A visit to the men’s group

Traditional spaces where people would get together to meet and chat are dwindling.

Where once the pub would often be that place, many are closing and in the last three months 150 have disappeared in England and Wales.

Barton Hill had several and now has none, and this picture is reflected across other parts of Bristol such as Hartcliffe, Lockleaze, and Knowle West, where few if any still remain.

So, community venues like Wellspring Settlement have never been more important in offering a place where people can gather.

Pubs are of course not for everyone for a multitude of reasons, but having a welcoming, safe and non-judgemental place to hang out is a critical component of any thriving community. A place where people share their worries, talk about their day, and sometimes just have a damn good giggle.

Community centres offer that, but sometimes you need to go even further and create a targeted group, including something for men.

Once such group takes place regularly here at Wellspring Settlement, so we sent journalist Neil Maggs along to have a look to find out more about the men’s group.

Taking place in the main hall at the Settlement Site on Ducie Road, I sneak in the back as a group of diverse men start the session by having a cup of tea, a few biscuits and a chat. It’s loose but very welcoming, and immediately you can tell there is a good atmosphere, that friendships have been formed. Lots of hellos and handshakes. A few people nod at me to say hello.

One is Lionel. A tall fella, with a big and loud laugh. We chat and I ask him about how he found out about the group and got involved. He said: “I have been coming almost two years now. The job centre sent me as I just moved to Bristol, and they suggested I come to Wellspring Settlement and have a look at doing some volunteering. I then stayed volunteering for Fareshare.

“And then I saw there was a men’s group here, so I popped along, and have been coming ever since,” he added.

Every session involves different activities, and today there is a quiz. Lionel continued: “We mainly just have a laugh really. We do games, we do quizzes, we do bingo, we do day trips to museums and even football matches. They put it to us what we would like to do, and we decide amongst ourselves really.”

Andrew, a chirpy and friendly shorter man chipped in and told me: “Yeah, every now again we do a trip, which is good. We went on the SS Great Britain the other week, and it was a good laugh that was. Then we went to the Rovers ground.”

I take my place at a table with a few men already sat around, and when asked what they get from it Andrew, who lives just down the road said: “I love it. It’s a bit of fun. And it’s nice to meet each other and that. It gets me out the house really, and it’s summit to do.”

Pointing at his mate, an older man with grey hair, when I asked who usually wins the quiz, he says, “We do usually, and he’s the brainy one really. He’s pretty good to be fair.”

This is echoed by the man next to him who said, “He wins every week, a fountain of knowledge that bloke. He may not look it, but there’s nothing he don’t know.”

The group’s lead worker is Luis Dias, someone who has been involved with Wellspring Settlement for a long time, starting out as a volunteer 15 or so years ago. With a background working with youth, Luis has been working with adults as part of the Social Prescribing team in recently. It’s clear the men are fond of him, there’s lots of jokes and camaraderie.

Lionel said: “Sean (who wasn’t at the session) and Louis just make it a fun morning really. It’s just a scream, especially when we start the quiz. A great laugh.”

I am fully integrated in the team now, as we embark on the quiz, and after a while it feels like I have been coming every week. The light touch of the group removes the stigma of it being here to help people.

Lionel explained: “At first I did wonder what it would be, sitting around talking about problems and stuff. But it’s not, we get together. And there’s a real wide range of characters here, people from different backgrounds, and everyone is just as accepted as everyone else.”

This was re-iterated by Gary a local resident, who knows some of the regular crew anyway, “I come for a cup of coffee. Just to have a chat to the lads, who I may not see in the week. And if they are here it’s nice to see them and see if they are all ok,” he said.

With the lack of places for men to gather, Gary realises the value of the group and the role it plays. He said: “The only place left around here is Lidl for shopping, if you want a coffee or a beer, you got to get a bus now. Or walk far up top of Church Road.

There is nothing around this area at all now, so this group and things like this are important. Far more than people probably realise,’ he added.

