Friday 19 January 2024

Sit Down (next to me): Why men need a shed.

Over the past three years, I have found myself heavily involved in my local community in a manner which has occupied my time and my mind, suiting very well this stage of my life: retired from a busy and all-consuming job, yet still with the energy both physical and mental to commit to voluntary work. Perhaps the best of several aspects of community life in which I am involved has been my part in helping to set up and run a Men’s Shed.

Never heard of a Men’s Shed? Neither had I until just over a year ago. Bear with me while I tell the story - How Kirkham got its shed.

Kirkham, the town which I have lived in or near for towards 40 years, has since 2020 been the fortunate beneficiary of some significant government funding to help regenerate it in both physical and social terms.

Kirkham is a small (population approximately 8000) market town in the Fylde district of Lancashire. If you are unsure of the geography of this part of the world, the Fylde is the name for the largely flat, rectangular area which lies between the Lune estuary in the North, the Ribble Estuary in the South, the M6 motorway in the East and the seaside towns of Fleetwood, Blackpool and Lytham St Anne’s in the West. Historically, it was called Amounderness and was one of the hundreds (an archaic term for an administrative subdivision of a larger region) of Lancashire.

Kirkham is an ancient town, established on the site of a 1st century Roman cavalry hill fort, and named before 1066, after the church which is said to date from 684AD.  For much of its history Kirkham was a town of some importance, an administrative and ecclesiastical capital of the Amounderness Hundred, and a market town serving a wide and prosperous agricultural hinterland. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it prospered as a centre for the manufacture of flax and rope, with the golden age of sailing ships providing a ready market for such products: it is said that at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, very much a highpoint of British naval power, much of the Royal Navy was powered by sails made in or near Kirkham. When cotton superseded flax, Kirkham’s mills adapted to that trade, but by the 20th century, the town was in long-term decline, and found itself the poor relation to the might of industrial Preston to the East and bright and breezy Blackpool to the West.

It nevertheless retained a level of prosperity through the turbulence of the 20th century, boosted by the nearby defence industry (BAE Systems has a vast military aircraft factory at nearby Warton, on the site of a wartime American Air Force base) and also by the desirability of semi-rural life which has made market towns so popular for lifestyle reasons in the later 20th and early 21st centuries.

Nevertheless by the early 2000s Kirkham was beginning to look and feel down on its luck, its high street shops and businesses unable to compete with the double threat of the online world and the giant retail parks of nearby towns.

When, just before the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2022, small towns across the UK were invited to bid for funds to regenerate their high streets, Kirkham was an ideal candidate, and was awarded significant government funding aimed at enhancing its town centre as a hub for small businesses and niche retail and leisure whilst also developing community spirit, pride and a greater sense of wellbeing among residents.

It is fair to say the programme has not been plain sailing: the double whammy of the Pandemic followed by the inflationary spike sparked by the Ukraine War caused delays and a big hit to the spending power of the original funding, such that the physical regeneration plans had to be significantly scaled back. The redevelopment of the Market Square into a traffic free events space, and the remodelling of the main street into a more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare are both projects which will, I believe, greatly enhance the townscape, but in the short term the road works have proved to be lengthy, disruptive and riddled with unforeseen snags and delays, such that the whole project has been an easy target for those who object to it. The loss of what was perceived as a car park - the Market Square - has provoked anger among those who cannot see the bigger picture of how small town centres must evolve if they are to survive and prosper.

So much for the negatives - how about the positives?

Well, the less tangible, but equally important, strands of the regeneration project have been much more successful, and have very much served their purpose of enhancing pride, community spirit and an awareness of local history and heritage.

Moreover, it has been my good fortune to find myself a key player in these aspects. My accidental involvement in local history has caused me to be a de facto curator of the Town’s Local History and Heritage Collection, the remnants of what was once a town museum. This happened because when the owner of that collection, an eminent local historian, died in 2021, his family asked the Parish Church, through me, if they could house and exhibit it. I offered to oversee this project, and set up a small Local History and Heritage Collection in a redeveloped gallery in the church building.  By so doing, I found myself wrongly cast as a local history expert - I always stress that I am an enthusiast, not an expert. I was nevertheless happy to be drawn into various cultural and heritage projects which were being run in the town, funded by the regeneration monies.

