I ran into Robbie while campaigning for the South Devon Primary. Robbie’s controlled anger and frustration with the current state of affairs was mirrored in a democracy meter filling up with the stickers that represented people’s view of the current government – not positive. At all. A resident of this rather run-down estate, she explained that whilst many felt forgotten by society and politicians and disillusioned by the political process, there were still enough people with fire in their blood to take matters into their own hands and make a difference.
‘You should come to our knitting group on a Wednesday,’ she said, with a challenging glint in her eye.
And that is how I found myself sitting round a table in the Crafty Fox Cafe’n’Hub with a group of fellow older women who were knitting and chatting away like fury.
The Torbay Yarn Bombers have been going for seven years. They’ve dressed up letterboxes, bedecked streets and made wreaths for Remembrance Sunday. Today, the focus is on Christmas, making things to sell at the Foxhole Christmas Extravaganza on Nov 26, 11:00 – 16:00.
‘We want to cheer people up!’ says Annie, whose smile is definitely up to the job. ‘I could be sitting in my flat never seeing anyone, but I come here and to our other place in Torquay, and we all have a laugh and keep each other going.’
A young woman’s eye is caught by the sight of the women through the cafe’s large window and comes in to get a coffee. She is struck by the warmth of the welcome and promises to come back to join a session.
The space was originally an office for Sanctuary Housing, but, apparently, it was empty most of the time. Nina Cooper (then Kings Ash community builder and something of a local hero) and volunteers persuaded Sanctuary Housing to gift them the space so that they could provide residents with somewhere safe to meet, chat, learn new skills and get help, when needed. The cafe and hub was opened by Dr Sarah Wollaston (former MP for Totnes) in 2016 and has been evolving its central role in the community ever since.
During Covid, it switched to operate as a foodbank and many of the ladies got involved in taking shopping round to the vulnerable, walking dogs and collecting prescriptions. Now it hosts a huge range of activities including pyrography and mosaic-making but, more crucially, fills in the gaps left by the steady underfunding of mental health services and social care.
‘We perform an important signposting function,’ explains Maggie, one of the cafe’s lynchpin volunteers. ‘We are a valuable source of support, with people referred to us by local GPs. We’re seeing many more cases of depression, anxiety and self-harm…particularly in men, so we now have two sessions a week dedicated to them – one where they can just chat about men’s stuff with no women around and another run by DASH (Domestic Violence Ends Here) which meets every Tuesday evening.’
The women are defiant in their resilience and withering in their dismissal of politicians, who are described as being ‘just in it for themselves and the rich’.
‘We used to have funding for a counsellor once a week, but the money ran out. Life’s pretty tough for people right now, with the cost of living going up all the time and cuts in services. We help as much as we can, ‘ says Robbie. ‘The fact is, if volunteers went on strike, half the country would collapse.’
Formidable is a term frequently applied to feisty ladies of a certain age, but I prefer the French meaning of the word – fantastic! To be fair, both definitions apply to this group of women who use knitting as the reason for a getting together, dealing with potential loneliness and offering a warm welcome to the people who live on and around the Foxhole Road.