“It’s the stretch zone where learning takes place”

I’m at the Simpson Memorial Hall, Moston to observe a couple of sessions of the LAB Project run by Chris Higham and Sarah Jones of the Proper Job Theatre Company. I’ve done my homework and this course would suit me down to the ground.

People start to arrive. It’s a small group of mixed nationalities and, for most of them, English is their second language. Like me they’re a bit nervous.

“Would you mind if I just join in?” I ask Chris. “Of course, stay as long as you like.” So, I do. The whole two weeks in fact.

First, the house rules, toilets, break times, etc., then Chris says “Try to take part in as much as you can. We ‘challenge by choice’ so if there’s anything you feel you can’t or don’t want to do, you don’t have to.” Then, it’s straight into an ice-breaker game.There‘s a daily workbook to fill in but otherwise there are no hand-outs, presentations, desks or lectures. Over the next few days we played various activities, listened, talked, signalled and even sang (and I don’t sing as a rule). We learned about each other, our similarities and differences, the importance of body language, feedback and learning styles. Also, about being in our comfort zone, getting into our stretch zone, avoiding panic… and, along the way, we all became friends.

Chris and Sarah were joined by a volunteer, Billie, who’d completed the course last year. They were incredibly patient and how they transformed a few shy strangers into a troupe of budding thespians in such a short time was simply impressive.As the school drama workshop loomed closer. Sarah outlined each role. “Who wants to be first to volunteer?” She glanced at us and we all glanced at each other, tight-lipped.

“Feeling nervous is normal, it’s ok.” Chris said. “It’s a natural emotional response but not a negative one. Learning how to manage nerves is what’s important. Think of that stretch zone and give it a go. If you don’t like it you can change your mind.”

“We’ll run through it without any scripts first. I’ll talk each of you through your part. Billie and I’ll do the actions, you watch and then you copy.” said Sarah. “Get the story into your head first. Learning any lines will come easier.” One by one the parts were filled.I have to skip a day and don’t join them again until we go to the school and perform the drama workshop. They told me later how nervous they’d felt beforehand but how elated they were afterwards. Their performance blew me away. The children loved it and so did the teachers.The project didn’t end with just a certificate, a gift for attending and a round of applause like most other courses. The LAB project concludes with a progression session. Various organisations are invited to meet the group and help them take the next step towards employment. They’re given information, signed up for further courses, training, work placements or voluntary work – whatever they ‘chose’ to do.What can I say? Was it the best course I’d ever been on? Yes – and I’ve been on lots. Do I still get nervous? Yes – but less often and I can deal with it. Am I more confident? Yes – and I’m so grateful.

For contact details and to find out more visit the LAB website. There’s video on there – it’s quite inspirational.

Simply Cycling – Making Cycling Accessible

After weeks of dull, grey, overcast, cold, wet and wintry mornings that reaffirm the belief I’m designed to hibernate, I woke up today to a wholly different world. Bright and sunny with a clear blue sky. Just the weather for a bike ride so I’m here at Boggart Hole Clough in my shorts.

IN MY SHORTS! Are you bonkers? It’s February and freeeeezing. I’m really here to meet Sue Blaylock from Simply Cycling. She’s ready with a big smile and a hot cup of tea. Before long we’re stood in the sunshine and can just feel a little of its warmth. It’s very civilised.


There’s a running track in front of us with grass verges and picnic tables. We are surrounded by a selection of bicycles, trikes, wheelchair accessible bikes and tandems. Most have foot pedals, others are hand operated, several have side by side seats and some have covers.

I didn’t know such a variety of cycles existed. Sue explains they cater for all abilities and aim to have something to suit everyone. “It’s £2 a session” she says, “so it’s affordable too”.


Although it’s cold she’s already had some customers. Another couple arrive soon after I do. They are regulars and once the social niceties are done Sue helps them find the right bikes and they’re off around the track.