These have been pretty successful, providing activities and camaraderie for local people, uncovering some previously hidden talents, creating lasting heirlooms for the town which I am only too glad to help display and care for in the Church’s community rooms.

A tapestry depicting Kirkham’s industrial heritage, created by one of the craft groups

However, early in these projects, a glaringly obvious thing became apparent: virtually all participants were female. Not at all unusual or unexpected, but in this conservative (small ‘c’) community a pretty extreme case: groups involved in things like exercise, local history, gardening, cooking, arts and crafts and so on all flourished thanks to the expertise of facilitators and yet largely failed to attract any male participants. The women participants all reported that their involvement had improved their sense of belonging, made them new connections and friendships, and had generally improved their mental health and sense of wellbeing. A great outcome, indeed a valid return on the investment of public funds, yet one which was only reaching around 50% of the population.

One day, in late 2022, as virtually the only male with any level of involvement in these wellbeing projects - and that only because of my own perceived expertise as an events organiser - I was discussing this issue with one of the (female) facilitators, in the presence of my son (a science teacher at the local high school) and another male friend. My son mentioned what all teachers know, that virtually all voluntary projects attract more girls than boys, and that such reticence on the part of most men is an engrained and lifelong trait, and a potentially harmful thing. Girls and women readily form close friendship ties which engender self-care and mutual support, whereas men and boys tend to do things like sports and hobbies yet without the self-care.

My son mentioned that he had heard of a movement which orginated in Australia called “Men’s Sheds”, whereby a hub is set up in a shed where men can gather and undertake traditionally “male” activities - DIY, model-making etc. - and in so doing they are gently drawn into sharing their concerns, worries, stories and everything in a way that men generally don’t do. At that point, a visitor from Australia overheard us and chipped in with confirmation that Men’s Sheds were indeed very much a thing in her homeland, regarded as a common and effective tool for improving social cohesion and wellbeing. 

A serendipitous overhearing by a visitor to our town, but things have a habit of turning out well if they are meant to be, and so it has proved with Kirkham’s Men’s Shed: following some rather theoretical chat that we could maybe set up a shed locally, we realised that our church possessed a highly suitable brick built shed, well over a hundred years in age, which was used to house gardening equipment for the churchyard and also as a store for anything that the church didn’t dare throw away.  We started to speculate as to whether we could set up our metaphorical shed in this physical shed. 

The Shed: a familiar feature of the churchyard for decades

Then, another stroke of serendipitous good fortune: the Practice Manager at my GP Practice, who knew that I was involved in various community groups, messaged me to say that she had identified a source of NHS funding for new wellbeing projects and wondered whether I was aware of any deserving projects which might be interested in applying. Literally off the top of my head during a phone chat with her, I mentioned our Men's Shed idea, and she was immediately struck by the plan. In healthcare circles, social prescribing is very much in vogue, and with the well-known reticence of men to ask for help and the consequential high prevalence of mental illness, even suicide, among men of all ages, there is a growing feeling that low-key, low cost solutions based in the community have a role to play in addressing this problem. The Practice Manager urged me to apply for funding and promised her strong support. 

It had started to look like an idea worth pursuing, and without anyone actually ever deciding it or appointing us, two individuals emerged with the time, the enthusiasm and the expertise to make it happen: one was me, the other a longstanding friend and associate of mine, a few years younger than me but in fact an ex-pupil from my first year in teaching. His and my paths had crossed in several areas over the years, notably as fellow churchgoers and as committee members of our school’s alumni association, and he is a freelance management consultant and project manager by profession, so a great fit for getting a project up and running.

So, we applied for funds and were duly awarded the full amount on offer. The shed was in a way ready and waiting, although it required a good de-clutter, and we decided to launch the project without delay. This was in June 2023.

Six months on, its success has been remarkable.

The first stage was easy, almost too easy: a number of individuals came forward who were either members of the church congregation or men already known to the church community. Among these were my son, who is one of the churchwardens and was the instigator of the idea and the Vicar, a new incumbent keen to grow and develop the church’s community outreach work. Another was a community “good egg” who was loosely associated with the church and keen to do his bit for the good of others.

However, the real challenge was to reach out to men in the community who were not connected to the church, and who might be beneficiaries in terms of wellbeing, rather than just men wanting to help run a worthy project. A key challenge was to balance the very real involvement and support of the church - we were, after all, using their shed - without people feeling that this was a church group as such. Men are relatively thin on the ground in most church congregations, and are often indifferent or even hostile to the church either as a place of religious acts of worship or as a doer of good works.

