"It's great to get this kind of feedback 'I haven't been out for ages but am really glad I came'."
It was worth the wait!
That was the verdict after N-Vision’s very first Café Club in Blackpool - the resort where it all began for the charity way back in 1910.
N-Vision, The Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Society for the Blind, has been running monthly café clubs with great success at St Annes, Kirkham, Cleveleys, Poulton and Fleetwood – but the perfect setting for one in the heart of Blackpool was proving elusive.
Until now... Phil Richardson, a familiar name to the legions of Blackpool Talking Newspaper listeners as the voice of sport, runs the café clubs under the auspices of the charity’s Big Lottery-funded VIPS – visually impaired personalisation programme. (Thank you, Big Lottery!)
And he's bagged an incomparable venue. The majestic Mazzei at the Winter Gardens is the crème de la crème in a town with no shortage of big name coffee house chains. The surrounds are beautiful and appeal to all the senses - a big plus.
It fits the society’s bill perfectly thanks to its central location, relative ease of accessibility, and the sheer sense of space and grace all around.
Phil is delighted with the new Café Club. “I was so grateful for the staff and volunteers’ help. We had met with the managers at the Mazzei café who were supportive, but I was naturally apprehensive about how it would actually work out on the day.
“We had 23 clients attending and about eight partners, friends, and carers. There were quite a number of different clients, facing different challenges and wanting information about a variety of matters. I have already arranged for visits to some and to take equipment to the next one.
“It’s great to get this kind of feedback – ‘it’s nice to speak to other people who have the same problems as me’ and ‘I haven’t been out for ages but am really glad I came.’
“That is what the Café Clubs are all about -hopefully reaching out to people who otherwise would not feel like going out and therefore can be defined as 'isolated' - which in itself is a really common word used in the voluntary/statutory sectors when discussing need/risk.”
For some it proved a trip down memory lane. Margaret and Brian Heyes met at a dance here “back in the day” as Brian, 80, puts it. On leave from the Navy Brian cut a dash as he caught the eye of the beautiful young woman he would later marry. The couple have been married for 54 years and have two sons and four grandchildren.
They were both delighted at how ‘beautiful the Winter Gardens is inside’ after extensive renovations under local council ownership. Indeed, the charity itself can trace its origins back to the very same year the Opera House (version two) was being rebuilt - 1910.
The Café Club also gave clients - and newcomers interested in learning more - the chance to chat to staff away from the Bosworth Place, Squires Gate, base of the Low Vision Centre and Sharples Hall.
Eye clinic liaison officer Linda Sethi, who usually divides her working hours between the society's Low Vision Centre and the incredibly busy eye clinic at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, was on hand to talk to newcomers and established clients.
“It was lovely to talk to Linda,” Margaret said. “It really helps to talk things through.”
Brian Casey, the charity's Low Vision worker, talked technology and other aids and appliances with visitors. The charity regularly hosts trade exhibitions featuring high tech and other aids and has stock on display to try and buy at the Low Vision Centre (drop in on Mondays to learn more or for a chat about the services available or book an appointment).
Last year, Brian who hit the headlines internationally after becoming the very first European to trial eSight glasses - and with outstanding results too. He lost much of his sight almost 30 years ago to two separate sports injuries a year apart.
"I'd like to talk to Brian about those new phone cameras," confided Eileen Coyne. "I'm not bothered about the phone or the internet but I really like the way they can take pictures without having to use a camera!"
There were plenty of photo opportunities as the conversation flowed with the coffee and tea and strangers left as friends more than an hour later. June Mather and Sherrie Wait, both in their 80s, showed it's never too late to make new friends - pausing for a photograph in front of an 8ft bronze statue (sadly cropped for landscape picture purposes here) that celebrates friendship, love, light and laughter.
Indeed, if you had glanced up you would have seen comedy duo Morecambe and Wise smiling down on June and Sherrie - along with all the other newcomers to the Mazzei. The venue was named after the film set designer who brought so much magic to the Winter Gardens. Eric and Ernie clocked up more than 1000 performances in Blackpool...
Sherrie, 89, reckons she could have given them a run for their money. “I had a season pass to the Winter Gardens and the Tower, so I could go dancing every night. Today’s been lovely – full of memories and new friends. It’s given me plenty to smile about.”
Bring me sunshine?
N-Vision just did –the Café Club will be back in Blackpool on June 5 from 10.30am to 11.30am. If you have a friend or family member who may be blind or visually impaired or experiencing allied issues why not drop in with them - or test the water yourself?
And, if course, if you're planning a day trip or longer break in Blackpool come along. For details of any or all of the cafe clubs and other services available (sight loss support, Talking Newspaper, eye clinic liaison, activities, social hub, Low Vision Centre, Princess Alexandra Home and more) call (01253) 362696.
* Talking of firsts, the Blackpool Talking Newspaper, now in its 41st year at the charity, and one of the biggest in the country, has just started a podcast, presented by anchorman/producer Johnny Gardener - who is severely sight impaired - and audio engineer and IT specialist Chris Carter. It's a great way of featuring a 'taster' of the contents of the 12 hour weekly 'newspaper' which features excerpts of local papers, magazines and more, including charity news, read by teams of volunteers. Follow the charity on @N_Vision_NW and on Facebook.