As well as striving to keep her daughter's memory alive for the 13th consecutive Christmas, the mother of missing North Yorkshire chef, Claudia Lawrence, is thinking of others. She talks to PETER BARRON

AS another Christmas of unimaginable personal torment approaches, it is typical of Joan Lawrence that she's thinking of others who are facing hardship.

A keen baker, she’s been busy producing 80 Christmas cakes for Malton and Norton Lions Club, so they can be distributed to those who are housebound and isolated in the part of North Yorkshire where she lives.

She uses a special recipe, handed down by her grandma, Emma Mallabourne, who lived in Darlington until she was well into her nineties.

“The ingredients are a secret but my dream is to be able to hand the recipe over to Claudia one day,” she says.

This will be the thirteenth Christmas Joan has faced since her 35-year-old daughter inexplicably vanished from her home in York. Yet again, the 78-year-old grandma will fill her mantelpiece at home in Malton with old cards that Claudia had sent her before she went missing.

Joan refuses to give up hope, praying each year for a knock on the door or a telephone call. But, with every passing year, she know it's less likely to come.

“It gets harder all the time, but I can’t just let it go,” she says. “I have to keep going for Claudia's sake, don't I?”

We are speaking while Joan is visiting her hometown of Darlington for a long-awaited reunion with her old colleagues from the GPO telephone exchange, in Barnard Street, where she worked more than 50 years ago.

Normally, "the girls" meet every few months, but this is the first time they’ve been together for two years.

“The support I’ve had from Darlington has been a godsend,” she says. “The Darlington connection is really important to me – I always feel like I'm coming home when I visit.”

She was born in Darlington’s Greenbank Maternity Hospital, and her first home was in Cedar Road, before moving to Woodcrest Road when she was six.

We meet for a walk round South Park, where she often played as a child: ice skating on the lake in the days of harsher winters, or roller-skating on the rink in front of the bandstand.

“I’ve got such wonderful memories of this park,” she says. “We didn’t sit in front of the box, we were out all the time, climbing trees, playing with whipping tops, and skating. The lake used to get frozen solid – we loved it.”

Her first daughter, Ali, was also a Greenbank baby but Claudia was born in Malton after Joan and her husband, Peter, moved to the North Yorkshire market town. The couple later separated, and Peter died in February this year.

There have been many false dawns for the family over the years, the latest coming in August when police drained a lake at Sand Hutton gravel pits, about eight miles outside of York.

After a two-week search of the site and local woodland, it was announced that nothing of any significance had been found.

“That was a dreadful time because I was in the dark about what was happening,” she recalls. A police liaison officer came to my flat to tell me some information had come to light, and then I found out about the search at Sand Hutton from the press.

“It was emotionally draining because I didn’t know what they were looking for – whether it was her remains, or belongings – and it went on and on. Then it came to nothing again and I was really, really down.”

During that time, Joan attended a church service in the nearby village of Crambe and is full of praise for the kindness shown by Area Dean, the Reverend Chris Wingfield.

Since then, Joan has been contacted by a former detective who has offered to come up with a “Plan B” to the investigation, and she intends to give the idea further consideration in the new year.

“I’m not getting any younger, and I don’t feel we’re getting anywhere. It's like being in quicksand,” she says. “I just want justice for Claudia and to finally know what’s happened.”

Joan’s plans for Christmas are uncertain amid the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant. It's complicated by the fact that, so far, she’s been advised by her GP not to be vaccinated because of a severe allergy she has to the flu jab.

“I was hoping to go to Ali’s but it’s all up in the air now,” she says.

After our walk round the park, we move on to the warmth of the nearby Blackwell Grange Hotel for a coffee and mince pies, and Joan strikes up a conversation with one of the staff, Michelle Ward.

Michelle recognises Joan and reveals how she’d fallen on hard times and was homeless in York at the time Claudia went missing. Michelle was living in local woods, and she remembers the police searching her tent.

“I’ve seen you on the news and my heart has always gone out to you – you are such a strong, inspirational lady. I just hope you find peace soon,” she tells Joan.

It’s a heartfelt message that will be echoed by millions as the search for answers goes on.

AND, so, to another unbelievably courageous mum…

It was a privilege to host The Northern Echo's County Durham Together Awards at Ramside Hall Hotel last week, and to meet so many inspirational people making a difference in all kinds of ways.

They included Tracey Beadle (pictured below), winner of The Unsung Hero award, who was rightly given a standing ovation after the audience had listened in total silence to her story.

The Northern Echo:

Tracey, alongside her husband, David, is the driving force behind a charity, called Quinn’s Retreat, which the Shildon couple founded after their 17-year-old daughter, Quinn, took her own life.

Their 21-year-old son, Dyllon, went on to commit suicide ten months later because he was unable to cope with his grief.

The charity offers respite accommodation, in a caravan at Barnard Castle, for families affected by suicide. Enough money has now been raised by the charity to buy a second caravan, which will be called Dyllon’s Den.

One of my duties as compere was to interview the award-winners on stage, and I confess to being anxious about asking Tracey questions, such was the enormity of the tragedy she'd had to endure.

I needn't have worried. In fact, it turned out to be the easiest interview of the evening because she spoke with such passion, eloquence, and kindness while fighting back tears.

After the event, I spoke to Tracey’s husband, David, who told me: “It's all down to her – I can’t even start to tell you how utterly amazing she is.”

Meeting them was an unforgettably humbling experience.

Rest in peace Quinn and Dyllon – and thank you for your courage, Tracey and David.