The smell of home cooking and the sound of piano: a visit to Southend-on-Sea

Image: Forward Trust
Executive Director for Research and Business Development Carwyn Gravell on his visit to one of Forward’s newest community substance misuse services in Southend-on-Sea.

Southend-on-Sea has many claims to fame. It is one of the UK’s newest cities, awarded the ‘letters patent’ by then HRH Prince of Wales in March 2022, and home to the longest pier in Europe, at over 7,000 feet. It is also the location of one of Forward’s newest substance misuse services, which I recently visited.

Walking Southend’s windy streets and seafront in winter, you need to take a moment to imagine that, come summer, these same streets are thronged with day-trippers and fun-seekers. And there’s lots of fun to be had in Southend, for sure – including the UK’s No 1 free admission theme park, the Sealife Adventure centre, and, of course, first-class fish and chips.

But Southend also has its problems. 40% of those in the town live in areas considered to be the most deprived 30% in England, with another eight neighbourhoods living in worse conditions, forming part of the 10% most deprived areas in the country. Despite a decline in previous years, rough sleeping rose over 50% in 2021-2022.

People living in deprived areas typically experience poor mental and physical health, alongside harm from drugs, alcohol and gambling. Southend is no exception, with drug-related deaths hitting a ten-year high in 2022. As a charity, Forward’s mission is to reach and support the most marginalised groups in society, to make a difference where and when people are struggling the most. Which is why we bid to run the Southend service when it came up for tender, and which we won and mobilised last year.

As part of my job is writing bids for new services, I’m always curious to see how plans and intentions translate into reality. The service is located a few streets off the sea front, at an old solicitor’s office. Walking through the front door, there’s a palpable sense of welcome. James, our Head of Services, shows me round the building and shares his vision for the future, now the new service is settled in. The rooms are high-ceilinged, full of light, ideal for group work with clients. There’s a patio area at the back, perfect for raised flower beds and the therapeutic benefits of gardening. A large bay-windowed room at the front feels like an informal café, where people drop in for tea and a chat.

I then meet the teams. When a new service is mobilised, changing provider and working for a different organisation can be unsettling for staff. And the team at Southend have certainly had their challenges, being understaffed for a while given sector-wide problems with recruitment. But the people I meet are full of energy and enthusiasm: the criminal justice team, outreach team, young person’s team (run by our partners Open Road), and clinical team. Though each has its area of specialism and expertise, the message I keep hearing is ‘We’re all one team here, we all muck in’.

Returning to the busy reception area, I’m greeted by the smell of home-cooked soup and the sound of piano. The soup is cooked for service users by a volunteer, Janice, herself a former client in recovery. “I love coming back and doing this for others!” says Janice, stirring two pots simultaneously and beaming. And the piano is played by Denise, a client in treatment. Que Sera, Sera is the tune she plays, a fittingly sweet resignation to fate, an acknowledgement that we can’t control everything and that we all sometimes need help. Denise comments in passing that the piano is a little out of tune, but she knows someone who can fix it for free. Mutual aid in action.

Recovery starts with and is sustained by human connection in such safe, nurturing environments, appealing to all the senses. This is the stuff our clients missed more than anyone during lockdown when so much support had to be delivered remotely. You can’t smell warming soup through a screen.

Saying my goodbyes and ending my visit, I take a last look at the seafront, and the long pier stretching out into the distance. Julian Barnes wrote that “a pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel”. I reflect there’s lots to look forward to at Southend as we harness the enthusiasm of staff and clients, and support them to bring lasting change, turning ambition into reality.

*not real names

This blog was originally published by The Forward Trust. You can read the original post here.

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