Rising up: how one baker found a new zest for life onboard a hospital ship

Rising up: how one baker found a new zest for life onboard a hospital ship

Volunteering for Mercy Ships has been a transformational experience for great-grandfather Alan Hitchborn. After the loss of his beloved wife, the veteran baker felt he needed to discover new purpose and meaning and he found that onboard the hospital ship, the Africa Mercy. He explains how the experience changed him in both mind and body.

At 64, Alan Hitchborn is ready for another adventure. Last year, he volunteered to use his advanced bakery and culinary skills aboard a hospital ship preparing to deliver life-changing surgery in Africa – and he cannot wait to volunteer again.

When his life changed dramatically in April 2019, he found himself seeking ways to help others. He found Mercy Ships.

Love of his life

Alan was just 17 when he met the love of his life.

He had discovered an early expertise for baking and was working at Sewell’s Bakery in Norwich when a young lady called Liz started in 1976.

“We hit it off immediately and we were married aged 18 and 19 in 1977. By the time I was 23, I had three children.”

Alan and Liz on their wedding day. Alan baked the cake.

The love and support they shared was a life-long commitment and achievement. As they raised their young family, Alan learnt all he could about different baking specialities, including training as a pastry chef and gaining a City and Guilds.

As his skills increased and his family grew, the couple decided as Alan turned 30, to start their own business and The Breadwinner was born in Norwich. And just as yeast grows, so did the bakery business over the next decade.

“We had got very busy and I had an opportunity to expand when another bakery site became available.”

But it wasn’t any old bakery – it was the very bakery that Alan and Liz met at in 1976.

So, at age 40, Alan and Liz took over Sewell’s, the place their romance started. But now they had the help in running their two-premise enterprise with a 24-strong workforce, that included their three children and would soon include their grandchildren too!

“I had all three of my children working with us. My son Carl struggled with the early mornings at that time and Kate showed from the start she was talented at cake decorating. Rachel worked hard in the shop.” Today, Kate runs her own successful designer Norwich-based, online biscuit company called Katie’s Biscuit Shop.

Sadly, Liz became ill with breast cancer 10 years ago and despite her stoical efforts to fight the disease it eventually returned, and she passed away in 2019.

Rock bottom

Alan hit rock bottom. He had decided to sell the business while caring for Liz and now felt lost.

“She was my life for 45 years. When she died, I felt I had lost any purpose in life. It was so hard. I had spent my life with her and then taking her to hospital appointments and then she was gone.

“I could have just carried on in my house – playing golf but I wanted more. I needed something else – I needed to put something back.”

He started helping in his community including the hospice that treated Liz at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and helping patient transport.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020.


“I thought – what can I do? I looked at volunteering opportunities and then I stumbled across Mercy Ships. I saw baker and thought it was the perfect answer, so I applied!”

He waited in the ‘talent pool’ for an opportunity to come up before hearing he had successfully been accepted to work in the Africa Mercy’s galley kitchen, while the ship was refurbished for a return to Africa.

The experience was transformational.

“It’s changed my life and my outlook on everything. I can see clearly now what is important and I have so much more to offer.

“I find that people’s lives are quite monotonous and after experiencing this, my eyes are completely opened. The whole experience was just fantastic, and I feel as I can do so much – I feel as if I have unfinished business.

“It was like I had been to 50 different countries because I met so many different cultures! I realise what a big world it is.”

It was not just his outlook that changed, but also Alan physically.

The grandfather of nine said, “I lost 2.5 stone while I was there! I went out with a BMI of 26 and came back with a BMI of 22. When you are onboard you eat nutritious and wholesome food and I always did more than 10,000 steps a day. I used the swimming pool and exercised.

“I feel so much better for losing the weight. I had to buy new trousers when I got back and it was brilliant!”

While working with what Alan describes as “wonderful people” in the galley he was struck by how everyone worked in a unique way.

God’s spirit

“I could feel God’s spirit in the galley – in the way everyone worked together; whether it was emptying the trash or cooking. It did not matter what role we had, everyone is the same.”

He cooked and prepped food daily for the crew and took over for a few weeks baking for the entire ship, using his vital skills. On these days he would start earlier, as he would when he baked in Norwich, and introduced the ship to some new cakes and recipes.

He said, “I like the fact that people asked me for some of the recipes when I left, so I feel I left a bit of a legacy there!”

But it’s not just his recipes that have stayed onboard.

“I may have come home but my heart is still there. I’ve since reapplied. If I can help in just a little way when there is such a great need – then that is a start,” he added.

Alan could not wait to get back onboard and use his skills and he has just headed back and joined the Global Mercy! There’s a place for your unique talents too. Come onboard and Make Your Mark, click here.

Alan at the baking station onboard the Africa Mercy