Making a world of difference in a corner of Norwich
Some people travel the world to make a big difference. David and Ruth Southgate have stayed in Norwich and made a world of difference in one small corner of Hellesdon. Jenny Seal reports.
On a single road in Hellesdon, David and Ruth Southgate have raised four boys, established a church, run a successful shop, founded an orchestra, tirelessly served the children and elderly of their community and now plan to build affordable homes for the elderly.
On the corner of Reepham Road and Middletons Lane in Hellesdon, north-west Norwich, sits the specialist card shop Cards ‘n’ Things owned by David and Ruth Southgate and managed by their son Paul.
The family home, that David and Ruth built almost 50 years ago, sits 100m away on the other side of the road. Just beyond their back garden is Meadow Way Chapel, the church the couple founded and helped build a few years later.
To the back of the church is land they have recently purchased, as trustees of a new charity, to build reasonably priced properties for the elderly.
David Southgate, a former builder, has lived in Hellesdon all his life. In 1964 he married Ruth. Both had become Christians as children and felt the need to start a Sunday School locally. David said: “We just felt that God wanted us to start a work in Hellesdon.”
They began to open up their home for ‘squashes’ where they would pile youngsters in for evenings of quizzes, songs and refreshments.
In 1969, a half-acre plot of land came on the market on Reepham Road, just around the corner from where they lived. With a growing family and building business, the Southgates bought it and built a new family home.
Five months after moving, the Norfolk evangelist David Dixon got in touch. He had heard the Southgates had land and proposed pitching a marquee to host meetings for children and adults during the spring. The Southgates agreed and obtained planning permission for the marquee to be erected. Around 60 - 70 children came each evening.
From those tent meetings, the couple started a Sunday School and adult gatherings in their home. Then David applied for planning permission to put a mobile classroom on their land, which was purchased and used to hold the meetings.
David said: “With the help of a few people who joined us, we applied to the council for permission to build a small church on the land. We were devastated when we heard it had been turned down. But God had bigger plans. He knew we’d outgrow that too soon.”
In 1972, after persistent enquiries to the Council and David’s purchase of further land to enable the building of a road up to the Chapel, now Chapel Court, their plans for a church were approved. The church was built by a mix of volunteers and professionals.
David said: “We won’t go into the Health and Safety of it! “Our young sons loved to help on the building site, even helping nail on the flat roof. People would be horrified these days!”
The official opening of the current building of Meadow Way Chapel took place in 1974. In 1975, the year their youngest son Paul was born, David decided on a career change. Ruth said: “He had this crazy idea of opening a toy shop! So, we went ahead and bought this little corner shop down the road.”
David said: “That was a total turnaround from me being a builder. When we look back we can see God was in these plans. The shop is a good Christian witness.”
By extending and knocking through, David transformed the small, front room grocer’s shop at the roundabout on Reepham Road and Middletons Lane into ‘Hellesdon Toy and Gift Centre’. In the late 1980s, faced with too much competition from larger toy shops and supermarkets, they decided to sell the shop or rent it out. The few cards they had were selling well so they decided to rent the small shop next door to sell cards and stationery.
Ruth said: “Meanwhile we tried to sell or rent our shop. Three times we got to the point of selling or renting and each time, the day before we were supposed to sign the people pulled out. So, again we felt the Lord was telling us something and this time it was to go back to our original shop and fill it with cards. We are so pleased we were obedient to what the Lord had planned for us.”
Their son, Paul, now manages the thriving card shop, but Ruth and David are still involved – David as the ‘maintenance man’ and Ruth meeting sales reps. As well as a very impressive selection of cards for every occasion, the shop sells helium-filled balloons, wrapping paper, gift bags and stationery. In 2011 they incorporated a Thorntons franchise to stock their chocolates.
The atmosphere is welcoming, and the staff are clearly attentive to the customers. “We are really blessed with the staff we’ve got,” said Ruth. “They are pleasant and cheery and look after the customers.”
David and Ruth, who are now in their 70s, continue to worship at Meadow Way Chapel, a vibrant church of around 130 people, which has been extended three times to accommodate growth.
The couple are still involved in the church’s annual children’s summer camp. Ruth helps with the luncheon club for the elderly, and David with the local friendship club. David also goes into local schools to take assemblies, telling Bible stories using his flannelgraph board, and both are in Meadow Way Chapel’s Open the Book team. They also run Meadow Way’s 40-piece orchestra that stages three charity concerts each year.
And now they are trustees of the Hawthorne Meadow Trust, a charity working to develop affordable housing for elderly people. David said: “We want to do a little complex for the elderly of Hellesdon. It is quite an exciting scheme which we are looking forward to.”
In conversation, David and Ruth are incredibly modest and quick to downplay their achievements. David said: “The Lord’s been good to us and we’ve been blessed with good health, strength and plenty of energy. He’s enabled us to be involved in all these things.”
Cards ‘n’ Things is open every day except Sunday from 9am-5.30pm at 193 Reepham Road, Norwich NR6 5NZ. There is free parking outside.
Pictured top are Paul (left), Ruth and David Southgate inside Cards ‘n’ Things in Hellesdon.