These pubs are serving up free meals this Christmas

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Community care: Every year the Alexandra hosts free lunch for those spending Christmas Day alone
Community care: Every year the Alexandra hosts free lunch for those spending Christmas Day alone

Related tags Social responsibility Food Pubco + head office Greene king

Enter one Wimbledon pub on 25 December and you’ll find a warmly lit sports bar twinkling with tinsel and abuzz with a mix of widowers, retail workers, au pairs, army lads and NHS staff sharing Christmas dinner over laughter and wine.

This is the Alexandra, ​and the eclectic crowd are people who would otherwise have spent Christmas Day alone. Instead, manager Mick Dore and his wife Sarah welcome them in with open arms and a free three-course meal. It’s a scheme they’ve been running for the best part of a decade. The first year, around five people joined for a pint. This year, they’ll cook for 250.  

“It never fails to bring a lump to your throat, really,” says Dore. Unsurprisingly he’s got plenty of stories up his sleeve: “We had a man the year before last who was in tears at the end, and he loved it. He said to us it was the first time he’d had Christmas dinner with somebody else for 17 years.”

One in seven (14%) people across the UK will go through Christmas Day without a face-to-face conversation in 2023, according to new research from Greene King, and the Alexandra is just one of many independent inns and pub companies giving back to the community and tackling loneliness through serving up free Christmas dinners this year.

At the south west London pub, this meal includes turkey with all the trimmings alongside a starter (usually smoked salmon) and Christmas pudding, washed down with wine, beer or spirits. Food and drink are provided by suppliers, but Dore is clear that it’s more than just a hearty meal.

He explains: “Christmas Day​ ought to be one of the best days of the year for everybody, and unfortunately, for a lot of people, it’s the worst day. If you’re on your own, it puts that feeling of isolation under a microscope. We do nice food for everybody but it’s secondary. It’s more about getting everybody out of the house.”

It’s an absolutely mental day but a team of volunteers are all hands on deck to make it work. Dore finds out where people are from then pairs them into groups: “I’ll introduce Tom to Harry and they’re all ex-builders, and I’ll put three old ladies on a table with an au pair from Slovakia and they’ll have a lovely time.”

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Festive cheer: 63 guests joined for Christmas lunch at the Shelley Arms

Volunteers also come bearing gifts: not gold, frankincense and myrrh, but bottles of spirits or watercolour sets which Dore wraps up. Last year, one guy, 5ft 2, sidled in dressed as Elvis Pressley before promptly wowing the crowd with his riff on Hound Dog.​ Funnily enough, one good Samaritan had bestowed a surprising donation a few weeks prior. “It was a full-size keyboard,” says Dore. “I said, ‘well I don’t know who I’m going to give to, but thanks anyway, that’s lovely”’.

“Anyway,” he goes on, “I said to Elvis, ‘do you play any instruments?’ And he said, ‘I play a bit of piano’. So we wrapped it up for him and our miniature Elvis got himself got himself a big keyboard. He started crying, as did the whole room.” Dore’s goal is for all guests to leave with gifts in hand and grins on their faces.

Festive joy

Smiles and laughter also lit up the Shelley Arms in Broadbridge Heath, West Sussex, last week, at the pub’s annual free Christmas lunch for pensioners. The occasion saw guests don colourful crowns, split Christmas crackers and sing along to 50s and 60s smash hits belted out by a live musician.

“For a lot of them it’s their Christmas Day,” says the pub’s owner Richard Kent who’s been running the event for 10 years. At 63 guests, it was the pub’s biggest pensioner Christmas lunch​ to date, with volunteers providing door-to-door service for housebound guests. Kent adds: “A lot of them live by themselves and don’t get out much. It’s a good day out, and then you get to meet people as well, which is the main thing, rather than just sitting at home by themselves.”

The publican also touches on the mental health impact of loneliness, which research shows​ can increase the risk of depression, anxiety and low-self-esteem. This comes after a survey from Greene King found, of those spending Christmas Day alone, 16% will do so because their relatives or friends they would like to see live too far away, or are unable to travel, and 13% have yet to be invited to see anyone.

