Rebecca's wedding was held in Butterwick Hospice, so her dad could walk her up the aisle. Now, her husband, Stephen, is tackling a half-marathon in his father-in-law's memory. PETER BARRON reports

IT was the hardest day but also the most joyful, as proud dad Paul Saunders walked his daughter Rebecca up the aisle on her birthday.

The original plan was for Rebecca’s wedding to Stephen Thompson to take place in St Mary’s Church, overlooking the pretty village green, complete with duck pond, at Norton, near Stockton.

Instead, the venue – on November 1 last year – was the chapel at the Butterwick Hospice, in Stockton, where Paul was being cared for after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died soon afterwards, having bravely fulfilled his last wish.

Now, Stephen is preparing to honour Paul, and thank the hospice staff, by running a half-marathon on the day that would normally have seen thousands of people swarming over the Tyne Bridge at the start of the Great North Run.

From 10am on September 13, Stephen will follow the most poignant of routes, beginning at the hospice and taking him past places that were important in Paul’s life:

  • Stockton Crematorium, where hundreds turned out to give him a fitting send-off
  • Billingham Golf Club, where he was a long-standing member
  • The Unicorn, his local pub
  • The home he and his wife, Irene, shared on Norton’s Glebe Estate
  • The house in Rushyford Avenue, Roseworth, where he was raised
  • And finishing at Stockton Borough Council headquarters, where he worked for many years.

“It’s about honouring a special man but also trying to support the amazing hospice staff who cared for him – and gave us a day that we look back on as a miracle,” says Stephen.

That was the day Paul had defied the odds by walking for the first time in weeks, albeit with the aid of a frame, to give Rebecca away, and say a prayer at the ceremony:

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,

Wherever he may send you.

May he guide you through the wilderness,

Protect you through the storm.

May he bring you home rejoicing

At the wonders he has shown you.

May he bring you home rejoicing

Once again into our doors.


He had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2018, undergoing an operation at Christmas of that year. Hopes rose that he might recover but the cancer returned, and he was told in July 2019 that it was terminal.

Rebecca’s wedding to Stephen had been planned for August this year but it became clear that Paul – former head of finance for Stockton Borough Council – would have run out of time by then.

The situation was made even worse when Paul broke his leg and hip in a fall, and, after spells in hospital, he was moved to the Butterwick Hospice, where staff  asked if there was anything special he wanted to do. He told them his greatest wish would have been to walk his daughter down the aisle, and the immediate response from his carers was: “We’ll sort that for you.”

And, boy, did they sort it! After Rebecca and Stephen had exchanged vows at Stockton Registry Office, family and friends gathered in the hospice chapel, which had been decorated by staff, including Butterwick chief executive, Debbie Jones.

The hospice staff also supplied the wedding cake and buffet, as well as a bouquet for the bride, and buttonholes for guests. They helped style Rebecca’s hair, and arranged a professional photographer.

Meanwhile, the rehabilitation team had been working with Paul, so that, when the time came, he was able to take Rebecca’s arm and walk her down the aisle. Chaplain, Jim Wright, conducted the service and, afterwards, staff and patients lined up to clap and pop balloons.

“It meant everything to him, and to us, because there were times when we didn’t think he’d make it,” says Rebecca.

“But on the day, he was so proud and so full of joy and energy – it was like he’d saved it all up just for that moment. It was unforgettable – a miracle – and we can never put into words how much the hospice staff did to make it happen.”

Paul died, aged 61, nine days later and the numbers that turned up for his funeral are testament to the popularity of a man remembered for having a generous spirit, dry sense of humour, and a love of sport, including playing football in the colours of The Unicorn, known colloquially as ‘The Top House’.

The hope now is that large numbers will turn out on September 13, and throw money into Butterwick buckets, when Stephen runs past The Top House and those other special places in Paul’s life.

“I want to remember Paul, but I also want to play a part – however small – in helping Butterwick Hospice to have a future, and carry on helping other families in these difficult times,” says Stephen, a religious education teacher.

“It not just about the incredible care for the patient that goes on behind the scenes day and night, but the care for the family. They gave us something that was priceless.”

THIS is the first opportunity I’ve had to add to the many tributes that have been paid to George Friend, whose eight-year career with Middlesbrough Football Club has ended with a move to Birmingham City.

During his time with Boro, it was a pleasure to welcome George on work experience at The Northern Echo as part of his degree in sports journalism and broadcasting.

Never anything other than impeccably polite, and with a natural flair, I have no doubt that he will find success working in the media when his playing days are over.

The Northern Echo:

I met him again at the funeral of BBC Radio Tees commentator Ali Brownlee four years ago. We chatted about Ali’s huge impact as “Mister Middlesbrough” and there was no doubt he was genuinely upset by his loss.

Then, when I stepped down as editor of The Northern Echo after 18 years in 2016, the loveliest letter arrived out of the blue, from George wishing me well.

He didn’t need to do that, but that’s what George Friend is like – not just a really good footballer but a thoughtful human being.

He understood the importance of the connection between the supporters and a football club. When the MFC Foundation launched a project, called Team Talk, to support men who’d lost their jobs at the SSI steel plant, it was George who typically turned out to give them a tour of the Riverside Stadium.

The headline on my report of that event was “A true friend of the community.”

And that’s what he was. Thank you, George, and good luck.