When 35-year-old Scott Johnson lost his work as a football coach during the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, he decided to fill his time by starting a men’s mental health walking group.
Johnson posted on local Facebook groups in Southwark inviting others to join him on his daily walks, and despite his wry amusement when only one lad turned up for the first event, The Proper Blokes Club was born.
Fast forward to its two-year anniversary, and the Facebook page Johnson started on 15 September 2020 now has 4.2 thousand likes.
The group has expanded to five other London boroughs: Greenwich, Sutton, Barnet, Havering and Lambeth, with around 200 men in the club’s Whatsapp groups, and six walks taking place across London per week.
Johnson said: “The idea came because I feel like I used to think a lot clearer whilst I was on walks, so it was helping me. I thought, ‘if this can help just one person, it’s done its job’.”
Strength in numbers
If the size of the community now is anything to go by, then The Proper Blokes Club is certainly doing its job.
Johnson is amazed at the amount of messages he receives from people asking about the group: not only in other parts of the UK, but also abroad, especially after a feature in the Guardian last month.
He said: “We’ve had lads from South Africa, Australia, France. Recently I’ve had a Zoom meeting with the lad from South Africa and he’s really eager to start one out there, so it might be going international already!
“What it’s shown me also is that there’s a massive need for this across the UK. We’ve had lads from Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow, down south, Devon, wherever it may be. Everyone asks me: ‘is there one of these in my area?’.”
The Proper Blokes Club has already inspired offshoots, from women’s groups to a similar venture in Northern Ireland set up by one of the club’s members.
Graham Seaton, a 38-year-old planning manager, explained how the club gave him the confidence to lead his own mental health walking group back home.
He said: “I never thought in a million years I’d have had the confidence to lead my own walk when I moved to north London.
“Now I’ve made a decision to move home to Northern Ireland as I’ve had my own struggles recently that the group have been so supportive of. We’re already talking about me starting walks over here and plotting doing a Big Walk here next year.
“The Proper Blokes Club is by far the most important group I’ve ever been a part of, even though I have left London. I haven’t gained mates from the group, I’ve gained brothers. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t tell these blokes.”
Big Walks bring blokes together
The club’s Big Walks follow long routes that bring together lads from the different local groups, generally down by the coast.
Johnson said they tend to be double or treble the distance of the weekly walks, happening roughly every three months.
This month however, they will be tackling a 10-15 mile route in central London from London Bridge to Tower Bridge, starting on 22 October at 9am.
This will be their seventh Big Walk and the last of the year.
James Walker, a 45-year-old operations director in the marine industry, has been part of the group since the second Big Walk and came up with the idea for the route.
He said: “It’s a little bit more accessible and also a lot of people, even though they live in London, don’t actually get to see all these landmarks. We might come across other guys on the walk, or other people might spot it – we might get some more guys who think it’s a great idea and want to join the group.
“It’s been an amazing journey, just from two or three guys out walking – and now I’ve met at least 200 guys in different guises.
“So many guys have bought into it, and it’s an incredible thing to see. It’s rewarding for everybody – you get out what you put in. Even if you’re feeling good, there may be somebody feeling down who might need somebody to talk to.
“We look after each other, which is a very unique thing – especially amongst blokes.”
Breaking the stigma
Johnson explained that the struggle men face against the pressures of daily life is not always visible.
He added: “People are going through battles every day: constant stress at work, constantly looking at your bank account to see if you’ve got enough money, constantly having relationship problems. These are everyday issues that can creep up and build up to those more severe things.
“I think mental health in men’s minds is ‘I’m being taken away in some sort of straitjacket’. But they’re the people that are drinking or doing drugs to block their problems away.
“If we deal with it and have conversations about it early doors – so a lot of prevention work – we can stop a lot of the stuff going forward.”
The most important moment of the walks, for Johnson, is taking the group photograph at the end.
He said: “One of the things I was very adamant about when I started this was that I wanted people to take the picture at the end – I don’t want people to hide behind it.
“I want them to say, ‘this is what I’m doing, it doesn’t make me any different to you, and if you don’t like me because of this then see you later!’.”
A lasting impression
Johnson’s attitude towards dealing with men’s mental health is one of collective positivity, empowered self-confidence and group strength and it is incredibly inspiring.
Geoff Saunders, 60, is a member of the group and a supported learning lecturer at Lewisham College.
He said: “Knowing that there are so many guys willing to make themselves vulnerable to help break the stigma of men’s mental health is humbling and very encouraging.”
The sense of community strength in the club is palpable, and all four men acknowledge the true friendships they have formed from it.
As it continues to grow, The Proper Blokes Club will provide a friendly environment for more men to talk about everything from football to work to relationship problems – and get a healthy dose of fresh air in the process.
Kitted out in their club T-shirts as they stride through central London, these lads will be raising a big flag to passers-by which champions the lifelong benefits of a simple walk and talk.