Suffolk initiatives helping to combat loneliness and isolation for county folk
PUBLISHED: 13:33 05 November 2019 | UPDATED: 13:33 05 November 2019
New to the area, working alone, bereaved or suddenly on their own . . . Suffolk has ways of easing people’s isolation | Words: Richard Ginger
For all its unspoilt natural beauty and timeless market towns and villages, Suffolk, like the rest of the country, is not immune to the forces that are changing and reshaping the way we live.
Witness, for example, the seismic shift taking place in our high streets, or the almost daily stories of another village pub closing its doors.
Then there's the breakneck speed at which technology is ushering in new ways of living, working and socialising. No wonder, then, that countless official reports capture snapshots of communal landscapes that are growing increasingly fragmented and isolated.
Fortunately, the county has numerous organisations and individuals who are determined to swim against the tide by nurturing and supporting our innate need for human contact.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good old cuppa and convivial chinwag play a large part in their endeavours.
Jelly, Old Jet, Rendlesham
A communal way of working that began in New York, fostered by a mutual love of jellybeans, has now crossed over The Atlantic to the slightly eerie environment of a former United States Air Force airbase.
On the first Wednesday of every month, a convoy of cars winds its way past the brutalist concrete bunkers and aircraft hangars that once housed American servicemen and women during The Cold War. The drivers make their way towards The Old Jet Arts Centre where, clutching laptops and notebooks, they gather inside for a day of work at 'Jelly'.
Organiser of the event is arts professional Hassina Khan, who explains. "Jelly was started in New York by some freelance tech consultants who decided they would meet once a month in each other's houses and work together. They called it Jelly because they were eating jelly beans at the time."
At the heart of Jelly, which is now a global phenomenon, is a simple aim, to give freelancers and home workers the opportunity to escape the confines of their normal working space and work in a relaxed, social environment with others.
The co-working event at the Old Jet Arts Centre on Bentwaters Park in Rendlesham started around four years ago when Hassina approached the centre's owner, Jesse Quin, to see what he thought of the idea. "I met him on a Tuesday and by Thursday it was on the Old Jet website."
Today, upwards of 10 people regularly come along to set up in one of the centre's office spaces to work, chat and drink coffee (the kettle's always on). "It's a working day, but you can choose to come for an hour or all day. Everyone has to book, but only so I know how much milk to buy. There's lots of conversation over lunch as we all tend to stop around the same time."
It's a relaxed affair, so not to be confused with more traditional business networking events where a blur of business cards are swapped and arrangements are made 'to do lunch'. Rather, it simply offers workers the chance to stop staring at their usual four walls with only the cat for company. "The focus isn't on collaborating or networking, but about being in a shared space."
What kind of people come? "Lots of writers, a couple of film-makers, artists and mainly people from the creative industries because that's the focus of Old Jet, but we wouldn't say you can't come unless you work in the creative or cultural industries."
Attendees are various ages, and there are slightly more women. And as a great social gateway for newcomers to this corner of Suffolk, Hassina is keen to keep growing Jelly.
"Yes, the more the merrier. It's always interesting to meet new people. It's also good for people who are new to the area to make connections."
Rural Coffee Caravan
Picturesque Suffolk towns and villages can be idyllic places to live but they can also mask underlying challenges of loneliness and isolation, particularly among older residents. It was an issue that one enterprising Suffolk women was determined to help tackle by employing a vehicle perfectly suited to reaching rural locations - a caravan.
In 2003, local charity stalwart the Reverend Canon Sally Fogden had the idea of a mobile community café and information centre. She purchased a caravan, baked some cakes and hit the road. Now, 16 years later, the Rural Coffee Caravan project goes from strength to strength.
Ann Osborn, Rural Coffee Caravan director, says: "We now have two, soon to be three, vehicles, taking part in about 200 visits a year across rural Suffolk with the help of volunteers."
It's a simple but effective approach that provides a lifeline to far-flung communities. "We offer two hours of social space in a rural location, with free teas, coffees and cakes, alongside the information you might find in a Citizen's Advice Bureau."
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It enables residents to access information that they might otherwise struggle to find, and fosters community spirit in a social setting. "We're not advisors, but can signpost people to places and local agencies where they can find out more."
The service also acts as a catalyst to encourage residents to start their own social activities. "It's not going to be sustainable unless they have created it themselves. We empower people by getting them together, having conversations and making things happen."
Deeper issues, such as fuel poverty, can also be addressed. "People in fuel poverty can get terribly lonely, self-conscious and don't invite people around. We have a fuel poverty officer working alongside all our other projects."
When the caravan rolls into a village it attracts residents of all ages, from people who have retired to those working at home. "They're not always lonely, but just sick of their own company, such as the parent who stays at home or the carer who has a break for an hour or so."
Entertaining distractions can range from a simple chat, to creating artworks or a stirring performance. "We've worked with the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra and put on community concerts, which are the most magical experience and we've had people in tears."
Meet Up Mondays
Taking a lead from an enterprising London pub landlord, Mick Dore at The Alexandra in Wimbledon, who is tackling inner-city loneliness by offering free teas, coffees and sandwiches for two hours each week, a similar Suffolk-based venture continues to enjoy success.
The county's Meet Up Mondays initiative, overseen by Ann Osborn at the Rural Coffee Caravan and Sally Connick of Community Action Suffolk, encourages county pubs, tea rooms, cafes and hotels to throw open their doors to local residents each week, a concept fully embraced by landlady Jemima Withey at the Turk's Head in Hasketon.
She says: "We became aware of the project about a year ago, and I talked it through with some ladies who frequent the pub and live in the village and asked if they thought people would come. I didn't want to be sitting there like a lemon!" She needn't have worried. "It thrived from the get-go."
Jemima believes that the events have an important role in helping secure the pub's place at the heart of the community, while bringing together a diverse mix of people and giving them some ownership of the venue.
"We have a good crowd of gentlemen who sit in the bar one or two evenings a week and all know each other, but women don't really have an equivalent. Meet up Mondays is open to everybody, but it's a nice way of getting ladies involved in the pub."
The combination of good company and the pub's enticing homemade cookies and bacon sandwiches, served up each Monday between 9am and 11am, means about 20 people regularly attend. "We have all age ranges, from people in their 20s through to those in their 80s. We have a fair few from the village, but also from further away such as Aldeburgh and Felixstowe."
Jemima also makes a point of giving a warm welcome to newcomers, overcoming that English reserve. "I always say hello and introduce them to a few faces. A couple of people who come are really outgoing and that helps because I'll make a space next to them. We're really good at putting people at ease."
In an increasingly busy world, Jemima says ideas like Meet up Mondays are more important than ever.
"It's filling a gap where people can get to know new people. They get a huge amount out of it - we all do. It's been a real joy, and I've met lots of interesting people, too, so it's a win-win."