is the visit to Brick Lane Music Hall in London. Diana explains, “We’ve been on a couple of occasions and it’s always fun.”

A three-year plan

Unlike many other groups, HiARA has a policy that recommends a committee member should only stay in their post for three years. After this they must be re-elected by the group’s members. Sadly, therefore, this year may signal the end of John and Diana’s tenure as Events Officer and Chairman. Diana says, “Even if we don’t get re-elected we will continue to support the committee in any way they require.”
Although the couple have only been group organisers for three years, they have gained a lot of experience in this time and have some advice for anyone new entering the world of group travel. John says, “Above all else, you need to listen to your members. Also, try not to take on more than you can handle.”
Like all group organisers, John and Diana have to plan ahead and already have much of their programme confirmed for the coming year. These include a visit to Holiday on Ice at the Brighton Centre in January, a tour of the new Sikh temple in Gravesend in March and a five-day break at Warner Leisure Hotels’ Alvaston Hall Hotel, in Cheshire, in May.
Although it remains to be seen whether or not they will get to stay in office for another term, their dedication to the china job is by no means in question. Diana states, “We just want to give enjoyment to others. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be doing it!”