Meet the undertaker who is also a mountain-team rescuer in the Peak District

MAN ON TWO MISSIONS -- Alan Winfield at his desk as a funeral director, wearing his Derby Mountain Rescue jacket.
MAN ON TWO MISSIONS -- Alan Winfield at his desk as a funeral director, wearing his Derby Mountain Rescue jacket.

In his professional career, Alan Winfield works as a funeral director in Stapleford. And he is renowned for the sensitivity, empathy, calmness and dignity he brings to what can be a demanding job, organising services for bereaved families.

But in his spare time, Alan has a very different role -- as the UK’s only chaplain for a mountain rescue team. And what’s more, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, joining the team on emergency missions in the Peak District if required.

Now 58-year-old Alan, who works for Gillotts Funeral Directors on Derby Road, is in the limelight because he is celebrating his tenth anniversary with Derby Mountain Rescue.

As a licensed reader for the Church Of England, he was invited to become chaplain by the rescue team’s former leader, Steve Hilditch, MBE, who felt they needed someone to give emotional support both to colleagues and to relatives and friends of people they were trying to help. Perhaps by lending a listening ear or by calming fears.

Derby Mountain Rescue covers the southern reaches of the Peak District, west Nottinghamshire and Derby, and much of its work involves rescuing injured walkers and searching for people who have gone missing.

All the members are volunteers, including Alan, who gives up most of his hours as chaplain and the group’s secretary. But he is fully trained for going out into the countryside on call-outs himself too.

On the face of it, you could not get two more contrasting roles than that of undertaker and rescuer. But father-of-two Alan, who has worked in the funeral industry for 37 years, says there are far more similarities than differences, not least because both are dedicated to the same ultimate aim -- making people feel better at a difficult time.

“When the team are working, the adrenaline’s going and their training kicks in,” he says. “But when the adrenaline subsides, maybe even weeks later, people come to terms with what they’ve seen and experienced, which may be something distressing like a deceased person.

“I am used to working with death, but for many members of the team, they will never have come across it before, and the first time they are confronted by a deceased person can be a shock.

“My role also includes talking to the families. I can find out useful information or talk through their feelings of anger or guilt, which helps them deal with the situation and allows the rest of the team to get on with their job.”

Alternatively, if Alan is out on a call and the team finds a dead person, then he will always volunteer to help remove their body.

“It is the last thing that our team can ever do for that person,” says Alan, who lives in Stenson Fields, Derby. “We are delivering them back to their family and that will hopefully give them closure, in the same way that working with a family and conducting a funeral gives them closure.

“I am very proud to have reached ten years as chaplain for Derby Mountain Rescue. I am extremely grateful to Gillotts and my wife, Sue, for allowing me the time and opportunity to combine two hugely rewarding roles.

“I enjoy the feeling of satisfaction from walking away knowing that I have helped someone’s family at the lowest point in their lives, or seeing a team member going back out to do what they are there to do.”

Poignantly, Alan’s two roles combined last year when he planned and conducted the funeral service of the team’s leader, Steve Hilditch, the man who got him involved in mountain rescue in the first place.

“It was extremely emotional,” he recalls. “When we came to the part to say goodbye, I couldn’t see the words in my book because there were tears in my eyes. Luckily, I knew it all off by heart.”