Gwen Turner

After a long illness, Gwen Turner decided to create Benhill Social Club as a way to realise her ambitions and develop a sense of community spirit among her neighbours. Carrie Drage discovers how, 15 years later, her programme has grown to incorporate more than 30 trips a year.

Gwen Turner

Gwen Turner

Benhill Social Club grew out of Benhill Residents Association, founded by Gwen Turner 15 years ago. The association was originally created for the residents of Benhill estate, in Sutton, as a way to inject more community spirit and its initial purpose was to provide fun days, fireworks displays and coach trips for the children living here. Gwen explains, “Due to ill health, I was unable to work for a number of years so, in 1994, after a significant recovery, I formed the Benhill Residents Association. My ambition has always been to make others lives more enjoyable so I formed the association as a way to fulfil this ambition.” Sadly, as support from the parents began to wane, Gwen decided her efforts would be appreciated elsewhere and began to develop more and more activities for the pensioners. Benhill Social Club was officially formed in 2004 and now operates independently to the Benhill Residents Association, which now deals solely with issues relating to the estate.

Although Gwen operates the travel arm of the club by herself, a committee of five other members, who meet every month, share the duties of helping out at bingo, party and quiz nights. Gwen plans her programme of trips at the beginning of each year although this does not rule out additions. She highlights these in her thrice-weekly newsletter, which members normally collect at the bingo afternoons or receive by post. Most destinations featured in the programme have been recommended by a friend or are places Gwen has visited herself at some time or another; however, she also finds trade fairs helpful for gathering literature and has attended Excursions at Alexandra Palace on at least three occasions. Last year, Gwen arranged over 30 day trips altogether including three to the continent, each for, on average, 45 members. Three holidays also featured on the programme, both British and Continental.

A helping hand

Membership is open to pensioners in the borough of Sutton and at the last count stood at 260 members. Each person pays a £10 annual fee, some of which is put towards prizes for the monthly draw on a bingo afternoon. The remaining cash is used to subsidise the annual Christmas meals, summer seaside outings for the pensioners in May and September, and to hire the nearby Granfers Hall for the club’s regular bingo, party and quiz nights. Raffles, cash from the bingo entrants and a ‘bring and buy’ sale also help to fund the club’s activities with a large percentage of the money donated to The Royal Marsden, a local cancer hospital, every three months. Additionally, Gwen applies for a £300 Special Projects grant annually from Sutton Council, which is put towards the cost of a coach for the seaside outings. In past years, the group have visited destinations such as Bournemouth, Worthing and Brighton on these bi-annual visits. Gwen says, “Each member pays a £3 fee and the rest is subsidised. Eastbourne is a favourite with the members. It’s just so clean and has beautiful flowerbeds.” She continues, “We normally have two coachloads for the seaside trips and I try to arrange a stop en route. For instance, the 2008 Worthing trip stopped at Old Barn Nursery & Garden Centre, a lovely little place tucked away at nearby Dial Post. Once at the destination, some enjoyed a fish and chip lunch together as a group.”

The annual Christmas party at Granfers Hall, in January, is another occasion that is subsidised by the club. Here, members pay £3 and are treated to a fish and chip supper, drinks raffle and entertainment. Last Christmas, Gwen also took four coaches of members to Lakeside on Hayling Island, a property owned by Warner Leisure Hotels, for which transport was partly subsidised. She says, “The planning was excellent. We had a lovely three-course meal and because there was more than 50 of us, they laid on a cabaret afterwards. I asked the attendees at the Annual General Meeting in January if they would consider returning and the hands shot up, which is a good sign.”

Twenty-four hour trips

Sightseeing with City Cruises

Sightseeing with City Cruises

Transport for UK day trips is arranged through Banstead Coaches, based in Surrey; however, Gwen takes care of all the planning and booking arrangements for the attractions. She comments, “The company is very reliable; the coaches are always in top condition and the drivers are very courteous. Mick is our regular driver. He knows the five pick-up points for the club and is always very accommodating.”

An activity that always gets a good response from the members is a river cruise, and Gwen arranges between two and three of these a year. In October 2008, Gwen’s members sailed from Greenwich to Westminster and back with City Cruises based in the capital. She remarks, “I have used the company in the past and have always found them to be reliable and accommodating.” The day ended with an early evening flight on the London Eye. She says, “It was just getting dark, which made it all the more memorable.” French Brothers, based in Windsor, is another riverboat company that has serviced Gwen on a number of occasions. She reveals, “Their cream teas are always very nice and the onboard commentaries are interesting too.”

Gwen’s group also enjoy visits to safari parks, the most popular being Woburn, in Bedfordshire. Gwen says, “There are more big cats at Woburn than many other parks and there’s also Woburn Abbey to explore here.”

Members on a guided tour at Flatford Mill

Members on a guided tour at Flatford Mill

Roughly three times a year, Gwen arranges a mystery tour for her members. Gwen says, “Last June, I took the members on a tour that took in Essex and Suffolk villages. A highlight was a visit to Flatford Mill, which has featured in many John Constable paintings including the famous ‘The Hay Wain’. We met guides here who took us on a very good walking tour revealing the history of some of the paintings done in the area.”

Events also feature on Gwen’s programme of trips. One that brings back fond memories is the 2008 Whitstable Oyster Festival. She remembers, “We saw the oysters being blessed on the beach as the oyster boats came in and there was a massive parade through town.” Gwen paired the festival with a cream tea at Chilham. She says, “It’s a charming village – very Olde Worlde.”

It’s showtime!

