AFTER a full working week, what better thing to do than to spend the night patrolling the city centre with Winchester Street Pastors.

The charity is renowned for distributing lollies to people on nights out but from just one- and apparently tame- Friday night with them, it’s clear to see they do so much more.

I arrived at their base at St Peter’s Church Pastoral Centre, just before 9.30pm with no idea what the night had in store. I am far from a night owl so admittedly the 3am finish was a slightly sickening thought.

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I was greeted at the door by the first Friday team’s leader Luke Birmingham who introduced me to the rest of the group: Ray, Minna, Lin, Lorna and prayer pastors Sarah and Tina.

The street teams range from three to six people, while the prayer pastors remain at the centre to pray for those who need it and be on hand to take calls from the street team on incidents and who they meet.

READ MORE: Police introduce Winchester City Centre focused team

After a prayer for the night ahead, we set off towards the train station before looping round past the Railway Inn and back to the High Street, offering hot drinks and soup to people sat on streets in the near zero-degree temperatures.

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According to government figures, there’s an average of two people sleeping rough in Winchester but the pastors suspect it is higher. Finding cardboard is a high priority with even just a small lift off the cold cobbled high street helping to keep a little warmth for those sleeping on the streets.

SEE ALSO: New figures shows rise in number of Hampshire people sleeping rough

With a shortage of cardboard, the team got inventive and instead offered a kind of plastic crate to a homeless man, which he gladly accepted and said “man I’m a glad to see you” when they went over.

These were the kinds of acts I was prepared for. What I wasn’t expecting was for the team to sweep up broken glass from pedestrian areas. This is particularly important in the summer when more people, particularly girls in heels, take their shoes off.

Minna was the designated sweeper, despite initially being opposed to being a street pastor at all. With five years now under her belt, Minna is also usually top of the leaderboard for picking up the most bottle and cans, which are removed to prevent people from using them as weapons.

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Ray told me that a lollipop is a valuable tool in terms of calming people down if they get violent as well as lifting spirits. Knowing their reputation, many young adults approached the team for lollies throughout the night and blackcurrant was the clear favourite.

Stood in a “street pastor observer” high vis with the rest of the team in their navy street pastor uniforms most people thought I was on work experience, training to be a pastor or most amusingly their advisor.

READ ALSO: Hampshire High Sheriff awards recognise those going beyond the call of duty

Along our travels past O’Neill’s I even met a fellow journo who’d travelled from Portsmouth for a friend’s birthday. He was impressed with my interest in the street pastors and what they do, having not heard of them before, and said he’d look out for the story.

After that the night and its dangers got a bit more real. A man, probably on drugs, keeled over in the High Street and Ray was quick to react. The man awoke startled and violent. But with a career in the fire service and 10 years of Street Pastor experience Ray kept him at an arm’s length and managed to walk away. He then alerted the CCTV operators stationed in Winnall for them to keep an eye on.

Facing this myself, I would have felt completely unsafe and helpless. So, I asked if they’d ever felt the urge to give up? To which both Luke and Ray agreed that they felt it was where they were supposed to be.

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Further down the High Street we bumped into the police who were carrying out drug tests on the door of Pitcher and Piano, creating a large queue. This was in response to increasing concerns from Winchester pubs that drug use is on the rise in their venues.

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As the police had it covered, we ventured off to Abbey Gardens with a quick stop to admire the light show before returning back to base for a marvellous spread of tea, toast and cakes around midnight. Although a welcome break and opportunity to warm up, sitting down did allow the tiredness to set in.

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Moving into the early hours of Saturday morning we focused on the later closing venues like Vodka and Alfie’s.

Vodka was relatively quiet while Alfie’s was bustling with life and friendship fallouts. We spent a large amount of time talking to George, a friendly man who was bravely wearing sandals and thought I was a criminology student on work experience (which would be great idea for any budding criminologists).

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Ray called CCTV another time after we spotted a suspicious man loitering outside Pitcher and Piano who we followed up to Vodka just in case. The closure of Pitcher was followed by a lot of lolly distributing, which was very much appreciated by the night outers.

Checking in on the security guards on our way back to St Peter’s, Winchester’s night life seemed under control as we approached 3am so the team and I called it a night.

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The Street Pastors never know what the night will entail and although they described this night as tame I am so pleased that I had the chance to join them and see the selfless good they do. An insightful experience I’d recommend to anyone but be prepared to need a duvet day the next day.

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