Flip flops, lollipops and helping cops: a night on patrol with Kettering Street Pastors
We joined the volunteers who are giving up their Saturday nights to keep people safe
"It's the best job in the world," says Rob Webb.
"It's a little like extreme volunteering - standing there at 2am up to your ankles in sick."
It's 11pm on a cold Saturday night in November. Normally I'd be on the sofa, watching Match of the Day.
Tonight is different. I'm at Kettering's Central Methodist Church, wrapped up warm and preparing to go out on a shift with the town's street pastors.
They were formed in 2011 and patrol the streets every weekend, come rain or shine, to make sure those on a night out are safe.
After a quick briefing I head out with team PT1, joining co-ordinator Rob and volunteers Emma-jane Kelleher and June Attwood. They're carrying bags with flip flops, water bottles, lollipops, space blankets, battery packs and anti-spiking bottle stoppers, ready to hand out to anyone who needs them.
We turn left out of School Lane into Silver Street and immediately come across a man stumbling across the road carrying booze in a plastic bag. There's a faint whiff of alcopops, cigarettes and kebab in the air, setting the tone for what we're about to witness.
I ask the volunteers why they choose to be out late at night when they could be in the comfort of their own bed and snoozing.
"I love what we do," Emma-jane tells me.
"It's so rewarding and it's great fun. It's challenging sometimes but you feel like you're doing a good thing. It's one of the best things I have done in a long time."
"You feel like it's really worthwhile and if you're making someone safe then it can only be a good thing," June adds.
We head into Horsemarket where a group of teenage girls are waiting for a lift. They've been to Wicksteed Park's fireworks and the street pastors check they're okay and give them a lollipop.
Just over the road, a 4x4 medic car is parked outside Pop Central. There's not been an incident - the bar's DJ also doubles up as an emergency responder.
Chatting to door staff, it's immediately clear just how valued the street pastors are in the town centre. They resumed night-time patrols in May after this year's lockdown, having kept a morning patrol and support phone line going.
Manager Tracey Parsons tells me she loves working with them, adding: "They are a great asset for the town and a godsend during the night. They keep us all safe."
Tiffany Caton, 20, is standing outside the bar. She had once been helped by the street pastors when they gave her flip flops after noticing she was struggling in high heels. She tells me how grateful she was. It's something I know I'll hear a lot tonight.
We move towards Market Street, where both Aura and Mental Monkey are busy. As June and Emma-jane chat to security staff, Rob, who has been involved for eight years, tells me about some of the serious situations they have helped in over the years.
They were first on the scene when a woman had been sexually assaulted in the area which is now The Yards. They were also in Dalkeith Place when they helped a woman who had just had a chance meeting with someone who had raped her. And their presence also helped a woman who was terrified that a hooded man, who had followed her, was going to mug her.
"Ninety-five per cent of the time the stuff we do is quite light-hearted," Rob says.
"The other five per cent you just don't know what's coming. It's very rare that there's a night where we get home at 3.30am and you cannot understand why you were out."
Naturally I ask about some of the light-hearted scenarios. They once had to tell a drunk man he was on a night out in Kettering and show him the next bus was to Northampton, because he was convinced he was in Reading. They also had to help find a man in a gorilla costume who was lost. Thankfully he was located in Meadow Road.
Just a few minutes later I see that it's not just about helping drunk people. As we head down Market Street Emma-jane speaks to a man who is feeling low because he has an injury which is preventing him from working. They signpost him to see his GP and suggest he goes for a coffee with a friend.
The group also send a WhatsApp message to their 'prayer pastor', who is at home, asking them to say a prayer for him. Kettering Street Pastors' 50 helpers, who each volunteer once a month, are all Christians and come from 26 different local churches but religion is only discussed with people if they raise it first.
As the clock nears midnight we wander through a deserted High Street, where Rob tells me how reliant they are on donations. A registered charity, Kettering Street Pastors receives no statutory income and is desperately in need of cash to pay for insurance, first aid supplies and the items they hand out. It costs about £5,000 a year.
They have been boosted in recent months by generous donations. They were given the proceeds of this year's Kettering Awards, a whopping £1,100. Michael Beddall and the team at MBCO Academy also donated £3,000 worth of training so all volunteers could get a qualification in emergency first aid. This came after concerns over the length of time it can take to get ambulance support on a Saturday night.
"We're in genuine danger of someone losing their life here in Kettering, not because they've got something that can't be treated, but because we can't get them the right treatment quickly enough," Rob says.
