Hi, my name is Chris Morgan.
I served 24 years in the Army, a Gunner in the Royal Artillery both as a regular soldier and in the reserves. In 2002 I suffered a breakdown after losing my wife to cancer. The breakdown led to quite severe mental health issues. Today it would have been diagnosed as PTSD. I am still on medication today but have learnt to manage the condition.
In those very dark days, when nothing seemed worth living for, I found refuge in my small wood workshop, a 6 x 4 shed. It was my ‘safe place’. I do not recall making many things, but I was able to potter around and take my mind off the issues I had.
I moved up to Catterick Garrison in 2008, with my new partner, who also came from a military background. I joined a conservation company and became a volunteer conservation officer. In this role I learned all of my heritage skills, green woodworking being my favourite. Whilst supporting the local nature reserve a group of wounded soldiers were visiting and we held an impromptu spoon carving session. The sessions became so popular I was invited to set up a weekly afternoon class at the PRU (Personnel Recovery Centre) – an old barrack block – and this soon became a full day.
In those very dark days, when nothing seemed worth living for, I found refuge in my small wood workshop, a shed
In 2011 an idea was put forward to build a professionally designed recovery centre, with accommodation. Help for Heroes and RBL [the Royal British Legion] agreed to the funding and Phoenix House Recovery Centre came into being here in Catterick Garrison.
I was invited to continue the wood carving but had to share with the art room. Basically a 6 x 2 table, and usually 6 – 10 people around it. Things needed to change so I suggested we needed a proper shed/workshop. I was given permission to go ahead and plan the workshop, and I proceeded to raise £30,000.00 which I hoped would be enough to buy the shed and equipment. I achieved my aims and within 10 weeks we had a workshop set up and over the next 12 months managed to get more equipment donated. The biggest supporters were Robert Sorby Ltd, Trend Ltd, Axminster Tools and Peter Sefton (Peter Sefton Furniture school). Other individual supporters were Tony Wilson and Andrew Hall, both well-known and respected professional woodturners.
The workshop was extraordinarily successful. We were able to offer some basic woodworking skills to both male and female serving personnel and, after a few months, we were able to invite the veterans into the workshop. This proved even more successful and we were able to support veterans in a more practical way. I can also say without any doubt our Shed/workshop has saved lives! Initially, we only offered woodturning but, as time went on, we were able to offer other disciplines, the most popular being wood carving! We also had a CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machine donated by Legacy in the USA and British Airways flew the machines over for free! That was back in 2013.
After three years, a few of the guys asked if they could learn more skills and would like to look at possible future employment. We did not have the capacity to run courses of more than two or three days, due to the volume of veterans and WIS (Wounded, Injured and Sick) serving personnel.
In 2016 I handed over the workshop and set up Veterans Wood Craft. We started in a small garage on the Gallowfields Trading Estate. With huge financial support from my partner, we were able to pay rents, buy timber, get more machines (mainly second hand) and start working with the veterans on teaching new skills. After a year we moved over the road to a more substantial unit, sharing with another company. After another six months we took over that unit and, about 14 months ago, the landlord cleared the area behind the workshop and built two more large garage type units that we also rent!
We now have veterans attending training courses, many come in at least once a week, some just for a brew and a chat. We are now supporting members of the blue light services and continue to work with the serving personnel.
The aim of Veterans Wood Craft has always been to help veterans with mental or physical injuries on their recovery pathway. We have been successful. Once a veteran is confident to be with people, we invite them to help us deliver an outreach programme to several local mental health groups, children with learning difficulties, local schools in the area, and the military community which includes the families.
We have a strong link with the Ghurkha Veterans. Here we work with the veterans and their wives and our current project is to help build a Heritage Centre for them within the garrison. We have already helped – or rather watched – while they built a full-size plough that would have been used back home on the farms in Nepal, butter urns, flatbread makers, even had several spinning sessions with the wives.
We are also open to non-military people, many who have retired and then have nothing to do. Most of these guys are 65 plus.
During Covid-19 we have had to be incredibly careful but have managed to run outdoor woodcraft sessions, mainly with the green woodworking skills taught. We specialise in one-to-one training; just part of the job. We can also offer home visits and set up a lathe carving bench in someone’s house, usually in a garage or shed, but we did have some lathe work on a kitchen table.
We have been successful, still all volunteers, even me. We are dependent on grants and fund-raising events. The past six months have been very difficult as we have not been able to get out and about and attend fundraising events.
Last month we were offered a new workshop site in Newton Aycliffe. This is a huge project and a huge building. We will be able to offer more training courses, a drop-in café, a training kitchen and bakery and, on the first-floor, small conference facilities, quiet areas – more support from the veterans other than woodworking. A small team of veterans are putting up stud walls, make door and window frames, all being taught and supported by more experienced volunteers. Still a few weeks to go until its finished when it will be open for all to visit – we have never turned anyone away.
We are often asked if we only ‘do woodworking’. Up until now, the answer has been ‘Yes, sorry’. But as from next week we take over a third ‘Shed’ where we will have a vintage tractor and some stationary steam engines to work on. The group will be known as The Vintage Veterans Restoration Group.
Finally, why are Men Shed’s so important and why do I support them? I am the living proof that the concept works. From my very dark days up until the present being able to ‘go to my shed’ has helped me, and I KNOW it has saved my life.
You can find me and the team on www.veteranswoodcraft.co.uk, drop me a line if you think we can help. With the facilities on the first floor maybe we could hold a Northern Men’s Shed Conference/Exhibition.
We welcome both male and female veterans and non-military people. We are non-sectarian, non-political, race, creed, sexuality or religion do not matter. It is the individual who matters to us.
If you are ever in Richmond, North Yorkshire or Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, drop by for a natter and a brew.
Take care everybody and stay safe, and I wish you all a Happy Shed Life.