The Somerdale Men’s Shed

Penny Shrubb, Aquaterra Operations Director

Published in JHH14.3 – Men’s Health

Having worked in the leisure industry for more than 25 years I have seen various approaches to encourage people to become more active to improve their general health and wellbeing. Yet in the UK, two-thirds of our population still remain inactive. It has been my personal mission throughout my career to focus on the inactive and those who are more vulnerable in the community, looking at the correlation between social interaction and health and wellbeing. Building someone’s confidence and getting them involved in regular activities that may not fit the mainstream ideal is far more rewarding than getting people to join a class or gym.

The first step to getting anywhere is deciding you are not willing to stay where you are. Click To Tweet Introduction

Finding the right balance between physical activity and social interaction outside of mainstream norms is often difficult. However, a current project I have initiated that blends these two requirements perfectly is the Somerdale Men’s Shed programme. Health and wellbeing is not simply about how fit we feel. It is also about our state of mind and the things that make us feel positive about life. Connecting with other people and finding something that makes us feel needed and useful creates that positivity. It is that element of the human condition that drives me and it is why I felt that a men’s shed, with its ability to be a place of leisure that provides practical pastimes within a social atmosphere, was an ideal vehicle to address the issues of inactivity and social isolation.

The word ‘shed’ conjures up pictures of a ramshackle, dilapidated outbuilding used to dump stuff that might be useful one day. But a shed can also be an organised place of calm, an escape from the hurly burly of the week, a place to potter and reflect. And to some degree that is exactly what the men’s shed provides – ‘… a larger version of the typical man’s shed in the garden – a place where he feels at home and pursues practical interests with a high degree of autonomy’. This is how a men’s shed is described by the UK Men’s Sheds Association (UK MSA). Their description continues:

A men’s shed offers this to a group of such men where members share the tools and resources they need to work on projects of their own choosing at their own pace and in a safe, friendly and inclusive venue. They are places of skill-sharing and informal learning, of individual pursuits and community projects, of purpose, achievement and social interaction. A place of leisure where men come together to work.

The men’s shed idea started in Australia in the 1990s. It seems to have taken off particularly after the publication in 2015 of The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men, by Professor Barry Golding of the Federation University of Australia. This book became the definitive account of men’s sheds in Australia. He described the movement as ‘being like the tributaries of a river that rose in different places but came together to create a powerful river of consider[1]able force’. The men’s shed movement has now spread to the USA, Canada and the UK. At the time of writing, there are 432 men’s sheds registered with the UK Men’s Sheds Association and a further 118 known to be in development. These have an estimated membership of over 10,000 men.

Developing the Somerdale Men’s Shed

Our men’s shed at Somerdale in Keynsham, near Bristol, is ‘in development’. The website of the UK Men’s Sheds Association has a wealth of information, including how to start a men’s shed. As the website says: ‘Men’s sheds are currently opening at a rate of 1 to 2 a week. This fact reassures us all that there will be guys in your community who will want to join a shed…’ They identify finding and affording premises as the most common obstacles. We are lucky at Somerdale because we have an available building, which also happens to have an interesting history. Somerdale is the site of the old Cadbury’s (previously Fry’s) chocolate factory built in the early 1930s and famously closed in 2011 amidst national uproar. Later the factory was bought by St Monica Trust for conversion to accommodation for older people, together with various social and business facilities (including a GP surgery). The social and sports facilities are in keeping with the Quaker ethic of the Fry and Cadbury families. The old Fry Club sports pavilion has been replaced by the new Somerdale Pavilion with a range of leisure facilities (operated by Aquaterra, a registered health and wellbeing charity). This leaves the nearby disused changing rooms (housed in a large shed) crying out for a new purpose. So what better purpose than to give some of the local men (and perhaps women) a new purpose?

We see the creation of our Somerdale shed as an extension of our ‘Step Out Move On’ project, a non[1]medical referral option for social and physical activities to improve the health and wellbeing of people who are isolated, vulnerable in some other way, or perhaps with long-term conditions.

When something happens to us, we have three choices in life. We can either let it define us, let it destroy us or we can let it strengthen us. At the Somerdale Pavilion we want to help people to ‘step out and move on’. We can’t guarantee it will get easier but we will help make people stronger. Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. The first step to getting anywhere is deciding you are not willing to stay where you are.

The Scottish Men’s Shed Association reports that ‘most men, when stuck at home for any length of time, whether due to accident, illness, retirement or redundancy, become less and less inclined to go out of the house and take part in leisure activities. As a result they start to eat less healthily and subsequently their health suffers. Depression is another problem. Due to the lack of interaction with work colleagues, friends and even their neighbours, they become more withdrawn, so they end up at the local surgery where the inevitable tablets are dispensed and so they start the downward spiral’.

We speak to so many men visiting the Somerdale Pavilion who have no meaningful purpose in life, and no enjoyment in mainstream exercise, yet they can all tell us a story about what they have made over the years. So we are now supporting a group of local men to create something that will become more than a useful social facility for males.