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Tis the season: Pensioners sang along to live music at the festive meal

But Kent thinks bringing people together is the best kind of medicine. And Greene King seems to think so too: The pub company will be committing £250,000 worth of free Christmas meals, the equivalent of around 5,500 dinners, to people that might be on their own this festive season as part of its Christmas Community Tables initiative. Greene King chief executive Nick Mackenzie​ is of the mind that pubs are the heart of communities, uniting people from all walks of life. “I’m pleased that we can play our part by bringing festive joy to as many as 5,500 people, who may otherwise be spending Christmas alone,” he says.

One participating pub is Hungry Horse site the King’s Arms in Bagshot, Surrey. General manager Mark Gordon says: “We trialled the initiative last year with some regulars who I knew would be spending the day alone. They came in on Christmas Day, enjoyed a great meal and had a lovely time together. They didn’t know each other before Christmas and now they come in regularly as a group.”

More than just a pub

Another Greene King​ pub taking part in the scheme is the Beechdale in Nottingham. For general manager Nikki Dale, Christmas is about bringing people together. She says: “Our guests are treated exactly like all other customers on the day and made to feel really welcome and can just enjoy the festive atmosphere with other customers and the team as well.”

On the big day, attendees will tuck into a three-course meal at the Beechdale, complete with prawn & smoked salmon cocktail or soup for the starter, a turkey lunch or veggie option with all the trimmings, chased by a choice of desserts – raspberry trifle, Christmas pudding, cheesecake or fudge cake.

“We’ve never really looked at ourselves as just being a pub. We like to play a big part in the community"

“We want to be at the centre of our community, somewhere for people to come,” says Dale. Regulars are also keen to help out at the pub for the day, or chip in to buy drinks for those at the community table. “They’re really taken it to heart which is lovely,” she says.

The Guy Earl of Warwick in Welling, south east London, will also dish up meals on the house for Christmas Day. In fact, owner Bonnie Tarleton has decided to completely close to paying customers. Anyone struggling, homeless, on their own, or grappling with the cost-of-living crisis, will be welcome.

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Say cheers: Bonnie Tarleton and Ray Irwin took over the Guy Earl of Warwick in 2022

“We just invite them all in. It’s not much off our backs, really,” shrugs Tarleton. Last year, she seated the 10 guests on a long table and got everyone talking, from elderly people on their own to families struggling with inflation. She’ll deck the tables with crackers this year before guests sit down to their meal. “Each year we’re going to try and get bigger and better,” she promises. “We’ve never really looked at ourselves as just being a pub. We like to play a big part in the community.”

Giving back

The pub sector has gone through its fair share of heartbreak this year, with 200 pubs closing their doors​ in the first three months, and plenty more on their last legs due to a lethal cocktail of inflation, soaring costs and staffing shortages. The British Institute of Innkeeping chief executive Steve Alton celebrates the vital role of pubs in communities but urges the Government to do more to help the sector. He says: “People at the heart of great pubs go above and beyond for their customers, locals and the most vulnerable in villages, towns and cities across the UK.

“So many of our members offer support, raising money for local charities, providing free meals at Christmas, donating to food banks and even becoming donation points themselves. They deserve the recognition and support from Government in 2024 with fair taxation, including a cut to VAT.”

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Community table: Hall & Woodhouse pub the World's End, Worthing, will take part in the scheme

Dorset-based operator Hall & Woodhouse,​ who has invested around £25,000 in providing meals for those alone on 25 December, agrees that the trading climate for hospitality is tough. But the operator’s head of charity Richard Curtis says while there are challenges, this should not detract from the brewery’s core purpose of making days and enriching communities.

The family brewer will welcome more than 300 individuals to the company’s estate of pubs on 25 December at around 50 of its managed houses from Devon to Hertfordshire. “A lot of guests choose to spend their special day and hard-earned money with us on Christmas Day across our pubs,” adds Curtis, “so for us, this is a meaningful way to give back to those in need.”

Matt Woodhouse, regional manager for managed houses at Hall & Woodhouse, puts across the point that the festive season can be a difficult time for some due to grief or loneliness, and so it is important to create a warm and welcoming space for those alone on Christmas Day. "Without a community there is no pub,” adds Curtis. “Our communities are there for us 365 days a year, so our purpose allows us to give something back.”

So it looks like there is​ room at the inn this Christmas after all. There’s also turkey with all the trimmings, lots of laughter, and if you’re lucky, a bottle of wine or two (and if you’re even luckier, an Elvis Presley impersonation).

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