The Proper Blokes Club is countering “man up” culture with “walk and talk” sessions in Greenwich, Woolwich and Southwark. NIKKI SPENCER joined the blokes for an evening stroll along the Thames.
On a beautiful autumn evening it’s easy to understand why Scott Johnson has chosen Cutty Sark Gardens as the starting point for The Proper Blokes Club’s Greenwich walks.
“I try to keep all the walks scenic, and just look at it.” he says as the setting sun shimmers on the water.
“I have always lived near the river, but I didn’t take advantage of it until lockdown when it was my saviour,” adds the 34-year-old community sports coach.
“Walking is great for mental health as it releases endorphins that make you feel good about yourself,” he says. “Also, it’s free and gets you out in the fresh air”.
Scott and about 20 others are taking a five-mile walk along the Thames Path to North Greenwich and back. We all leave together, but within a few minutes everyone starts to space out and break into smaller groups to chat.
“Men are generally not great at talking about how they feel so this just makes it so much easier,” says Scott.
Anyone is welcome to join them. “You just need a pair of trainers,” he says. “One guy did it in flipflops once. He didn’t do that again!”
Scott, who lives in Bermondsey, started The Proper Blokes Club in September 2020 after he realised how much walking helped his own mental health during the lockdown.
He shared some videos on Facebook of him walking around his favourite spots in southeast London, talking about his struggles with stress and anxiety. He urged other men to join him, saying “don’t suffer in silence, lads”.
He posted on a local Facebook page that he would be meeting at HMS Belfast one evening to walk along the river if anyone wanted to come too.
“One guy came and joined me, and the second week three people turned up and it has just grown from there,” he says.
“We now have over 100 lads walking every week with our four groups which is amazing. It shows what a need there is for this.”
“Normally I’d be nervous about doing something like that, but I went down and Scott and I got on like a house on fire,” says Jack, who was the first person to join him that night.
“We might have seen each other in the street but if it wasn’t for The Proper Blokes Club we would not have met, and it’s the same for nearly everyone here. We are all ages and backgrounds and have different jobs, but it doesn’t matter what you do or what you are earning.”
Jack is self-employed and was feeling anxious and isolated after work dried up during the pandemic.
“You tend to define yourself by your work and being part of this group has really helped”, he says.
“It’s just men walking together and that feels comfortable. It’s not intimidating, you don’t have to be good at anything, you don’t have to prepare anything, you don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to, you can just listen.
“You might think it could be embarrassing to lumber someone else with your problems, but we all do it for each other.”
Deano, from Plumstead, joined a couple of months ago and has been coming every week.
“Someone from work showed me a photo of the group on Twitter,” he says. “It really suits me. It’s up to you – you can have a nice walk and talk about normal stuff like going to the cinema or whatever you want. Even if you don’t feel like talking you get to see the river and I always feel better at the end of it.”
Jamie was the second person to respond to Scott’s Facebook post and he’s been a passionate advocate of The Proper Blokes Club ever since, helping Scott to plan the routes. He often brings his father-in-law, who is in his seventies.
“It’s such a good support network. I am bipolar and have had 10 years of therapy so it’s not new to me to talk about my mental health, but for many people it could be the first time they have said ‘you know what, things aren’t right’, It is amazing to see how it helps.”
When the UK went back into lockdown not long after The Proper Blokes Club started, they organised one-to-one walks.
“When I am bored, I struggle so being able to do that last winter really helped massively.” adds Jamie.
Another regular is Dean who says he actually hates walking but “comes for the chat”. He says people think it will be “all doom and gloom but it’s not like that at all”.
He runs his own business and lockdown took its toll. “I started waking up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, and I didn’t talk to anyone about it. One night it got so bad I took myself off to A&E as I thought I was having a heart attack.”
He says the walks have been a huge help, along with the WhatsApp groups set up for each area.
As well as social media and posters in GPs’ surgeries and community noticeboards, the Proper Blokes Club has caught the attention of a few celebrities.
“Rob Beckett, the comedian, has retweeted us, and also John Cleese, and we have had people join us because of this. Rob Beckett also mentioned us on his podcast, which was great,” says Scott.
As well as meeting up once a week in Greenwich, Woolwich, Southwark and Wallington, Scott also organises longer walks outside London.
The first was a sponsored walk which raised £800 to pay a designer to create the club’s website, while subsequent Mental Health Adventures, as they call them, which have taken them everywhere from Bognor to Bristol.
Scott, who rarely walked anywhere before walkdown, says he now regularly clocks up 17 miles a day. “When I was a kid my mum walked really quickly, and I always lagged behind, so I’m making up for it now!” he jokes.
He now plans to set up a community interest company and expand to all London boroughs by 2025, before taking the idea further afield.
“We get lots of messages from all over the country asking if we have walks in their areas so there is clearly a demand.”
The walks have also led Scott in a new direction. Last month he started a counselling course at Lewisham College.
“Doing this has changed my whole outlook. I always tend to start things and don’t finish them so for me this is big, and I’m very proud of The Proper Blokes Club.”
The Proper Blokes Club meets on Mondays at Cutty Sark Gardens and on Wednesdays at Woolwich Arsenal Pier – both at 7pm. It also meets on Thursdays (6pm) and Sundays (6.30pm) at HMS Belfast in Southwark. More info at theproperblokesclub.co.uk.
NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.
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