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Community Engagement Officer, Charlotte Tomlinson talks about Community Cafes and the power of bringing people together.

Towards the end of each month the Hull Maritime team head out to extra-care facilities in the city for our Community Cafes. With the support of the Fishermen’s Mission and our wonderful Hull Maritime volunteers, we deliver sessions where people can take part in reminiscence activities, learn more about our city’s maritime heritage, play games and socialise with fellow residents, visitors, volunteers, and us.

The Cafes are an integral part of our community engagement programme, allowing us to spend time and connect with those who might find it more difficult to visit our museum sites. And, of course, work like this is even more important while we await the exciting refurbishment and reopening of our city’s maritime treasures.

Hull Maritime volunteers demonstrates net braiding

Some of those treasures – the ones that are small enough to fit into cases and cars - come along with us to the sessions, where we pass around items from our object handling sets including docker’s hooks, net mending equipment and fishermen’s baskets. Our collection of photos and photobooks are always popular, facilitating and supporting conversations about maritime working lives as well as wider local community practices, such as Saturday afternoons going ‘on road’ or childhood weekends playing Double Ball.

At our last session, one photograph of women working in Hull’s fishing industries brought two female attendees together over their shared family histories of working on Hessle Road and at Metal Box in Gipsyville. Moments like this provide space for people to share intergenerational stories and feel more connected to one another.

Lots of our activities are based around reminiscence, but they’re not exclusive to those with personal experience or memories of Hull’s maritime cultures. For some, our sessions provide an opportunity to learn new things about our region’s maritime story, or to become a part of the project for the first time.

After our most recent Community Café at Cecil Gardens Extra Care Facility on Hawthorn Avenue, a location once in the heart of Hull’s fishing industry, those who have lived in the area for decades came together with people without those connections. “Thank you, I didn’t think I could be a part of anything like this”, said one participant, as I packed up an array of headscarves, jigsaw, books and objects. Another was equally grateful: “This is brilliant, I’ve loved it”.

Resident of Cecil Gardens makes her own headscarf

Some of our activities are designed to reach through a range of other potential barriers, for example in terms of local knowledge, disability, or language skills. Object handling provides a sensory experience as well as acting as a memory prompt; games revolving around our maritime collections, including jigsaws, pairs, and boat-building draw inspiration from our maritime story but don’t depend on participants’ confidence or ability to take part in detailed discussions about heritage.

One memorable moment sticks out to me in this respect, a joyful and enthusiastic singalong with residents of an extra care facility that included maritime-inspired tunes, from “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” to “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”. In between impromptu sea shanties and audience requests, one attendee explained that another resident didn’t often participate because of language barriers in common activities: “He’s Polish and he doesn’t join in much, but he’s really enjoying this”. We continued singing together with beaming smiles on our faces until it was almost time to leave.

Residents create their own headscarf
Volunteers join in the fun

Most of all, our Community Cafes are fun. Our singalongs have proved a hit among participants, volunteers, and staff alike, and dressing up in 60s-inspired headscarves produces happy laughter as well as reflection. There are also skills to be developed: people are always keen to have a go at net-mending with one of our volunteers, Peter, whether they’re trying it out for the first time or perfecting their technique over the course of a few visits.

At their heart, our Community Cafes are about creating a space for socialising and enjoyment, learning about heritage, and connecting with a wide range of people. With more of a focus on storytelling and wellbeing than sandwiches and cakes, they’re perhaps more community than café, but don’t worry – there’s always plenty of cups of tea to go around!