The Southampton community club offering adults friendship and a warm welcome

The Southampton community club offering adults friendship and a warm welcome

by Sally Churchward.

The door opens and as the latest arrival steps across the threshold they’re immediately warmly greeted, offered a drink and invited to join those already gathered. 

As a newcomer to the scene it’s almost impossible to tell if the person to walk into the Friends of St James’ Park Community Club in Shirley, Southampton, is a regular member or is there for the first time. 

It’s only as the conversation unfolds that it becomes apparent – as regulars fall into easy chitchat with those around them, whilst newcomers are invited to get comfy and asked if they’d like to join in one of the games or if perhaps they came to take part in a craft activity.

John Kesby and Mandy Hollis play Rummikub. Photos: Bruce Larner.

For community worker Mandy Hollis, the heart and soul of the club, ensuring that everyone who comes in feels welcome is key.

“If I thought someone had come and didn’t feel like they were welcomed, I’d feel a bit of a failure, but I haven’t felt like that yet,” says Mandy, who runs the group along with another member of staff.

The club runs twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, from 11am to 4pm, and is open to anyone over the age of 18. It’s a free, friendly drop in community club for adults. Many people come twice a week, some for a few hours, others for most or all of the session, while others come semi-regularly, others once in a while and there are, of course, the newcomers. It launched shortly before the pandemic hit, three years ago, and is paid for by National Lottery ‘reaching communities’ funding. FoSJP also run a volunteer gardening group, which looks after St James’ Park alongside a team from Southampton City Council, and runs a wide range of community events in St James’ Park – the next is an Easter fair.

There are tea and biscuits on hand at the community club, and people come for a variety of reasons – to play games (Scrabble and Rummikub are particularly popular), chat, take part in arts and crafts, have a change of scenery, get warm and, especially, to socialise. 

John Noxon, 75 (pictured top) whose varied career included running youth hostels, started out as a volunteer with the Friends of St James’ Park gardening group but currently only attends the club, as it’s too cold to garden for any length of time. He’s been coming to the club for around a year.

“In a word I come for socialising, “ he says. “I’ve got a few very close friends, but none of them live anywhere near here. I’ve got friends in Sussex all the way to Scotland, so I don’t get to see them much. We talk on the phone but I’m not spending time with my friends so socialising is important to me. 

“I’ve felt for a while now that I’ve lost my way a little bit, and this group here has helped. I live alone, I spend a lot of time alone and I got to the stage where I was spending too much time alone and that’s why I started volunteering with the gardening.

“Having lost my way, to a certain extent I’m finding it here, and I’m not finding it elsewhere. This place is giving me something more than I get elsewhere, which I’m very grateful for.”

He continues: “The group is brilliant. You never know what it will be like. You come in and mostly see the same faces, but they’ve got different things to say. We’re all so different. I think in that respect the staff here are brilliant because of their ability to deal with each individual at their own different levels and there is a huge cross section of people who come in. We’re all very different but there’s something, and I think that something is the staff, that brings us together as a community. It’s wonderful.

“Everybody has got something to offer. You can learn something of value from someone, but you only learn that through respect.”

John often plays Rummikub with his namesake, John Kesby.

John Kesby with FoSJP staff member Hilde Gronsberg.

The 82 year old retired stevedore at Southampton docks is a widower and is a regular. 

He discovered the group when he spotted its A-board when he was on an organised walk round St James’ Park. It was serendipitous – the group walks were coming to an end and he didn’t know what he would do with his time until he discovered the community club and his social life was reinvigorated. 

“I like the company, I’m always welcomed with open arms, I play games. It keeps my mind stimulated,” he says.

He agrees that there’s a good mix of people at the group and finds everyone good to chat with.

“I find they’re all very good company. I like the different ages,” he adds.

“I just find that everybody here is very sociable. I’ve made friends here.”

Stan Brookes

Stan Brookes, 82, first heard about Friends of St James Park (FoSJP) when he spotted an advert for a treasurer for the charity whilst walking in the park with his wife. He is now a FoSJP trustee and regularly visits the group twice a week for a couple of hours, for a chat, a cup of tea, and to play board games.

He is still the owner of an alarm system business he founded almost 24 years ago but with his son now running the business, he wasn’t coming into contact with many people anymore.

