The magical relationship between Maggie and John shows why the 'Good Friends' campaign - launched today by Age UK North Yorkshire and Darlington - is so important...

TUESDAYS and Saturdays are 89-year-old John Wilkinson’s favourite days – because those are the days when Maggie Cox pops round to the flat where he lives alone.

Maggie is a dedicated volunteer befriender for Age UK North Yorkshire and Darlington, and John calls her his “guardian angel”.

“She’s an absolute Godsend,” says John, whose sight is severely impaired due to macular degeneration. “I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her – life would be very lonely.”

Maggie, a retired primary school teacher, started volunteering for Age UK a year ago after picking up a leaflet in Richmond Town Hall, appealing for people to befriend veterans.

“After retiring from teaching, I had time on my hands, and I’d always said I’d do some volunteering,” she recalls.

“My dad and grandad both served in the Green Howards, so I felt I’d at least have something to talk about with veterans.”

After contacting Age UK, she began as a telephone befriender, having regular chats with John.

“We just clicked, and it grew from there,” says Maggie, who lives in Richmond.

After a few months of telephone chats, Maggie asked Age UK if it would be OK to start visiting John in person and, because she had all the relevant experience from her career as a teacher, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

Since then, Maggie has visited John at his home in Catterick Village twice a week: on Saturdays, she delivers a hot meal; and on Tuesday’s she goes round to keep him company and to make sure he’s coping.

Depending on how he’s feeling, they meet at his sheltered accommodation, or at a café in the village.

“Befriending isn’t a chore – you make real, lasting friends, and I’m pleased to say that’s what John and I have become,” says Maggie, a mum of 25-year-old twins.

Sitting in the sunshine, on the bench outside his flat, John’s face breaks into a smile as he sees Maggie approaching for her latest visit. “Here she comes – my guardian angel,” he laughs.

Over a hot cup of tea, the conversation flows easily, as if they’ve known each other all their lives.

“John’s had such an interesting life, and there are never any awkward silences,” she says. “It’s a pleasure talking to him.”

Born in Sheffield, John was evacuated to Edwinstowe at the start of World War Two, when he was nine. His father was a cobbler by trade but, due to suffering from diabetes, moved to the healthier air of North Yorkshire to open a grocery shop in Tunstall.

Around the same time, as a 21-year-old, John joined the RAF for his national service, and became a turret armourer, before returning to civvy street to follow in his father’s boot-prints as a cobbler.

He has a son of his own, living in Hull, who has had to shield during lockdown because he also has diabetes.

Consequently, Maggie’s reassuring presence as a companion and general source of support - while sticking to strict social distancing rules – has grown in importance during the Covid-19 crisis.

Before coronavirus changed everything, John enjoyed coffee mornings with fellow residents in the communal lounge, as well as bingo sessions on Wednesday evenings.

“That’s all had to stop, so I look forward to Maggie coming even more,” he says. “She’s more than just a friend – she’s like a member of the family.”

John has been living alone for around 30 years, but he made friends when he started ballroom dancing when he was 72. It led to him travelling around North Yorkshire, but he stopped ten years ago when his dance partner passed away.

“If it wasn’t for Maggie, I suppose I would just be looking at the television all day and sleeping. I’d feel quite deserted,” he says.

As well as visiting John, Maggie does the shopping for seven other older people, and also delivers around 20 hot meals for the charity every Saturday and Sunday, plus alternate Fridays.

With supportive husband Simon in the driver’s seat, she collects the food from the collection point, off the A66, and works her way around North Yorkshire, making sure her ‘customers’ don’t go hungry.

“The thought of someone sitting there on their own without any human contact is just heartbreaking,” she says.

That’s why Maggie is a passionate supporter of the Good Friends campaign, being launched today by Age UK North Yorkshire and Darlington, in the hope that other volunteers will be inspired to come forward.

“It really is so rewarding, and the need is so great,” she says. “There are lots of people out there, like John, who just need someone to talk to.”

John is also backing the appeal, saying: “It would be wonderful if more people came forward to volunteer. I’ve got Maggie, but I know there are lots of others who aren’t as lucky as me.”

In March, just before lockdown, Maggie took John to The Farmers Arms, at Brompton on Swale, for Sunday lunch with her family to celebrate his birthday.

As they chat on their bench in the sunshine, plans are being discussed to celebrate his 90th birthday, next year, with a tea dance in the communal lounge.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” beams John. “Maggie will be my guest of honour.”

  • Anyone who wishes to become a Good Friend, should contact Volunteer Manager, Lynn Walton, on 01325 362832 or at

ANY companies out there, looking to raise their profile, could do a lot worse than consider the sizzlingly successful example of Heck Food.

The North Yorkshire sausage company has generated international publicity through its sponsorship of Bedale Football Club, with a series of banger-based football strips in recent years.

The latest strip – unveiled last week – has moved into the vegan era to promote the company’s “Veg With Edge” range. Players will run out this season in shirts depicting giant carrots, while the goalie will be sporting a cheese grater.

It’s fun, bold and creative. It’s the ‘rootiful game’ and you can hear the chants from the supporters: “Here we grow, here we grow, here we grow.”

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, two lanes of the M4 in Wiltshire had to be closed last week after a lorry shed its load of pilau rice destined for Indian restaurants.

I can’t help wondering if it took a korma too fast.