"The costs of getting our volunteers trained in first aid was well beyond our means, so the incredible support of the team at MBCO Academy is going to make a huge difference to our ability to provide urgent basic medical care and support."
We turn the corner towards Brooklyn Bar in Ebenezer Place, where door staff are scanning everybody who goes in for weapons. One worker tells me they're keeping an extra eye out in the wake of the previous week's injection spiking nearby.
Emma-jane and June chat to a few revellers, with one promising to go to church if they can have some flip flops later. The volunteers wander to Abacus, where increased searches are also taking place, before heading back to the team's church base for a half-time break. Rob jots down incidents of note as we have a cup of tea.
"It's been a quiet night so far," June says.
"But that's not necessarily a bad thing."
As we head back out we chat about their biggest worry - seeing women walking on their own. Helping them is one of the street pastors' main priorities.
"We like being able to keep an eye out for vulnerable women, especially with recent events with Sarah Everard," says Emma-jane.
"Most of the time they'll be fine without our intervention. But there's always that chance that they won't."
We bump into the second team, where volunteer Dawn Moreton tells me they've helped a man get medical attention after being beaten up and helped a woman who was having panic attacks.
They're going on their break, so we move towards Newland Street to check on her. On the way there's little chats here and there. A man eating a kebab tells Rob he's feeling low. A woman separated from her boyfriend needs help finding his phone. A boozed up youngster tells them they need spaghetti bolognese because they're 'street pastas', a joke they hear every week.
The woman who had panic attacks is nowhere to be seen, but there's more love for the volunteers. One man gives them a hug and tells them they're "absolute legends". Another asks for a lollipop to take away the taste of the vomit he has just hurled up.
"You guys are unsung heroes and you deserve a medal," he tells them.
As we head back to Silver Street a man is swaying from side to side. He tells the street pastors he's just kicked in a door and wants to take ownership of it, before walking away. Police, who they assume saw the incident on CCTV, soon head in his direction.
The group wait with a woman who is waiting for her boyfriend to collect her before giving a homeless man a space blanket. The temperature has dropped and it's a hard night to be sleeping rough.
As we move along Silver Street I accidentally stand in some sick near a bin.
"That's why we hand out flip flops," Rob jokes.
The atmosphere is noticeably different. Two men run past us near Horsemarket, shouting aggressively. A message comes over on Rob's earpiece, which links him to security workers and CCTV operators. They warn of a man who has kicked off at door staff at nearby Decades.
It's a useful tool, meaning they can all work with police to keep the town and each other safe.
"It's such an amazing resource both ways," Rob tells me.
"If CCTV operators spot something, they can tell us on the ground. And if we come across something that doesn't feel right, we refer it to them so they can keep an eye on it. A while ago there was a group of underage girls who had their fake IDs taken off them. We saw some predatory males give them attention. We spoke to CCTV operators, they spoke to police and they helped the girls."
The atmosphere in Carrington Street is much more tense. A group are in the street, including a man who has been kicked out of a bar for taking cocaine. The volunteers check on people and provide reassurance before heading back and handing out more items, as well as helping women into taxis.
As the night draws to a close there's a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness. The previous week the street pastors had helped a man who had gone to an alleyway and overdosed on painkillers. Tonight, he is out again and has found them to say thank you. He is happy to tell the Northants Telegraph just how important the volunteers are.
"They just do such an amazing job and deserve every bit of credit they get," he says.
"They stayed with me and made sure I got to hospital. They do not have to be out here at this time of night but they do it because they care. I couldn't believe it when I heard they weren't paid and are volunteers. I cannot thank them enough - they helped me when I really needed it."
He hugs Rob and shakes his hand - one of those handshakes where you can tell he doesn't want to let go.
We head back to the church for a debrief and both teams say it's been a good night. In total, on their 5.5km patrol, they handed out five pairs of flip flops,156 lollipops, five bottles of water and one space blanket, as well as collecting 36 cans and bottles to stop them from being used as a weapon.
As I head home I can't help but think about all of the little differences they may have made in just one shift. What could have happened if the woman they put into a taxi had decided to walk? If the man who had beaten up did not get medical attention? If they weren't there to lend an ear to the man who was feeling low?
The Kettering Street Pastors don't go out every weekend because they want recognition. They do it because they're good people.
They are the town's unsung heroes - and we should all be grateful for them.
- To make a donation, or if you're interested in joining, visit http://kettering.streetpastors.org/