“This is an important part of my social life now,” he says. 

“I don’t go into the office anymore. I used to meet people there and I also used to meet a lot of customers, which is what I enjoyed about it. This filled a gap. If I wasn’t doing anything else, I’d be sitting at home reading a paper or looking at the telly.”

Like others, Stan speaks highly of the staff and the welcoming atmosphere, and is echoed by fellow club regular Janet Gregory.

Janet, a retired nurse, explains that the club is very important to her.

Janet Gregory.

“I went for a walk round the park and saw it was open and came in,” she says.

“They made me feel welcome and I began to feel relaxed, because I got to the point where I couldn’t relax. Then the pandemic hit and it was stopped. Then over a year later I was walking round the park again and noticed the door was open and it was back on.

“I learnt to relax again. I didn’t think I could ever relax again until I came here. Over the past few years it’s been difficult.”

She goes on: “It’s doing creative things and you can be yourself; if you’ve got issues you can just leave them at the door. 

“This group is encouraging and you get to know different people. The special thing about it is it reaches a lot of people, it serves a lot, there’s no price on it. They reach out to people. There’s no restrictions or anything on it, no pressure.”

For community worker Mandy, the fact that the group is free and open to all is critically important.

“The fact that absolutely anybody can come and we do get a good wide range of ages, and the fact it’s free as well are really important,” she says. 

“There’s not many things you can get nowadays that are free. I don’t think that if you can’t afford to do things, that you shouldn’t be able to do things. It’s not fair.”

Mandy has seen the benefits of the group first hand.

“I’ve definitely seen people blossom here,” she says.

“Anyone comes, it’s a nice friendly group. It’s not cliquey. That’s a thing you can find with groups, the cliquiness, and newbies don’t feel welcome – it’s not like that here.

“A lot of these people would be sat at home doing nothing if they weren’t here, especially with the impact of the pandemic, it’s changed people.”

Janine Craven.

Janine Craven, 50, who has been attending the group for a year and a half, agrees.

“I’ve been involved in other groups. This is different, I think it’s got a much friendlier atmosphere,” she says. 

“There’s no bickering. If you have got any questions or need help, all you’ve got to do is say.

“I do like the age mix. If everybody was the same age it would be boring. And everyone’s got different skills as well. 

“It’s good to come because you interact with people,” she adds. 

“I would be at home on my own. It’s just nice to come because you’re with a friendly group and you can talk about anything, you can make things, there’s always something to do. I just enjoy being here, else I wouldn’t come would I?” she laughs. 

“I just really like it. It’s just a lovely atmosphere.”

Visitors to the group have a wide range of activities to choose from. This includes artistic and creative options, such as rock painting, adult colouring, Hama beads, card making, and more. 

One of the recent highlights was when local musician Jim Chorley visited the group for a number of sessions via the SoCo Music Project, working with attendees to write a song together. 

“Everyone shined, doing that,” says Mandy. “They all loved it and couldn’t wait for more, and they wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.”

John Noxon adds: “That was definitely a highlight, that was just amazing. That was the last thing I expected to see, someone walking in with a guitar. That was right up my street. 

“It was wonderful how he had that amazing ability to involve everybody on different levels. He was so good at that and we ended up writing a song between us. It was tremendous. I’d love to see him come in here again.”

Everyone I chat to has nothing but praise for the group and believes that anyone who has some time in their day and would like to get out of the house, meet some new people, try something new or just sit quietly in the warm with a cup of tea should give the FoSJP community club a go.

“I think it makes a big difference to those who come or they wouldn’t come,” says Stan. “People should give it a try. You never know what it’s like until you try it. It might fill some gap in their lives and give them a bit of pleasure.”

Janine agrees. “I’d say come and try it. See for yourself. I’d encourage anyone as much as possible. I speak highly of this group. I just think it’s a really good place to come.”


  • The Friends of St James’ Park Community Club runs on Mondays and Wednesdays (excluding bank holidays) from 11am to 4pm in the community room behind the Park Cafe in St James’ Park, Shirley. It’s free and visitors can come and go at any time throughout the day. For more information, visit the FoSJP Facebook event page: click here. 


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