“If you sit twelve men in a circle and ask them to chat about their problems, the first six will disappear, the four after them will hide in the corners and the remaining two are just too slow to get to the corners!” jokes Allan Clarke from the Lion’s Den in Keighley “However, if you put a broken lawnmower in the middle of them and ask them if they could help fix it, within an hour they’ll know all about each other.”
Allan Clarke speaks fondly about how his passion for woodworking comes from time spent with his dad as he made toys at home from random bits of wood. It’s a hobby that he’s carried through his whole life and has recently led to an opportunity in life that has brought tremendous satisfaction and fulfilment.
Allan is one of four founding members of an award winning ‘Men’s Shed’ based in the grounds of Cliffe Castle in Keighley. It’s an initiative designed to tackle health and wellbeing amongst individuals by drawing them together around activities. The Men’s Shed movement began in Australia during the late 80s, when a Yorkshire man decided to do something about the heartbreaking suicide rate amongst men. The movement has since gone international and there are now 800 sheds in the UK.
The concept is simple: it’s a space where men gather together around common interests such as woodworking, gardening and model railways and more; in the midst of this environment people naturally begin sharing life with each other.
“A lot of the time you don’t think you’ve got mental health issues, you just feel a bit down, but when you examine what’s going on in your life you realise that maybe it’s a bit more than that” Alan says. “By getting out and doing something physical, it takes your mind off it for a start, then meeting other people you realise that you’re maybe not as bad off as you thought, and other people have had similar issues.”
Men’s mental health has definitely had more airtime over the last few years and in the UK alone the stats shockingly report that every two hours a man will take his own life. “It’s inherent in men that we lock things away, we don’t share or open up,” Allan explains, “We feel that we’re macho, that we can manage – so we bottle things up and become introverted and isolate ourselves.” This is one of the reasons why a lot of mental health issues with men fly under the radar.
Like most people, Allan has had to face his own challenges in life. Six years ago he was diagnosed with Osteoarthritis, which has impacted his joints and consequently his woodworking. Currently he’s in the middle of a really challenging situation at home with his wife’s health. So he understands how circumstances in life can begin to erode wellbeing.
The Lion’s Den was birthed after Andy Ryland from Community First Yorkshire came across Allan’s community woodworking classes and introduced him to the Shed concept. This led to a meeting with the Parks Manager at Cliffe Castle, Dan Palmer. Dan saw the vision immediately and was able to offer two massive greenhouses and a stone workshop as a home for the Shed. Three months later the Shed was launched on 19th September 2019. “We couldn’t have got where we have without like-minded individuals at the council – the help and support from the public health team has been wonderful” says Allan.
Allan’s been blessed with a wealth of experience through his career – from being in the RAF, a Project Engineer and Manager for Magnet, a college lecturer and finally an activities coordinator for care homes. Talking about what motivates him in this new voluntary role, he says “Now I’m retired, all I want to do is pass my knowledge on – I want to give something back. Passing on skills and teaching people is where I get a buzz, but the teaching really is just a peripheral to the core of tackling mental health and wellbeing.”
Allan knows the issues they’re addressing aren’t just exclusive to men, so he and his team decided to open up the shed to women too, and before lockdown hit they were running all kinds of activities: woodworking, gardening, singing lessons, laughter hours, Koi carp breeding, model making, model railways, sewing, with around 25 percent of members being female. There is a difference he’s observed though “Women open up face to face, whereas men open up shoulder to shoulder as they work alongside each other.”
The Shed has been a huge success and grew to 40 members within the first six months. Some were referred through social prescribers like charities and GPs, others found out about it through word of mouth. Its members are as diverse as their life experiences – architects, teachers, musicians, business owners, award winning magicians and renowned Koi carp breeders.
Allan shares how some individuals were suicidal after losing life partners or living with debilitating illnesses – many felt isolated and cut off from society, lacking purpose in life. It’s clear that he’s immediately seen the benefit of the Shed to its members and tells wonderful stories of how lives have been improved and deep friendships have formed. He doesn’t want to take credit for anything and says that it’s a team effort, speaking instead about how the success relies on every member of the community.
As you learn about the Shed and its activities, you also find out that it’s incredibly community focused, working alongside charities, care homes, churches and youth groups. There seems to be a culture of working for the benefit of all. Old tools from house clearances are nurtured back to life and sent off to much needed communities through ‘Tools for Africa’, or packaged into ‘reminiscence boxes’ for the men in local care homes. It’s this community spirit that has earned Allan and the Lion’s Den a well-respected reputation in the local area.
Allan’s now become the North of England Ambassador for the UK Men’s Sheds Association, and he’s already involved in setting up another Shed in Keighley along with identifying other opportunities across Bradford. Reminiscing about his experience over the last 18 months, Allan says “What I’m doing now is really up there in terms of life fulfilment and purpose. Seeing individuals become more responsive, sociable and less stressed. Life is about fun and enjoyment and without that, you might as well give up.”
Allan finishes by saying “There are way more people suffering with mental health than I thought, it’s more common than I’d like to admit and there’s going to be a big need for facilities like this when we come out of this pandemic.”
In retirement, Allan has found a cause through the Lion’s Den that uses all his life-experience, skills, passion and character which ticks all the boxes of fulfilment in life. As humans we’re designed for community, it’s how we realise that we’re not alone, and standing shoulder to shoulder we share the highs and lows of life and find purpose, belonging and friendships.