The project aims to increase social interaction and participation in community life, getting men involved in their community, involved in something they can see as productive and worthwhile. We know that lack of purpose is an important contributor to poor health, particularly in men and in older people.

Data presented by the Men’s Health Forum shows that 73% of adults who ‘go missing’ and 87% of rough sleepers are men. Men are three times as likely to report frequent drug use than women and three times more likely to be alcohol dependent. Men have measurably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community; finally, more than three-quarters of people who kill themselves are men.

Many (but not all) users of men’s sheds across the country are older people. So a hard-hitting report published in 2006 by Age Concern (now Age UK) and the Mental Health Foundation, Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing in Later Life, is relevant to men’s sheds. It identifies five main areas that influence mental health and wellbeing in later life:

  • Discrimination against older people is widespread in our society. Those who also experience mental health problems are doubly disadvantaged. Many aspects of growing older predispose to being discriminated against.
  • Participation in meaningful activity – the lack of this is a pervasive problem in our society, particularly affecting older men. Only half of all retired people say they wanted to stop working and over a third say they felt forced to stop.
  • Relationships are fundamental to health at all ages. Through dispersal of families, the death of friends and siblings, the loss of regular employment and the difficulties in making new friends, older people are particularly vulnerable to the loss of relationships that nurture.
  • Physical health and mental health are closely related. Physical ill-health and disability are the most consistent factors relating to depression in later life. Poor mobility clearly aggravates loneliness and low self-esteem and vice versa.
  • Poverty and poor mental health are also closely related: each aggravates the other. Both make social exclusion more likely, but meeting socially and having a network of friends makes it easier to escape from poverty.

This all links with the now familiar Five Ways to Wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation:

  • connect – with others
  • be active – making use of what Somerdale Pavilion has to offer
  • take notice – be aware of what there is out there
  • keep learning – learn new things, set yourself a challenge
  • give – volunteer, join a community group.

Men’s sheds generally can and do provide support in all of these areas.

For the last 200 years or so, women have been primarily identified as ‘homemakers’, even when they have been engaged in paid work outside the home. Women have snatched moments and places to unleash their own creativity, while dealing with the demands of everyday domestic and working lives. Nevertheless, in this context, the shed has been a sanctuary for men to ‘retreat’ to or for women to be ‘banned’ from. Thus the shed has never been known as a space for women. It has been seen as a non-domestic male space for male activities– absolute privacy away from the female domain!

However, a survey undertaken by the UK MSA in June 2015 showed that ‘a third of sheds now involve women. But there is still much debate about the wisdom of this. Clare Colley, from the Canberra Times 2016, reported the prospect of allowing women to join one of Canberra’s largest men’s sheds divided the group as it was felt that being in a male-only environment, where it’s just men, makes it easier for some guys to talk about some of the issues that may be affecting them.

However there are a growing number of women who use sheds for a variety of purposes. It has always been Aquaterra’s aim to support men and women’s health and wellbeing, so the vision of the Somerdale Shed is one of inclusivity. Yet to ensure we break down as many barriers as we can we recognise that a varied programme of male only, women only, and mixed sessions may be needed. We also hoped that there will be inter-generational sessions where local schools, scouts and guides, grandchildren and relatives will be invited along in a bid to break down barriers and build meaning[1]ful community relationships between the young and older residents within the community.

The Somerdale Shed building is currently in the process of being renovated by a committed and passionate team of ‘shedders’ who have been recruited from the community through local media and word of mouth. With support from Aquaterra through the start-up process, the recruitment and the application for grant funding for the refurbishment, they have been given the autonomy to create a flexible space that can be used for a wide variety of projects. The shedders meet regularly to discuss the key milestones of the refurbishment and how they want it to operate, look and feel. Their vision is to restore the external façade, in keeping with its original design, rewire electrics, restore water supplies, knock down partition walls to create a flexible workshop, a clean room for photography and crafts, storage areas and a small kitchenette. As the project progresses the shedders would like to develop the outside areas to create planting beds and grow-your-own produce.

The aim of the Somerdale shed is to be self-sustainable once the refurbishment has been completed. A nominal fee will be required per session to cover utilities, refreshments and use of resources. We hope that crafts will be made, furniture recycled and items repaired on site and sold, with all profits being ploughed back into the project. Local companies and educational establishments have already been in contact requesting help to build flower boxes and a children’s play area. This all helps to build stronger links with the local community.

The Somerdale shed project will provide a physical building where its members can decide on the type of practical things they would like to work on. Experience from elsewhere suggests that men’s sheds will attract people who have skills in many different areas – carpentry, electrics, gardening, soldering, general repairs, mechanics – often rekindling skills that may have been dormant for many years. However, there are no specific requirements. Individuals make their own contribution, whether that’s a particular skill or simply conversation, tea and coffee-making or providing entertainment. One Somerdale shed member, 86 years old, simply entertains the others with his magic and jokes. The overall aim is not so much the output of making and mending, but rather to promote wellbeing and to engender a sense of fun and belonging.