Britons turn out en masse for "The Big Lunch"

LONDON Mon Jul 20, 2009 8:41am EDT

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Tens of thousands of Britons came together for outdoor lunch parties up and down the country over the weekend, celebrating the first ever "Big Lunch" festival, an effort to build community spirit.

From Liverpool in the northwest, where about 5,000 people sat down to eat, to dozens of sites across London and at small gatherings as far away as Barbados and the Virgin Islands, organizers said up to two million people joined the party.

"People have really come out and said 'sod it' to all the bad news that's going on and decided just to have a nice lunch with their neighbors," said Rhona Hurcombe, a spokeswoman for the festival and the organizer of one lunch in London.

"I think it's been a great success. People have already said that they can feel it's made a difference in the community, getting people talking and sharing and that sort of thing."

Dreamed up by the people behind the Eden Project, an environment and greenhouse complex in the southwest of England, The Big Lunch aims to get neighbors talking to each other again amid evidence from social researchers that British society is becoming ever more fractured and isolated.

Organizers hoped Sunday would produce the most number of people out on the streets for a single social occasion since Queen Elizabeth's silver Jubilee in 1977, when crowds of people enjoyed communal lunches and picnics.

While the weather was not great across the country -- somewhat typically for a British summer -- crowds still turned up at lunches across London.

In Battersea in the south of the city, around 100 people gathered on a crowded, blocked-off street, with a band playing, balloons on hand for children and a single long dining table.

"This is pretty crowded, especially for this street," said Emma Clark, 28, an event manager who took part in the lunch.

"There are all shapes and sorts of people coming here, it's a very diverse community. Usually on this street there is one dog, me and someone in the pub, that's it."

As well as building community, the organizers hoped to inject some levity and optimism into the hearts of people left gloomy by the recession and struggling with job losses.

"There's a lot of anger created by the banking crisis," said Paul Twivy, the chief executive of The Big Lunch.

"We're hoping to channel people's anxiety and anger into something very positive and prove that Britain's not broken."

There's also the hope that greater community spirit will lead to other positives, including a fall in crime and anti-social behavior.

"It's a good starting point for community engagement," said Drew Woodhouse, 32, the organizer of the lunch in Battersea.

"You have to share a joke with someone before asking them to be a part of your initiative for the community."

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Editing by Luke Baker and Paul Cacciatore)