So we made it known through various channels, including local GP practices, the Town Council, the town’s football club’s community foundation and so on, and within a very short time, men emerged - some known to us, many entirely new to us. Among them were an elderly widower who had been coming to the church literally every day since losing his wife some six years previously, and who had hitherto kept himself to himself, lighting a candle and spending time alone with his thoughts then returning to his home in nearby Blackpool; a man whose young adult daughter had died suddenly and unexpectedly; a man who had lost most of his sight and been forced to retire early from a job as a DT teacher; several others who had simply lost the confidence to engage with others in later life; and indeed a prisoner from the nearby Open Prison who had been on work placement at the church and was looking to reintegrate himself into more normal social circles as he neared release at the end of a long sentence. We requested and were granted permission for him to attend the Shed meetings on condition that he was back at the prison by a specified time, under our supervision.

A planning meeting in the shed with advisors from local councils,
NHS and AFC Fylde Football Club

Planting wildflowers, June 2024
Tasks started to come our way: a project to transform parts of the churchyard into a wildflower meadow in areas where ancient graves were no longer actively tended by grieving families; another to build some wooden benches to replace damaged and worn out ones in the churchyard; another to carry out a full assessment of the stability of gravestones, a statutary requirement of all churches; another to paint hi-vis strips on some steps around the churchyard which presented a real trip hazard; then perhaps best of all, we were commissioned by the Town Council to design and build a new stable in which to place the Town’s nativity figures in the town centre’s Christmas display.

This latter project was a joy to watch unfold: one man took the lead, designed something, literally on the back of an envelope, and bought the wood. With a tight deadline, others helped out when possible, under his direction, eventually completing it with minutes to spare until the deadline that we had agreed with the Council. 

A beautiful, traditional Crib scene was duly installed in the town centre gardens, unveiled by the Mayor and blessed by the Vicar at a simple ceremony with children from local primary schools, and subsequently admired and appreciated by all.

"All our own work": Kirkham's brand new Nativity Scene

Blessing the crib, December 2023

But best of all, amongst all this busy-ness, are the times through this bleakest of winters when frankly it has been too cold and too dark to do any work and the men have just sat and chatted, exchanging anecdotes and gems of wisdom, chewing the fat over what’s going on in the town or in the world outside - all over a warming cup of tea. No banter, no laddishness, no dirty jokes, none of that dreadful thing which Donald Trump called “locker room talk” in a pathetic attempt to explain away his loathsome misogyny - just a group of men sitting with an unspoken but very real sense of belonging and of camaraderie. One of the original members, a busy family man with no apparent “need” for such a wellbeing project, put it perfectly when he recently said “This was the thing I didn’t even know I needed in my life”

So yes, it’s great to get things done, and the sense of achievement from a shared task or project is enormous, but above all, as the cliché goes: “it’s good to talk”. And if it takes a shed to make men feel able to talk, so be it. Never did simply sitting down feel more productive.

Men at work

For my blog posts, there is always a song to provide a title, and what better than these words from Sit Down, an anthemic hit by forgotten 90s Madchester band James:

Those who feel the breath of sadness

Sit down next to me

Those who find they're touched by madness

Sit down next to me

Those who find themselves ridiculous

Sit down next to me

After all, over these winter months, all we've done is sit down and chat. 

For anyone reading this who works in healthcare, especially in general practice, I cannot overstate the value of Men’s Sheds based on my thoroughly positive, albeit limited experience. Social prescribing may sound like a passing fad, but from what I’ve seen it really can achieve a great deal of good at very little cost.

Keep taking the tablets? Maybe, but why not just Sit down next to me?


In case this post seems somewhat self-congratulatory in tone, I must acknowledge many individuals and organisations who have helped or supported this project:

My son, Nick Long for making me aware of Men's Sheds; project leader Chris Malings; Sue Flowers and her Phoenix Rising Wellbeing Group; Helen Leece from the Gathering Fields Retreats; Ash Tree House GP Practice; the Vicar and PCC of St Michael's Parish Church Kirkham; Kirkham Town Council; Fylde Borough Council; Lancashire County Council; AFC Fylde Community Foundation; and perhaps above all the men who have attended and participated in our activities.

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