THERE is a mystery afoot. Nobody can find Brian. Eventually, someone casts some light on the issue: he is in his car outside, but has gone unnoticed because he was reclining — having 40 winks before meeting up with fellow members of Heatons’ Men in Sheds.
It is a Bank Holiday, but, for the men gathering in the church hall of St Paul’s, Heaton Moor, near Stockport, Greater Manchester, it is just a normal Monday. As it turns out, 76-year-old Brian is not feeling all that well. The response to him is touching: his pals are looking out for him, making sure that he is OK and is going to get home safely.
It sums up the ethos of the afternoon that I spent with the men who make up the group. There are jokes flying at 100 miles per hour, and wry comments are never far from the conversation. But, underneath it all, there are real bonds of care, even love, between these men.
“We’re all getting on a bit,” Terry Hewitt, aged 66, the group’s secretary, says. “But we don’t say, ‘Are you socially isolated?’”
THE Men in Sheds movement, however, has been gathering pace and prominence for just that reason. It is becoming more and more popular as part of the answer to what has been called the “epidemic” of loneliness across the UK.
There are many places near by that I could have chosen to find men on a Monday afternoon; betting shops, which have proliferated across the country, can be full at all hours of the day. Walk into any branch of the pub chain Wetherspoons, and you are likely to find men nursing a pint, even while breakfast is still being served. Libraries, parks, and other public spaces are all occupied by men. But, in many cases, the men are solitary: they may be sharing the space with others, but they are rarely connecting with them, save, perhaps, for an encounter with the person selling them their drink.
MEN IN SHEDS, HEATONMen in Sheds, Heaton, at Heaton Chapel railway station
Into this void has come the movement Men in Sheds. Founded in Australia, it was boosted in this country by the charity Age UK, which supported it initially nationally, and still has local groups running sheds.
Anthony Williams (known as Will within the group), the chairman of the group and one of its younger members at 48, says that their branch came about when the council, the diocese, and a doctors’ surgery put their heads together.
“The Bishop of Manchester is pushing it, and the council got a meeting together at the doctors’,” he tells me. “They gave us a worker for a few hours a week to help us get set up.”
The initiative chimed in well with the move towards social prescribing: the idea that GPs and other health practitioners cannot provide medical solutions to many of their patients’ problems, but can, instead, point them towards community activities that can tackle isolation, loneliness, and even, as a result, some mental-health problems. “We’ve had references from family, social workers; and one or two doctors have recommended,” Mr Williams reports.
Because of the project’s rapid success, an umbrella organisation was founded in 2013 and now the UK Men in Sheds Association says that there are more than 400 sheds operating across the country — and up to 100 more are in the planning stages. As core institutions in communities around the country, it is not a surprise to learn that churches are involved.
TODAY, we are sitting in the church hall of St Paul’s, in a pleasant part of suburbia where south Manchester blends into more leafy Cheshire. It is commuting distance from Manchester city centre, but, as in communities up and down the country, loneliness and isolation can be significant challenges for both men and women. Men, especially, seem to need encouragement to talk. The Men in Sheds project offers them the perfect opportunity to do just that, while doing something practical with their hands, making the conversation less awkward.
“We have got some members who don’t see very many people from one week to the next,” Mr Williams says. “In retirement, you have more time on your hands than you’ve had before.”
Graham, who is 67 and a retired software consultant, says that stopping work can be a barrier for many men: “When you’ve worked all your life and you get to 65, retirement, and you sit at home watching Loose Women, and you go: ‘I need to do something.’ It then helps the community, you meet other guys; you need male interaction, and it does help.”
The theory is that men are more likely to open up about what is happening in their lives if they are doing something with their hands: having a task to concentrate on allows the conversation to flow without being awkward. It is more than just the distraction provided by handiwork, though. The sense of being part of a bigger whole seems to allow men to come out of their shells. Working on larger projects injects a sense of purpose into men’s lives when many struggle, after retirement especially, to find focus.
MEN IN SHEDS, HEATONAnthony Williams works on the sign for Heaton Chapel railway station
Mr Williams, a co-founder, says that it is important to recognise the context in which men will open up and talk: “The tagline for Australian Men in Sheds is ‘shoulder to shoulder’, because men won’t talk face to face. . . All the women I know will ring each other up and say, ‘Can we go for a coffee?’ You don’t get that with blokes. At best, they’ll say: ‘Do you fancy a few pints?’ But if that turns out to be a few pints every afternoon, it’s not the best thing.”
Funded by some grants from national and local businesses and organisations, the group meets twice a week in the church crypt. A workshop has been created, as well as storage space for tools and materials. Since they started, they have been active on social media and find requests for work from other community projects flooding in. They have made or repaired bird boxes, benches, noticeboards, planters, and much more besides. One of their proudest achievements is a large and beautiful sign, made on request from the friends of Heaton Chapel railway station. A weekly subscription of £2 keeps the biscuit tin topped up, and they average about 12 members per week.
Although a couple of the men attend the church, there is no requirement to do so, and, although the links are warm and friendly, the project is not evangelistic.
IN SOME places, there is a more explicit vision to use Men in Sheds to evangelise. St Wilfrid’s, the parish church on the Mereside estate, in Blackpool, closed a few years ago. Since then, a fresh expression has been active on the estate, led by the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Linda Tomkinson.