The quiz is clearly a staple of Luis’ repertoire, and he enjoys being the master, asking the questions interspersed with the odd gag or mickey take. The fun continues and it’s all good natured, but this belies a steely-eyed competitiveness too. People want to win this! Men like to compete… and this is offering a space to do that too.

There is more to this group than meets the eye though. In the break I pulled Luis to one side for a quick chat. He told me: “We set this group up about three years ago, towards the end of the Covid lockdown. Mainly because we saw there was a lack of services for men, a lack of activities for them. So we started doing this, and with no money really, and wanted to see how it went.”

There are plenty of activities, but that’s primarily just the hook. He explained: “Each week we do activities yes, sometimes taking people out the area, but we also invite people in to come and talk, like wellbeing professionals or careers advice people to talk with them. We will always offer any additional support if they need it.”

In fact, the group has grown and developed to the point where we’re supporting the guys to run it themselves. Three of the members so far have signed up to bcome volunteer group coordinators to make sure the group runs smoothly, and the tea and coffee keep flowing. There are still lots of visits from other organisations lined up, so they’ll be coming in to run workshops on things like wellbeing, identity and other topics. The guys are finding the talks really useful and are keen that they continue.”

Some people that come to the group do present with issues, and many face practical challenges. Luis continued: “There can be lots of things going on for them. Sometimes this can be to do with mental health, sometimes they are isolated and lonely and feeling a bit needy, but sometimes they just want to talk to you about what’s going in their lives, which could be something practical about housing or jobs that kind of thing.

So yes, it’s about fun, but we also signpost people to services within Wellspring Settlement or other outside organisations that can support them,” he added.

This is re-iterated by Lionel, who tells me he has directly received this type of help. He told me: “I have been using the other services at Wellspring Settlement for advice and support. Particularly with housing, and actually they have just helped me get a flat. Which is great.”

Making people feel comfortable, and what Lionel said about the session not feeling too intense,  seems critical to the group’s success. I ask Luis about this, and whether this is a conscious attempt to foster such an inclusive and easy-going environment. He said: “Yes of course, definitely. We don’t want this to be very formal, it’s informal on purpose. We want this to be a relaxed place where they come and can feel comfortable and safe.

It’s not doing stuff to them, it’s with them. They set up ground rules and they decide what activities we can do.”

Its evident that there are some close friendships here, and the level of the banter is clear. I wondered whether many of these had been formed since the group came together. Luis stated: “Yes, some people now meet up, chat on the phone, catch up for a coffee outside of this group. So, it’s nice to see it doing that, creating friendships, which didn’t happen before.”

He paused, looked up and said something that hit me, “In fact for one or two of them this is the only time they come out, the only time they meet anyone. They’re usually just stuck at home.” This showed the power and impact of the group, and reflected a wider feeling that perhaps many of us got a taste of for the first time during the Covid lockdown. That feeling of social isolation.

As the session wore on, there were some truly fascinating and interesting stories of what drew people here, and I had several conversations with people. Most that revealed tales of challenge and overcoming, or even still experiencing adversity, and how much this group had helped them, most of which will remain private.

But Lionel wanted to share more of his story and was keen talk about the group’s impact and sing it from the roof tops. He said: “The vital essence of this group is the elephant in the room really. Because whatever problems you have, be it housing, finance, mental health, physical wellbeing, if they don’t know how to help they can link you with somebody who does.

And I will be honest with you; there is not a single person I don’t trust in that room, you can talk to them all. And I have been so supported here, and by Wellspring Settlement in general. And all this while we are having giggle. There’s no animosity, there is no hierarchy, and I just love coming here,” he added.

Turning around, Lionel then loudly laughed, and shouted across the room to Luis: ‘Now that will be a fiver you owe me Luis!” Everyone laughed.

Everything then came to an end, and needless to say, my team didn’t win the quiz. Whilst I was a little bit annoyed, it didn’t really matter. I enjoyed it so much that I left with a feeling that I would love to come back, which I didn’t necessarily expect when I arrived.

The group will be closed to new members for a short time as it changes to become led by the members. Keep an eye on the website and our social media for information on when it’s opened up again, or just pop in and ask at reception!