Established in 2010, Holywood Men’s Shed, Co Down, is one of the first sheds to have ever been set up in Ireland, and was a particularly groundbreaking addition to the North.

Over the past 11 years, the shed has grown and expanded alongside the wider Men’s Sheds movement across the country.

Such was the shed’s success, they had around 50 members by 2020, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This impressive membership, founding member Bill Lockhart says, is largely due to Holywood Men’s Shed’s policy of inclusivity.

While the shed’s members are primarily in the over-65 bracket, any man over the age of 18 is free to join them.

Similarly, men of all levels of craftsmanship or physical ability will be made feel useful as a shedder there.

Before the pandemic, when they could be assisted by their carers, men with learning difficulties were also familiar faces at the Holywood shed.

“Pre-COVID, we had a huge sign outside our shed saying, ‘Everyone welcome’” Bill says.

“Sadly, for safety reasons with COVID, we can’t welcome too many people at the moment, but we have tried our best to still have an active presence for anyone who needs the shed.”

This presence has taken the form of a small cohort of Holywood shedders gathering outdoors over the past year and a half when possible, creating some of the shed’s most impressive work yet.

True to form, the shed’s ethos of inclusivity was a key part of the project they set their minds to in that time.

Inspired by the shed’s chair, the group decided to create a magical “Enchanted Garden” and “Sensory Garden” in their local Redburn Forest.

“The stable yard itself, where we’re based, had been used as a small zoo at one stage and so it’s a fantastic space with many happy memories still tied to it,” Bill explains. “We had this huge area right outside that yard and so we just asked ourselves what we could do with it that would be good for the whole community.

Inside the Sensory Area at Holywood Men's Shed, Co Down.

“In Redburn Forest, there are plenty of little paths and things leading to the area we were working on, so that worked perfectly to turn it into an enchanted garden.

“We wanted to make sure absolutely everyone could enjoy it, and that’s where the sensory aspect came in.

“Our chair Glen has children who are on the autism spectrum, so he’s given us great advice about the sort of things that would be beneficial in the sensory garden.

“A lot of consultation’s gone into it, and it’s been worth it because the feedback we’re getting has been absolutely fantastic.”

While the community of Holywood’s been blown away by how the shed has transformed Redburn Forest into a magical space for all, there’s still more to come.

“We made our biggest advances last year during COVID and indeed we’re going to continue that,” Bill vows. “We’ve just secured a small grant that will allow us to further enhance the gardens and make them more accessible. The community have always been so kind in donating tools and materials to us, so as a shed we just want to give back”

These plans mean the men will certainly be spending more time in the forest getting their hands mucky, but Bill says this has been the shedders’ “saving grace”.

“We have so many members who are at risk of social isolation. Being able to gather a few of us together safely outdoors has been so important, because otherwise some of the men would have just been on their own,” he shares.

“Some members experience depression, some are recovering from strokes and others generally have little social support outside the shed.

“Working outside has been great for members, and it’s also been very safe. There have been no [COVID] infections among our active shedders who’ve met up. So it’s been so far, so good, and we’re hoping things can only get better.” CL

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