Back in February this year I was asked by RAIL magazine to write an article on the Platform 1 charity based at Huddersfield station. They do some fantastic work helping men who’re struggling. I’m reproducing the article on my blog as I think it’s important the work they do gets to as wider an audience as possible…
If you’ve ever travelled from Huddersfield to Manchester by train you may have noticed an old BR coach half-hidden by fencing just as you pull out of the station. Once home to the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP, now Community Rail Network) the site has had a new occupant since 2018. It too is about community, but the services it offers are very, very different…
The compound is now the base for ‘Platform 1’ – a mental health and crisis charity that specializes in helping men. As the banner over the entrance to the yard proclaims it’s a place where men can ‘fix, grow, build or chill’. As anyone who’s ever had to engage with Mental Health services will know, it’s a ‘cinderella’ arm of the NHS, and men especially can find themselves unable to find the help and support they need, hence the importance of charities like ‘Platform 1’.
Having talked to the charity’s Project Manager Bob Morse on the phone a couple of times I arranged to visit the yard to see the work the group is doing and talk about how the Pandemic and Lockdown had affected them and the people they help.
Bob greeted me at the entrance to the site which is adjacent to the ‘Head of Steam’ pub. It’s very eerie to see the Grade 1 listed station so quiet nowadays. A station that has a footfall of 4.7m a year is reduced to a virtual ghost-town. Bumping elbows in greeting, he gave me a tour of the site which contains a ramshackle mixture of second-hand portacabins, a shipping container, raised vegetables beds and bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles!
Our first stop was at a tiny two-roomed building that’s used for interviews with people who want to be able to talk privately about the problems they’re experiencing. As access to the site is by appointment only due to Covid it was virtually deserted except for staff and volunteers, as was the old coach where we sat for a (socially-distanced) coffee and chat. Lined with wood planking and fitted with a small kitchen it’s decorated with old hubcaps that have been decorated by a local artist who visits the project. The coach is ‘cozy’ but as the Mk1’s now on its 3rd incarnation it’s seen better days…
Bob explained that pre-pandemic they might see 30 men a day using the vehicle as a refuge where they could chat, read, play computer games, drink tea or just enjoy the company of other people “No-one who comes here is judged” Bob said, “This is neutral ground, they can leave their problems at the gate and be themselves whilst they’re here. There’s no expectations of them. You’d be surprised at the way guys from different backgrounds and educations mix and treat each other”.
I asked how Covid had affected the charity. Bob told me “the need for our services has exploded as people’s isolation has grown. There’s a ticking time-bomb of mental-health issues out there that’s mostly hidden”. Previously, Bob had previously mentioned that they had 14 clients on ‘suicide watch’ (where volunteers make regular contact with the men involved). “There’s 15 right now, and we lost one last week”. It’s a horrific statistic but it’s clearly only the tip of the iceberg. As well as providing a safe space the charity offers counselling and help with what seem like simple things but to people under pressure they can appear mountainous. Bob elaborated, “we help a lot of people make and keep hospital or other appointments. Some clients aren’t computer-literate or don’t have phones. Others can’t understand why they have to wait so long to see someone and that an appointment doesn’t always mean they’ll get the help they need in the time they need it, which means they just give up. How do you explain to a man who can’t see past tomorrow that they’ll have to wait weeks to see someone?”
Covid has magnified the problem as many ‘contacts’ with social and health services aren’t in person but by phone which increases misunderstandings and feelings of isolation. Because of this, Bob and his team are spending more time reaching out to people who can’t just drop in anymore. This outreach work is a mix of phone calls, ‘Zoom’ and also home visits as well as looking out for the homeless, a phenomenon that’s grown in the austerity years.
The sheer variety of their work caused me to ask if they were seeing different types of people now? “Yes, we’re counselling more and more people who work in the Health Services, including women. We’re also getting more referrals from primary care networks, not just people coming in off the street” The charity’s recruiting new volunteers to cope with the demand and whilst they do get donations and assistance from local companies and the rail industry it’s clear they need more help, both financially and in kind – especially now due to Covid and their role in supporting the support workers – a role they never expected to have to fulfil.
Moving on, Bob introduced me to the 3 man team in one of the cabins which forms the cycle hub. Here, old bikes that have been donated to the charity are stripped for spares or rebuilt and sold. The sheds walls and shelves are a mass of tools and bike spares. Two bikes were in the course of being rebuilt. I chatted to a former cycle magazine editor who was busy repairing one machine. Like many volunteers he’d had his own mental health battles but used his skills and the charities support and facilities to aid his own recovery whilst also helping others. During our chat he explained that whilst they reuse as much as they can some parts like chains or gears have to be purchased which is getting harder and more expensive due to Covid, and Brexit. I also discovered the charity does bike servicing and contract repairs for companies. On another stand Shane was occupied repairing a kids bike. He told me that the bikes are resold for anything from £20-£200 depending on type and quality, which helps low-income families as well as the coffers of the charity. Kids bikes are a staple as they’re often discarded as children grow up and they’re rarely looked after, so there’s always a ready supply.
Having chatted to the guys I was impressed with the really positive easy-going atmosphere, it was great to see people who were obviously proud of what they were achieving, both for themselves and others.
Popping in next door to the main office (another old portacabin) I met more members of the team. Like most small charities everyone wears more than one hat. Justin, the Admin Officer also doubles as crisis support. He has a degree in games design and his love of gaming allows him to connect with people through those mediums which is especially useful with younger users of their services. Bridget, the Pastoral Support Lead was busy on the phone trying to help a client. An ex-teacher, she’s retrained as a counsellor to offer a range of help, from bereavement counselling to assisting people build up their confidence to tackle the problems that can overwhelm them. It’s a tough job.
We didn’t stay long as space was at a premium and we didn’t want to interrupt so Bob showed me around the rest of the site. On a snowy February morning the garden wasn’t exactly looking at its best, but the raised vegetable beds clearly provide a great place for some gardening therapy and the outdoor space, sheltered as it is by a tall retaining wall holding up St Georges St makes an ideal area to get away from it all – even if you are right next to the station. Whilst we were there Bob pointed out the spot that will soon be graced by the presence of a donated ‘Pacer’ car. Friends of the charity had entered them in the competition to win one of the Porterbrook donated trains and they were one of the winning bids. Craning the coach onto its final resting place is going to be quite a challenge due to the cramped nature of the site (and that retaining wall) so Bob promised to invite me back to see it being installed when Covid restrictions permit – hopefully in the summer. The Pacer will provide a welcome addition to the indoor space available and also be quite a talking point as these vehicles spent much of their working life in the area.
My brief visit gave me a valuable insight into how much this charity is doing and the challenges it faces whilst doing it – especially at the height of a pandemic which is storing up problems for the future. Isolation is a problem even for those of us who’re well-connected. Try and imagine what it’s like for a single man living on his own who’s been cut off from the last vestiges of social contact and interaction that he may have had, with no idea whether (or when) these things may return. Charities like ‘Platform 1’ quite literally provide a life-line and deserve all the support that we can give them.
If you want to learn more about ‘Platform 1’ or can assist them in any way. Please visit their website Platform 1 – Mental Health – Huddersfield, England (platform-1.co.uk) where you can find more information and contact details.
Oh, the old Pacer did eventually arrive (on the second attempt). Here it is in situ!
I’ve a favour to ask…
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