Knit and Natter

What a super name. People smile as I walk in and make a space at a large table as if they’ve known me for years. Over the next hour or so, more arrive and are treated to the same welcoming response. It’s Tuesday and the group gathers every week at the Wellbeing Centre on Church Lane Harpurhey.

Everyone settles down, the hum of chatter gets louder against the sound of clicking needles and it makes me smile. It’s oddly relaxing.

Quietly, I admit I can’t knit.

“Don’t be put off. Christine couldn’t so we showed her and she’s brilliant. Hazel’s made her own blanket. You should see it. It’s fabulous.” I notice that not everyone is knitting anyway, so I don’t feel like the odd one out.

“Where do you get all the wool from? It’s expensive isn’t it?”

“Local people or friends and family donate it so there’s plenty to go at” explains Brenda who’s stepped in to run the group today. “The centre makes use of anything it can. As well as ‘Knit and Natter’ there are several craft groups during the week who can turn quite ordinary things into something really special.”

Around us there’s a constant buzz and lots of conversations going on all at the same time.

You can join in any discussion if you have the urge or just sit and listen.

Last weekend’s craft fayre is a hot topic today. It was an opportunity for the various groups to showcase their efforts to the public and offer them for sale. The tombola stall made the most money and they discuss how to advertise it better next time. The lady next to me, Hazel, had taken photos of the day and scrolls through pictures on her iPad of knitted clothes, home-made cards, candle holders, painted bottles, all sorts. They are proud of their work and rightly so.

“I’m a digital champion when I’m not here” Hazel says. “I show people in the community, the older generation in particular, how to use technology, such as iPads and laptops. Basics, like how to use search engines, buy things online, listen to music, download books, that sort of thing.” My jaw drops a little. I’d no idea what a ‘digital champion’ was but how brilliant.

“Why did you join the group?” I ask Rachel who’s sitting further along.

“This is what I call ‘me time’. It’s for no-one else just me. I’m a carer for two family members and also work in the evenings.” she explains. “I just love the place and everyone treats you as if you’ve been coming for years. I’ve knitted all sorts too. I’m not used to socialising and was nervous at first so my niece, Sarah, came with me.”

Sarah’s a busy mum. “Bringing my aunt here has made me realise that I wasn’t taking time out for myself either. It’s important, otherwise you just eat, sleep and repeat. I like it here so much I’ve decided to start a cookery class. I used to run a cafe and cooking’s my thing. Can’t wait to get going”.

They both manage to carry on knitting without looking and smile throughout.

What an excellent couple of hours. I learnt something new. Didn’t knit a stitch. No-one was bothered. It was a chance to relax, have a natter and put the daily routine to one side for a while.

 

“I want everyone to take part and be proud of the end result.”

I’m going to a cooking session at The Miners Community Arts and Music Centre, on Teddington Road in Moston.

I’m early so owner Louis shows me around. There’s a cafe, indoor and outdoor seating areas, function room with stage, a cinema – with proper cinema seats – spacious art room and now he’s creating a recording studio. It’s amazing.

The session has already started as I’m welcomed and offered a seat. Cracking Good Food chef Maz Linford sweeps in and everyone else sweeps into action. Table cloths, cutting boards, knives, pans, aprons, bowls, graters and more seem to appear from nowhere. I’m in a scene from a Disney film!

We’re learning to make a sauce from scratch. We get chopping, grating and slicing and two hours fly before our dishes of cauliflower cheese and stuffed mushrooms are popped into the oven.

As it’s cooking everyone sets about scooping up dishes, bowls, pans, knives and utensils which are washed, dried and stored away in flash.

The whole session has been relaxed and informal. Maz is cheerful and upbeat and effortlessly includes everyone while teaching new skills.

The food is lovely and, as it’s quickly polished off, I’m struck by the smiling faces of young and not so young, all sharing an experience.

“There are two sides to Cracking Good Food,” Maz explains as everyone drifts off and I help with the last of the tidying. “Part of the time we run paid-for cookery classes for the general public – I teach Sushi, Thai and Vietnamese – and the rest of the time, when we can get funding, we teach community cookery lessons, like the one we’ve just done.”

The Fourteen Programme, I know, has funded these sessions at The Miners.

“We’ve had longer projects with housing associations, food banks, and charities that support homeless people,” continues Maz. “For instance, young homeless people often have a lot of issues around eating. It’s a challenge but that’s what makes it interesting.

