WHEN musician Johnno Casson started the Warm and Toasty Club he admits he didn’t have a grand plan in mind for the project.

It was a way for him to give something back to the Colchester community and helped him deal with his chronic fatigue syndrome.

But now, six years later, the project is firmly established and is even garnering national attention.

Its memory afternoons have received high praise from MPs, peers and baronesses in the House of Lords during a reception at which Johnno was invited to speak.

They’re also now on the social prescription list of GPs across Colchester.

Johnno said: “I am surprised and proud it has come so far.

“When I started I didn’t have a grand plan, I was just doing it because it was a nice thing to do.

“People have really taken to it and it has been making a difference.

“The best way to measure it is when people write to us or say to us it has changed their lives.

“Just the other day we had someone tell us it had saved their life - that means the world to me.”

Halstead Gazette:

Last year, the Warm and Toasty Club secured £50,000 from the National Lottery Community Fund to expand its memory afternoons, befriending and conversation sessions for older people, into a third venue.

In future, Johnno hopes the group can reach even more of the isolated and lonely across Colchester.

Its reach could even grow even further and move to other parts of Essex.

He said: “I would like to expand it somewhat, but we want to do it organically and with a quality rather than quantity approach.

“I have been asked to take the model forward as a sort of franchise across the country.

“But I do not want to make it a business model because it is a non-profit community project. I do not want to rush at it.

“Next up we get to the end of our two years’ funding from the National Lottery.

“Hopefully we can be set up a bit more long-term and secure funding for three or five years.

“As the opportunities then arise we could expand into other places.”

Halstead Gazette:

Friends Iris Martin and Brenda Davis are regular visitors to the newest memory afternoon session at Shrub End Social Centre, which draws at least 30 people each fortnight.

The sessions see visitors reminisce on things from their youth, such as radio serials and classic TV shows, and there’s even a different entertainer who goes along each week.

Halstead Gazette:

Iris, 86, was a particular fan of a recent visit from an Elvis impersonator.

“If you’d have gone back in time a few years you’d have thought that was him,” she said.

“He was absolutely brilliant.

“Johnno is brilliant too and is so passionate about the project.”

Brenda, 85, added: “You are not forced to take part at all.

“We would pay for this but it is completely free. You don’t get that anywhere else.”

Over the six years, Johnno has seen hundreds of elderly residents attend the memory afternoons.

Many of them he now knows well enough to call friends, and he’s keen the town’s elderly residents don’t get forgotten.

Halstead Gazette:

“I think it means as much to me as it does to the people who come,” Johnno said.

“It is like being with my mates and it is a new gang I hang out with.

“I think as much as it is good for people who come along, it is a tonic for me too.

“In the UK elderly people can be invisible.

“I want to change that bit by bit there is intergenerational understanding so other people can understand what life is like for older people.”

Deborah Myhill attends with her mum and dad Don, 85, and Mary, 84, each week.

The couple recently moved to Colchester from Norfolk and having a memory afternoon just down the road has been a wonderful way to get involved in the Colchester community.

Deborah said: “It is a happy space where people share their memories.

“It is all positive and you do not know where the conversations will go.

“Just hearing the music brings back memories for people and it is quite exciting for mum and dad.

“Last time we had Elvis here and he was flirting with all the ladies.

“Johnno keeps it all light-hearted and it is a nice safe social space.”

Halstead Gazette:

Marion Renton, who is in her 70s, has become something of a cheerleader for the group since the new session in Shrub End started.

She introduced Iris and Brenda to the project and has been attending for many months.

“You don’t get the chance to go back to your past much anymore and it takes a bit of remembering some of it, but I enjoy it,” she said.

“The world needs more things like this, especially for older people.”

And Johnno agrees.

He said: “I always think we should be providing services for people who suffer from loneliness.

“If you’re feeling low and lonely you must feed it with good things to keep it away which often means getting out of the house, meeting people and making friends.

“Being in good company is positive, hopefully that is what we offer.

“A lot of people come to us and they are a bit shy and quiet and it is about reinvigorating them.

“For some it is just an afternoon out, but for others it is a catalyst for changing their lives.”

The Warm and Toasty Club’s memory afternoons take place weekly at Enoch House in Greenstead, fortnightly at Shrub End Social Centre and fortnightly at Colchester Arts Centre.

To find out more about the Warm and Toasty Club or its memory afternoons, visit thewarmandtoastyclub.co.uk.