Her husband, Pete Tomkinson, the church’s community evangelist, says that there are signs of life and growth in the congregation, but also an imbalance: “I noticed that there are very few men in church compared with women. On an estate like this . . . we have a very small minority of men in the church.
“The idea was that this is an opportunity to reach out further into the estate and connect with men, build relationships, and share the gospel message with them. It is gospel-focused. We’re hoping people will come to faith through this project.”
Also affiliated to the national movement, Mr Tomkinson says that he is very aware of social isolation, and sees the shed as a place where that can be tackled. Yet, he is also seeking to talk about Jesus, when the chance arises. “I am an evangelist: my goal in life is to share the hope of salvation in Jesus. We’re trying to build a Christian community. There’s a fine line between offering a service and building a Christian community. This is a way of serving the community, but it has to have a gospel focus. It’s important to have those conversations.”
MEN IN SHEDS, HEATONOne of the creations at Men in Sheds, Heaton
He is keen to point out, though, that the door is always open to any men from the area. “There’s no obligation that you have to abide by our faith or anything like that. It’s about building relationships: we let God do the work. We make no bones that it is a church project, a faith-based project — our logo has a cross — otherwise we become just another community club.”
The Mereside estate faces the same lack of engagement from men in community activities as elsewhere. “We have coffee mornings, activities through the week, and men don’t tend to attend,” Mr Tomkinson says. “I did a bit of research, and the psychology behind it all is that men tend to communicate when they’re doing an activity: you can have a conversation with a guy while he has a saw or a hammer in his hand.” After that conversation has begun, there is then a simple question, followed by an offer: “How are you doing? How’s your week been? How can we pray for you?”
He is training to be a Church Army evangelist, and runs the group from his garage. Although the movement is called Men in Sheds, the projects come in all shapes and sizes. At Mereside, up to six men come together weekly, and it has been running for six months. Some Age UK-supported sheds are open every day, but those obviously require professional staff and funding.
“Pastorally, it’s been brilliant,” he says. “We’ve been able to share stories of struggles in life — not only around faith, but also relationships, mental health, low mood; these conversations have been had, and support offered from each other. It is lifting spirits. One of our members is moving away, and he’s gutted, because Shed Men has been so important in helping him with stuff that’s going on in his life.”
IN 2018, following on from work done by Jo Cox, the Yorkshire MP who was murdered in 2016, the Government appointed its first ever Minister for Loneliness. Making headlines around the world, commentators seemed split over whether it was a positive move or just a terrible indictment of where British society had got to that such a post was considered necessary.
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has already recognised the contribution that Heatons’ Men in Sheds is making to the common good in his diocese: he gave them an outreach award described as “a celebration of the inspirational and innovative work that our churches are doing”.
Spending time with the men there, I learnt that they were not in it for awards. In fact, the abstract idea of “tackling social isolation” is quite far from their agenda. Instead, they are seeking to get out of the house, do something constructive, have a good time with their friends, and do good work that can be appreciated by their community. Mr Hewitt is clear about his motivation: “To learn new skills. I’m not very good at woodwork, so I’m learning. . . I’m doing something for myself, and the side effect is the community benefits.”
MEN IN SHEDS, HEATONGraham Thompson at work
After the success of the woodwork, the group has already begun offering computer classes, which a couple of women have attended (women are not excluded from any of their activities in its constitution). The most recent innovation is Music in Sheds, which takes place in the vestry of St Paul’s while the Wednesday-evening workshop is happening downstairs. It is a very Mancunian spin on the sheds project: the city of the Hollies, the Stone Roses, and Oasis giving men a chance to come and jam along to old blues and rock classics as a way of beating loneliness.
The unifying factor in all their work, Mr Hewitt says, is that it brings different people together with a common purpose. “Our backgrounds are very diverse,” he says. An honorary professor at Bangor University, having spent decades in the School of Computer Science at Manchester University, he describes how “Some of us have — let’s call it ‘expertise’ — in woodworking; Brian was an electrician; . . . Alan worked for BT; Tim has an IT background.”
At this point, Tim Anderson, 66, the group’s treasurer, who was a mechanic who lost a finger to an Escort gearbox during his working life, joins in. He had been mostly quiet during our chat, but talk of our various backgrounds prompts a moment of introspection. “My dad was at Bletchley Park during the war. Unfortunately, he died when I was four. He never told my mother what he did. He was born in Switzerland and spoke German. . . It’s a real shame he didn’t live.”
This moment of honesty and vulnerability prompts a whole new conversational path about the genius of the Bletchley code-breakers, who were themselves a group of people from diverse backgrounds who were thrown together with a common goal.
And, while they might not be cracking the “Enigma” code and beating the Nazis here in this corner of the north-west of England, they have got a good thing going on. “It’s cheaper to give us £1000 than it is to pay the social-care costs of us stuck at home,” Mr Hewitt says of the local council.
But there is more to it than that. In a society in which intermediary institutions such as unions, churches, and sports clubs are in retreat, the fightback has to come from church halls such as this one. It is not a project where a paid employee does nice things for others, but a group of friends doing things with each other.