Being in such close proximity to the city of London, it comes as no shock that West End theatre features heavily on Gwen’s programme of trips. She uses London ticket agency Encore for booking tickets, where she describes the staff as “helpful and always able to get us good seats.” We Will Rock You, Dirty Dancing, Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are just a few of the shows that the group have seen in recent years. As an alternative to the West End, Gwen frequents the New Wimbledon Theatre, a member of the Ambassador Theatre Group. She reveals, “They have a centralised group booking department, which is great.” The Royal Albert Hall is another venue that holds fond memories for Gwen. The Classical Spectacular here each November has attracted at least two full coaches of members since 2000. She reveals, “It’s so moving and patriotic; very similar to the Last Night of the Proms with everyone waving flags.”

Attracting up to two coachloads of members each time, the Holiday on Ice show at the Brighton Centre every January also remains a firm favourite with the group. Gwen smiles, “We have been to see the ice show for the last eight years and we never go away disappointed. I team this with a carvery meal in the Brighton Centre before the show, which always goes down well.”

Cabaret is another popular form of entertainment for Gwen’s group and two venues stick out in her memory. The first is The Barrowboy and Banker, located near London Bridge, where the group enjoyed a ‘Pride of London’ evening. Gwen remembers, “The August 2007 trip was organised to celebrate one of my members’ 94th birthday. Betty is always the life and soul of the party so I wanted to arrange something special for her. We had a beautiful meal and a Pearly King and Queen kept us all entertained.” The other venue that has proved popular in the past is Wicksteed Park in Northamptonshire. The group have been here twice since it moved to its new site at Kettering; three years ago was the last visit. Gwen says, “We watched a show called ‘Old Time Musical’ at the onsite Pavilion, which also included a good two-course meal and a cream tea for each member. It was very good value for money.”

Homeland holidays

Great Yarmouth was the destination for Gwen’s very first UK break back in September 2005. Such was its success that Gwen usually arranges at least two overnight breaks in Britain each year.

In September 2006, Norton Grange, a Warner Leisure Hotels property on the Isle of Wight, hosted the 28-strong group for five nights. Gwen remarks, “Warner’s are an excellent company to book with and cater very well for groups. The food is always excellent and the entertainment is of a high standard too.”

The following year, two UK breaks featured on the programme – one to Bideford in Devon, in March, and the other to Newquay in Cornwall, in September. Both five-night breaks were booked through David Urquhart Travel based in East Kilbride, Scotland. “The thing I like most about this company is the quality of the hotels it uses. Although I didn’t personally attend the Newquay trip – a situation which is not commonplace – I had good reports from my members,” she says.

Last September saw a group of 40 venture to the Lake District for four days with just for groups! based in Norwich. Gwen states, “This was the first time I’d used the company and I found the staff to be very helpful. I actually booked last month’s five-day break to Killarney, in Ireland, through them.” The group particularly enjoyed the steam journey to Dalegarth on the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, an excursion inclusive in the holiday. She says, “The line goes to the foot of the Lakeland peaks and then skirts the Cumbrian mountains. The scenery is all very beautiful.”

European escapes

Although continental day trips have always made an appearance on Gwen’s calendar of trips, she is cautious about repeating these in the current economic climate. She says, “Because the Euro is performing so badly against the pound I will probably only book one day trip to the continent this year, if any.”

The main purpose of these trips is for people to stock up on items at the hypermarket before returning to Britain, so for much of the day members are left to make their own plans. Destinations visited by the group in recent years include Le Touquet, in France, and De Panne, Bruges and Ypres in Belgium. Gwen says, “How we cross the Channel depends on the time of year. In the warmer months, my group prefer to travel by ferry as it means that they can stretch their legs and get some fresh air out on deck. In colder weather, we tend to travel by Le Shuttle. I leave any cross-Channel transport arrangements to the coach company.”

Overseas holidays also feature on Gwen’s programme although these generally attract fewer people. One holiday that stands out is the four-day visit to Valkenburg and the Dutch Bulbfields for 23 members in May last year. It was booked through Leicestershire-based tour operator Travelsphere who had arranged a similar trip for the group in 2006. Gwen says, “Travelsphere is a great company to deal with. If I need single rooms they will endeavour to get them, the coaches are always comfortable and the excursions are good too.” She continues, “Keukenhof Gardens is one of my favourite places; the flower displays are out of this world!”

Enjoying the sun in Cyprus

Enjoying the sun in Cyprus

Cyprus is another of Gwen’s favourite destinations. She says, “In November 2007, I took 15 members to the Paphos region for seven days with Portland Holidays Direct based in Coventry. I have used the company for years to book holidays for my husband and I and their service is always good.” The group stayed at Pioneer Beach Hotel where Gwen has stayed at least a dozen times on private holidays. She says, “It’s an adult-only hotel located out of town so it’s lovely and quiet. There is also plenty of good food to enjoy here.”

November 2008, meanwhile, saw 39 members travel to Croatia for seven days, again with Travelsphere. She says, “I had visited the country the year before on a familiarisation trip and decided to return with my group. We stayed at the Grand Hotel in Opatija, which I found to be first class. It was located right on the seafront.”

More than a hobby

Although being a GTO is effectively an unpaid full-time job, Gwen believes that the satisfaction she gets from seeing her members enjoying themselves is payment enough. She says, “I get lovely letters from members telling me what a great time they’ve had on my trips and what makes it all the more worthwhile is that the majority of my members are widowed, so many friendships have been forged through the club.”

Already, Gwen has confirmed a number of trips for 2009 including an eight-day Nile cruise in May with Portland Holidays Direct, a seven-day Scotland holiday in June with Dunbartonshire-based Lochs & Glens, a seven-day visit to the Dordogne, in France, with Essex-based Crusader Holidays in September, a four-day trip to Emmerdale and Heartbeat country, again with Crusader Holidays, in October and a visit to the Thursford Christmas Spectacular with Yorkshire-based Simply Groups in December.