FEATURE: Pink power as women prepare for hospice fund-raiser
On Saturday night, as darkness starts to fall, a galaxy of twinkling lights will appear on Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds.
That might sound a sentimental way to describe almost 2,000 pairs of flashing bunny ears.
But the scene spread out in front of the towering Abbey Gate can stir enough emotions to reduce onlookers to tears.
Those ears may be pink, fluffy, frivolous and fun - but they symbolise a dedication to a cause close to very many hearts.
Beneath each pair is a woman on a mission to make as much money as possible for St Nicholas Hospice Care.
Some simply see a worthy cause and want to help.
But many have a strong personal connection - walking in memory of a loved one cared for by the hospice in their final days.
Bunny ears have become the emblem of the annual Girls’ Night Out sponsored walk, now in its seventh year and known almost as much for its camaraderie as its fundraising power.
This year, well over 1,700 women will clip on the distinctive headgear and stride, or stroll, around the course to raise desperately-needed funds.
The walk is organised by Jenny Baskett, the hospice’s events and challenges fundraiser, assisted by Charlie Ruddock and Georgina Bissell.
But the event has now got so big the whole fundraising team also gets involved.
“When I started my job I was asked to put on a mass participation event,” said Jenny.
“I ‘d done the London MoonWalk for breast cancer 12 years ago, and enjoyed it.
“But I lost a night’s sleep, and didn’t really like showing my bra in public. Also, it was the full marathon distance of 26.2 miles, which for me was too long.
“I wanted to capture the same kind of atmosphere but without the bits I wasn’t so keen on.
“So we start our walk at 8pm and finish at midnight, and wear pyjamas which is something everyone can feel comfortable with.”
Last year 1,500 women took part in the walk, which offers an option of six miles, or a longer route of 11.2 miles around Bury.
Together they raised £154,000 towards the daunting cost - £11,000 a day - of running the hospice’s services.
St Nicholas looks after patients with life-limiting illnesses, and their families, from west Suffolk and part of Norfolk.
Serving an area stretching south to Sudbury, west to Haverhill and Newmarket, north to Thetford and east to the fringes of Stowmarket and Diss, the vast majority of its services are provided in patients’ own homes.
The first Girls’ Night Out attracted 350 walkers. “I thought we would get 50. I had no idea how popular it was going to be,” says Jenny.
“Organising the first one was a massive challenge because we had no idea what to expect..
“We thought we would be lucky to make £10,000, and we made £60,000.”
From the start, people took the event to their hearts. It gets bigger every time, with teams coming back year after year.
The bunny ears popped up in year two - not so much a style statement as a safety precaution.
“We wanted a way of seeing people in the dark and keeping them safe. And if they were on their heads we could see if anyone had fallen over,” said Jenny.
“Now they are on our T-shirts, and medals too.
“When I see the sea of flashing lights on Angel Hill before they set off I get quite weepy and emotional. It’s such an incredible sight.”
“Everyone involved in the walk wears ears ... even the volunteer marshals who include policemen and members of the RAF.
“This year we have 170 volunteers, which is an unbelievable amount.
“We get lots of support from the police, the council, Rotary, Round Table and the Lions, plus Suffolk Wheelers who provide cycling marshals.
“There are entertainers, like buskers, along the way. And people who live on the route are wonderful too - they not only cheer the walkers on, they offer chocolate and sweets, and let them use their loos.
This year, drinks providers need more bottle than usual - recruits from gyms and sports centres are baring their chests as topless water boys.
Two memory boards are set up where walkers can write messages. “We get some lovely tributes,” says Jenny.
“Afterwards we often stand and cry reading them. They inspire you and show why the hospice is such an important place to so many people.”
One of the poignant stories this year comes from Lidia’s Ladies, a team of 18 staff and mums from Wickhambrook primary school.
They are walking in memory of their school bursar, Lidia Chapman, who died from leukaemia.
“Some of us did the walk last year because the hospice was our school’s chosen charity,” said their spokesman Lynsey Jolland.
“Lidia had been due to walk with us, but she was too poorly. This year memories of her have given us an extra reason to take part.”
Donations can be made at www.justgiving.com/lidia-s-ladies.
Another of this year’s teams are the Beach Hut Babes from Bury - eight mums who met through their now-teenage children,
“Six of us were in the same ante-natal class,” said team member Sarah Garrard.
“We’re doing the walk because we all know of friends or family who have had care from the hospice.
“We’re tackling the longer route and have been doing lots of practice walks - it’s a good excuse to get together for a few hours.”
The Babes have already raised £1,340 by holding an afternoon tea party.
Meanwhile Happy Feet are hoping to live up to their name. The eight mums whose children go to Clare Community Primary School are doing the walk for the first time.
“My father-in-law was cared for by the hospice. The staff were wonderful - it’s a wonderful place.”
Donations for Happy Feet can be made at www.justgiving.com/Julie-Forrester1.
No sooner is one walk over than planning for the next one begins.
“At the end we feel a bit like rabbits caught in headlights,” said Jenny.
“I wake in the early hours and write notes to myself pretty much every night - things like have we got enough cable ties to put signs on lamp posts, or have the marshals got batteries for their torches.
“But it’s my baby and I feel very proud. It has become so much more than I ever hoped.”