The Eltham-based Men In Sheds scheme has been a lifeline for older men – but its activities were brought to a halt by the pandemic. NIKKI SPENCER finds out more about its reopening, and how women are joining in too.
It’s a hive of activity on a Wednesday morning in the large, well-equipped workshop in the basement at Bromley and Greenwich Age UK in Eltham, and Bob, 68, is putting the finishing touches to a wooden bird feeder, while others are busy hammering, drilling, sanding and varnishing.
“When I lost my partner, I ended up just vegetating in front of the telly, so coming here has been a godsend,” says Bob, who joined Men in Sheds two and half years ago.
He used to work at Harvey’s metal fabrication factory in Charlton, and then at a nearby plastics factory, before taking early retirement due to ill-health.
“I’ve always worked with my hands and now I am constantly coming up with ideas for things I can make. I even keep a pen and paper by my bed if I think of something in the night.”
Men in Sheds originated in Australia in 1998 as a way to address isolation among older men and promote health and wellbeing. It quickly spread to the UK, where local Age UK charities have helped set up more than 80 of the 100 “sheds” around the country.
“Shedders”, as they are known, can work on their own projects or create things that are then sold to raise money to help keep the schemes going.
Since Bromley and Greenwich Age UK’s Men in Sheds started 10 years ago, teams have also worked together to make everything from wooden bridges, park benches and bespoke signage for local community spaces to a chicken shed for a local primary school.
“We all get stuck in and do what we can,” says Bob. “It’s great that you get people from all walks of life. There’s John the chef, John the mechanic – there are lots of Johns! – and architects, and all sorts of different people.”
“I’m actually one of the youngest here. There’s one guy who comes here regularly who’s 92,” he adds.
Eltham’s Men in Sheds had to close its doors in March due to Covid-19, but has recently re-opened, with social distancing, booking in advance rather than dropping in, and new health and safety measures in place. Bob is clearly very happy to be back.
“I was going mad! Sitting around at home all day was killing me and I was so bored. I’d put on half a stone in weight as I just wasn’t moving about so much.”
It’s not just men who can become Shedders. Two years ago the team started Women in Shed in Woolwich. Now women can join mixed or women-only sessions.
Sue, 60, an ex-design and technology teacher was one of the first to sign up. “There’s a lot of job satisfaction in making things, but the social side is a big part of it too,” she says.
“A lot of the ladies meet up outside too and during lockdown we all kept in touch and supported each other.”
Steve Paxman, who previously taught design and technology at Greenwich Community College, has been Men in Sheds co-ordinator for seven years. He says it is an absolute lifeline.
“A lot of older people feel adrift after they’ve been widowed or retired. They miss the companionship and camaraderie of work, and they’re sitting at home feeling useless.
“A few of them have said they don’t think they’d be alive now if it wasn’t for Men in Sheds. It makes them feel useful and is great reason to leave the house. It’s also a good way to make friends and help and support each other.”
The ‘sheds’ have limited budgets and Steve says they always welcome financial donations as well as donations of materials.
“We are always after good quality timber, and also if people want anything made, such as planters for their garden, they should get in touch.”
Bromley and Greenwich Age UK currently hosts Men in Sheds in Eltham and Penge and it hopes to re-open in Woolwich soon. There is also a similar project in Erith.
“All through lockdown I was getting messages saying ‘when can we come back?’ and everyone is delighted to be here again,” says Steve.
“We open the doors at 9.30am but they are all on the doorstep at nine and often get here before I do.”
For more information about Men in Sheds, visit Bromley and Greenwich Age UK. To find others, visit the UK Men’s Sheds Association.
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.
NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.
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