“Essentially, we want people to eat better food, cook vegetables, cook from scratch and actually enjoy it, realise it’s a part of their wellbeing. Food is here to look after us and nurture us but it can also be fun and sociable.”

I’ve seen that Maz is very comfortable in front of a class of eager learners. “Where does all this knowledge and experience comes from?” I ask.

“I’ve worked for big restaurant chains and trained teams who will be running restaurants. When I’m teaching in communities it’s really important for me that everyone has a voice, everyone has some input. We all have some relationship to food. So it’s okay not to like, say, mushrooms, the important thing is being able to express your likes and dislikes.

“I tend not to follow recipes as it puts people off and I avoid things like, ‘now lets learn how to chop really safely’. I try to bring a mixture of skills like mashing, grating and chopping so that everyone can join in. I want everyone to be included, take part and be proud of the end result.”

“What I love about coming here is it’s totally intergenerational. The young people get to spend time with the older people and they are all as capable as each other. I recently learned from some older ladies how to peel with a spoon – they found it easier to manage than a knife. It works and I love it!”

Maz is one of a team of like-minded cooks and chefs from Cracking Good Food. Her passion for sharing her skills and beliefs about food was infectious. Here’s their website.

“You can’t put a value on this group.”

It’s Wednesday morning which means it’s time for the weekly get-together hosted by the residents of Sydney Jones Court in Moston, right next door to FC United.

These sheltered scheme residents are an active bunch. They’ve formed themselves into a little group called the In-Betweeners.

“Where does the name come from?” I ask Sandy who’s one of the organisers.

“Because all our members are between 50 and whatever age. So it’s between the ages, that’s all. To tell you the truth, we couldn’t think of anything else,” she laughs.

The group was set up when a new court manager arrived. I’m told that Festus Igbinehi was determined that, although the residents in his care were older, it didn’t mean they weren’t able to get out and about and have some fun.

As a constituted group the In-Betweeners can apply for funding and have been supported by the Fourteen programme, amongst others. The residents have organised trips to the theatre and to dances; and, closer to home, they’ve enjoyed craft sessions and visits to the community cinema at The Miners across the road.

“How important is a group like this to the residents?” I ask after I’ve been introduced to Festus.

“You can’t put a value on it,” he says. “If they didn’t come here they wouldn’t see anyone from one day to the next. So it’s a good way of getting out and about.

“We go to the Home theatre in town every few weeks,” he says, “and we’ve seen some wonderful shows. There are some in our group who’d never been to the theatre before. Next month we’re off to see Uncle Vanya.”

I introduce myself to some of the group. There’s Tony organising the football fundraising card, supping from a huge mug of tea. “Kieran,” he shouts across the room, “I’ve put your name on it.”

And then there’s Megan and 90-year-old Ada sitting together on one of the settees. “It gets you out of the flat,” says Ada when I ask her what she likes about the group, “and it’s always friendly. But I haven’t been to any of the theatre trips. I can’t get about like I used to.”

“I’ve always liked the theatre,” says Megan. “We went to see a wonderful play about a woman telling her story of living through the Holocaust.”

“Do you do acting?” Ada asks me. “I trying to work out whether you should play the murderer or the lover.”

“He could play both I think,” says Megan.

“I think I’d rather play the lover,” I say, keeping up with the banter. “I couldn’t play the murderer, I haven’t got a mean streak in me.

“How many do you get on a Wednesday morning?” I ask, trying to get my interview back on track.

“Normally more than this,” says Ada. “They must of heard you were coming with your camera!”

“I want to know about the coach trips,” I say, as Mary joins us. “Is it all raucous singing on the back seat?”

“Is it ‘eck,” she says. “I normally sit near the front. Sometimes I have to guide the driver through town because,” she starts to laugh, “I’ve got all my faculties you know!”

The weekly coffee mornings are open to all and this morning Forever Manchester’s community builder for the Fourteen programme is here too and Graeme has brought along Christine and Geraldine from the long-established Creative Co-op craft group.

“Chris has been before here to run some sessions,” explains Graeme, “and we’re looking at more ways to bring the groups together. It’s about joining things up and not having to re-invent the wheel each time”

“Which is what Forever Manchester does so well,” I say. “Are you staying for the armchair aerobics?”