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Meeting the neighbours of Newington Green dsc_1035 - The Conversation Club members: Richard Aspinall (far right) with his students from Russia, Colombia, Palestine, India, Korea and Argentina. Full view

Meeting the neighbours of Newington Green

It can be tough for busy Londoners to maintain relationships with – or even meet  – their neighbours. Ludovica Tronci  found out how the people of Newington Green are trying to remedy this situation

Urban city life offers the promise of new social activities and a wide variety of people, but many still struggle to make friends – even with those next door.

According to a recent study carried out by The Big Lunch– a lottery-funded initiative that brings people together once a year for a few hours of lunch, chit-chat and friendship – London is actually the second politest city in the UK, with “one in four people knocking on a neighbour’s door to introduce themselves shortly after they have moved into a new home”.

However, the research also shows that more than two thirds of people in London don’t know their neighbours and 35% don’t have any idea of what their names are.

Newington Green residents gathering at the Unitarian Church.
Newington Green residents gathering at the Unitarian Church.

A local group is attempting to buck this trend. Members of the community of Newington Green, the London area that straddles the border between the boroughs of Islington and Hackney, are coming up with ideas and events that aim to break typical barriers of shyness and diffidence between neighbours.

Newington Green Down the Road

The inaugural meeting of ‘Newington Green Down the Road’ took place in September at the Unitarian Church. It was the first of a series of events that aim to gather people living and working in the area for a few hours of talks, live music and skills swap. The idea came to Rosie Warin, 27, who likes to define herself as “an active member of the community”,  over the Christmas period.

Rosie Warin, 27, in her office in London Bridge.
Rosie Warin, 27, in her office in London Bridge.

“I am not religious at all but I went to church with my family as it is a really nice occasion,” she says. “And I thought it was a shame that we never got together with people that live in our area apart from Christmas time, so I started to think how to bring the community together.”

The first meeting was based on the theme “What is home?” and featured a movie, two live musicians and a debate between two people from the community, one of them a woman in her 80s, who has lived in Newington Green for all her life, and a man who runs a shop in the area. “It was a great mix of people, there were 30 or 40 people in the end coming and going,” Warin says, “and there was a really good atmosphere. At the beginning people were a bit unsure of what to expect, all looking around trying to understand what was going to happen, but by the end everyone was taking part and chatting with each other with smiling pretty faces.”

Why is having a close-knit community so important? “A big study by the New Economic Foundation found out that one of the Five Ways into Well-Being is connecting with the people around you, so in the work place, in your community, at home. And another one is ‘carrying on learning’, that is basically what we did. So I believe that to live healthy we have to engage with each other and build as many relationships as possible.”

Credit: Facebook Down the Road


Conversation Club

People from a variety of countries took part in ‘Down the Road’. Living in overseas can be really tough, especially if you don’t know the language and know only a few people. This is why another local came up with the idea of organising a so-called “Conversation Club”, aimed at giving cheap lessons to people who want to learn English and make friends in the local area.

img_0615The project started in mid-July thanks to Richard Aspinall, 30, an English teacher. The classes take place every Wednesday from 1pm to 3pm in one of the rooms made available by the Unitarian Church, at the heart of the area. “I noticed that recently there have not been so many students willing to study so I thought to give them an alternative with free lessons and now I charge a little bit of money, like £5 for an hour and a half, just to give people who don’t have a lot of money a chance to study,” says Aspinall.

Thanks to its mix of ethnic and national backgrounds, the conversation classes offers an opportunity to learn about different cultures, as well as to build new relationships. “I have been doing it every day for 10 years and I have seen the minimum of most of the cultures,” says Aspinall. “I am surprised how little the other students know about the other countries. And it’s much funnier than the one-to-one lessons as it is great to chat to people from around the world and listen to what they have to say.”

Anna Chikray, 29, is a veteran of the group and moved here from Moscow with her husband. “Once, I attended another Conversation Club in Islington, but I didn’t like it,” she recalls. “Here it’s more friendly and comfortable and it’s a really useful class. It’s interesting to meet new people as nearly every time there is somebody new and it’s useful to have a guide to ask him questions about life in London, too. And then I learnt something new about different and far-away cultures like North Korea.”

The Conversation Club members: Richard Aspinall (far right) with his students from Russia, Colombia, Palestine, India, Korea and Argentina.
The Conversation Club members: Richard Aspinall (far right) with his students from Russia, Colombia, Palestine, India, Korea and Argentina.

Newington Green Unitarian Church

Written by Ludovica Tronci

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