Fellowship, friendship and a nice cup of tea make a Place of Welcome
For many people, loneliness can be a big part of their lives, particularly over the last two years due as Covid brought isolation.
As restrictions have cleared and people have been able to get together, a popular togetherness project has been opening venues and welcoming in people to offer a safe place to chat, enjoy a hot drink and make new friends.
The Place of Welcome project sees local community groups, churches and other organisations work to provide a safe and welcoming place for people to go to and connect with others, learn a new skill or just go somewhere different.
More than 450 Places of Welcome are open across the country, with more than 50 open across the Black Country alone, but what is it about these places that make them special and have that unique feeling?
We visited three places in Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell to find out more about what makes them special and unique and who the people are who run them and make them work.
First stop was St Matthew's Church in Walsall, a traditional church at the top of the town which has connected with the community through groups, events and even online videos from Reverend Jim Trood.
The church hosts a Place of Welcome every Tuesday from 10am to 4pm, offering a hot drink and range of cakes and an opportunity to drink in the splendid surroundings of the church.
Sara Hartshorne runs the Place of Welcome at the church with Pat Blewitt and a host of volunteers and the 75-year-old said the plan had been to open up the church to the public for whatever they wanted to use it for.
She said: "We started to open up the church for people who, perhaps, wanted to come in and learn about the history of the church or wanted to pray or light a candle or who just wanted to sit and take in what is a very beautiful building.
"This is a peaceful place in the middle of Walsall and we were already welcoming people in, so when we heard about the Places of Welcome project, we decided to join it."
Ms Hartshorne said that while the church couldn't offer clubs like knitting groups and quizzes like other places of welcome, it had its own way of welcoming people and making its space special.
She said: "For us, it's just being here to talk to people if they want to talk, being quiet if they want to be quiet, offering them tea or coffee and offering them help if they need help.
"Most of us are from Walsall and we know the various places around here and just give as much help as we can and that's how we feel we act as a place of welcome.
"Before Covid, we used to have visitors from abroad, from Australia and Canada because parents or grandparents were married here, and we hope we can offer that sort of service to people now going forward."
The church could see as many as 30 people come in during a good day, with many also taking the time to speak to the curate Reverend Joe Smith, who said it was important that the church was open and present to the community.
He said: "It helps us to be rooted in our community as well and helps them to know that we're here for them, from the most basic things to in-depth and spiritual conversations.
"Places of Welcome is a known brand and helps us to show that people are not going to be bombarded with all sorts of traditions they aren't expecting, but have a place to just come for some conversation or a hot drink or place to sit."
Across the region in Netherton in Dudley, Primrose Hill Community Church has been offering a more modern and varied take on the Place of Welcome concept.
The church hall has been equipped with a fully-functioning Cole and Mac coffee company bar, but also comes with a food and clothing bank, pool table and gaming station and even an in-house barber for anyone needing a haircut.
There was also an abundance of pastries, sandwiches and other savoury items, all donated by Lidl and the doors to the church were open wide to welcome in anyone looking for a place to go every Wednesday between 9.30am and 12.30pm.
Co-ordinator Sue Drew said the accessibility of the church to the community was what made it effective.
She said: "I think we have a lot of people who come here that have connected through the food bank, so they know there is somewhere they can go to have a chat, get a cup of tea and have something to eat.
"That makes the atmosphere here really special and we encourage anyone and everyone to come here, such as a group of lads who come with their carers from Old Hill Fire Station and play pool and PS5 and just have a safe place to go to.
"We are focussed on being welcoming and part of our community and have done so for about five years and it's always a joy to speak to people and help signpost them to other services, such as finances and budgeting.
"What makes this special is that we're battling isolation and deprivation and we really want to make people feel at home and helped when they come here."
The pastor of the church John Williams also spoke of the community aspect of the Place of Welcome and how he didn't want the church to be just a one-day-a-week thing.
He said: "We're a church that doesn't just turn up on a Sunday and then go home, but we get everyone involved and I think that's one of the things that people felt good about when they come here.
"They feel good as they may have been struggling and isolated, but have joined that community that they can be part of and I think this is a fantastic opportunity for people to be part of something bigger."
In Sandwell, a place that started out as a lunchtime club has become a popular venue for a Place of Welcome, giving people across Wednesbury a place for a nice meal, a hot drink and a place to meet up with friends.
The club in the cafe area of Wednesbury Baptist Church offers a selection of food and drink options, all provided free of charge, with leek and potato soup on offer on the day I visited, as well as brownies, orange trifle and cheese toasties.
The church has been running its Place of Welcome every Wednesday from 12pm to 1.30pm for three years, having started the lunch club in 2012, with Reverend Esther Gladwish the force behind the change to Place of Welcome.
She said: "It had always been a lunch club when I came here as minister and when I heard about the Places of Welcome initiative, I talked to people about it and decided we would register as a Place of Welcome as we don't charge for the food and we get donations.
"The benefits of becoming a Place of Welcome are that it encourages charities to come and speak to us and it's a place you can go to if you're isolated, plus we have the lunchtime club and we provide support for all sorts of people in the community.
"I think what makes this place special is the fact that people can come and know that they will get hospitality, not just food, but also a friendly face and even when someone comes for the first time, we will chat with them and get to know them."
Among those enjoying a lunch and chat were friends Patricia Beesley, Valerie Webb, Rose Groves and Norma Smith, with Patricia agreeing with Esther about what made it special.
She said: "It's the fellowship and the company, being able to talk face to face, particularly after the pandemic.
"It doesn't matter whether it's just a piece of toast and a cup of tea, it's all about the fellowship and being able to see friends, particularly after all our husbands have passed away.
"This is a very welcoming church and a lovely place to come and I like having a place I can come to where I feel welcome."
To find out more about Places of Welcome and to find your nearest place, visit tctogether.org.uk/initiatives/pow