“It’s been quiet so far this morning” Sue says “but we’ve had over 300 customers in one day before now. When it’s very busy we limit the time to 2 hours so that everyone gets a chance. At other times you can stay and ride for as long as the session lasts.”

More people arrive, including Sean and his carer. They know Sue well and she gets a big hug from Sean before finding him his favourite cycle. It’s hand propelled and the two sit side by side as they set off on the track.


I ask Sue how long Simply Cycling has been operating for. “We started in Wythenshawe Park about 14 years ago.

The main focus was to make cycling accessible to everyone especially people with disabilities but we are entirely inclusive. We welcome any age and any ability.

It means the whole family can join in and anyone else who wants to cycle in a safe environment.”


Laura, who arrived earlier, waves to us both as she glides past.

We discuss the fee. £2 isn’t much and it goes towards the using the track facilities at the park, purchasing cycles and other running costs. Sue, along with others run the sessions and maintain the cycles so that they’re in tip-top condition. There are some paid staff, some sessional workers and some volunteers who all work hard together to ‘make things work’. New volunteers are always welcome.


Simply Cycling are at Boggart Hole Clough on Wednesdays 9am till 3pm and Saturdays 10am till midday and throughout the week at both Wythenshawe Park and Longford Park in Stretford. There are toilet facilities close by and refreshments available. Find out more about what they do by visiting their website at http://www.simply-cycling.org/

As I leave I thank Sue for her time and for just being there on such a cold day.

“Oh we don’t cancel unless we have to. Sometimes the track’s needed for an athletics event. Apart from that, come rain or shine, we’ll be here. We don’t let people down.”

“Let’s get together and feel alright”

“Sopranos, on the count of three. One, two, three….Every little thing is going to be alright….

Altos get ready…and three…Every little thing is going…

Tenors, two, three…Every little thing….”

Tosin, the choir’s Director, clicks the rhythm with her fingers and they all follow her lead. When she’s happy it’s time to stand up and give it their best.

“One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright”

“Louder, sopranos, and…” The air vibrates with the volume. I feel privileged to be there.

It’s Monday evening and I’m at a workshop for Amani Creatives Community Choir.  They line the edges of the practise room. They’d started with breathing exercises and musical scales followed by an African song. It sounded rich and rhythmical.

Three musicians support them. I cannot play an instrument or read music so, to me, what they do is nothing short of magic. Tosin communicates with them using just a few notes or hand signals and they make slight adjustments to the rhythm or pitch that to her make all the difference.

At the break I get chance to speak to the choir’s Creative Producer Emmanuela Yogolelo to find out more.

“We’ve been together since May” she tells me. “The idea came about following last year’s winter festival. We felt the community should be actively involved so we handed out fliers and talked to people to see if they were interested in singing or even listening to music.

A choir is a great way to get people out and socialising and we want it to reflect the diversity in our community regardless of age, gender, nationality or ethnicity so that everyone is represented”.

I comment on the songs I’d heard them practise so far as they’re all different.

“We sing in different languages and a range of songs including African, reggae, jazz and popular songs like Oasis. It’s a varied just like our membership. We want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

The musicians are professional African so there is no denying the African influence in some of the arrangements. It’s important for the development of the choir to get used to working alongside them”.

There was hardly a spare seat in the practise room so I ask what will happen if they expand.

“We’d have to use the main hall upstairs although it would cost more.

We’ve been lucky enough to receive funding from Forever Manchester. Securing funds to meet our costs is a big challenge. If successful, we aim to develop the choir to the next stage, improve performance quality, hopefully perform locally at events and build up a good reputation.”

The practise session is about to restart so we re-join the rest of the choir. I stay a while and listen to ‘Mary Did You Know’. It sounds lovely and so infectious that I join in – just can’t stop myself!

If you want to hear them too, join them at their Christmas Concert on Saturday 23 December at 4pm in the Simpson Memorial Hall, 361 Moston Lane, Moston. It’s free and everyone is welcome.