Yorkshire grandfather Mike Bell - 'I can understand how it can be lonely, living on your own'

There's a steady stream of visitors for grandfather Mike Bell, on a cold winter's morning when he could feel so alone.

The lady who comes by to dust, bringing some pies she thought he might like. Her husband, working nearby, nipping in on his lunch break to help with the vacuuming.

Grandfather Mike Bell, of West Tanfield near Ripon, is a double amputee who struggles to access public transport. Image: Gary Longbottom

Grandfather Mike Bell, of West Tanfield near Ripon, is a double amputee who struggles to access public transport. Image: Gary Longbottom

And in the tiny cottage's kitchen, volunteer Robin Symonds, brewing coffee to Mr Bell's cheerfully hollered demands.

To an outsider, they would seem to have so little in common, this gregarious former prison officer and the soft-spoken museums' consultant.

But they have forged an unlikely friendship, build on the basis of mutual respect, and cemented over two years of weekly visits.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

Grandfather-of-five Mike Bell, of West Tanfield, pictured with his late wife Jo.

Grandfather-of-five Mike Bell, of West Tanfield, pictured with his late wife Jo.

"It's everything to me," says Mr Bell, a grandfather-of-five whose wife Jo died in 2000. "These visits are what keeps me going.

"You see things, on the television. An old couple, one visiting the other in hospital and saying they can't live without them.

"I know, I've been there. There is another way of living, and it is a big difference.

"I don't want to embaress anybody," he adds. "I am content. But I don't know what I'd do without them.

The late Jo Bell, of West Tanfield. After losing Jo, says her widower Mike Bell, he had to adjust to a new way of life.

The late Jo Bell, of West Tanfield. After losing Jo, says her widower Mike Bell, he had to adjust to a new way of life.

"I can understand how it could be lonely, living on your own."

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Rural isolation

Mr Bell is a double amputee, having lost his legs some years ago after being kicked by a stubborn horse, refusing to be led to its trailer.

He cannot drive, and while there is a bus, he is only too aware of his age and limitations. In effect, the 83-year-old admits, he is unable to leave the village.

Double amputee Mike Bell, pictured with volunteer Robin Symonds who visits him weekly under a be-friender scheme. The pair have forged a strong friendship. Image: Gary Longbottom.

Double amputee Mike Bell, pictured with volunteer Robin Symonds who visits him weekly under a be-friender scheme. The pair have forged a strong friendship. Image: Gary Longbottom.

But the tiny rural hamlet of West Tanfield between Ripon and Masham, while it may be remote, is also his home. There is a defiant pride, in his wanting to stay.

"I do have a little fear," says Mr Bell. "I know I'm getting senile, and I'm frightened of someone coming along and saying I'm no longer able to look after myself.

"I've told them I'll be leaving in a wooden box."

Settled in front of the fire in the cosy stone cottage, Mr Bell reminisces, of his childhood in Thurnscoe, near Doncaster, and of his time as a prison officer in Armley.

There are tales of the hospital, after his amputation, and how he would always get in trouble for hosting impromptu parties in the canteen.

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Volunteers

Mr Symonds, a volunteer with the HELP Ripon and Rural befriending service, sits quietly as he listens.

His visits are not altruistic, the museum audio and video specialist insists. It isn't out of kindness to the elderly that he comes, but because he enjoys it.

"I looked after my mother, before she died, I looked in on her most days," says the 68-year-old. "Perhaps I miss doing that. But I would miss this now, if I didn't come.

"I enjoy it. And you learn so much, about what life was like. How people lived in the 1940s, the little snippets about bus journeys or school that you won't find anywhere else."

Mr Symonds also volunteers with the charity to help out with odd jobs in the community, be it in mowing the lawn or clearing leaves from cluttered gutters.

"It's half the time on jobs and half the time just chatting, because they are lonely," he adds.

"I can see that people can become lonely in rural areas. It's about transport and travel, it can be harder to visit."

The HELP Ripon and Rural project is a befriending service, aimed at ensuring those who might not have family close by have a listening ear, someone to talk to on a regular basis.

For Mr Bell, it means he sees people regularly. It would be all too easy to fall silent but, with the knowledge that there is always someone coming, he builds up his words.

"You wouldn't believe the number of times I've had a cup of coffee go cold, because I'm too busy talking," he laughs.

"It's changing me, quite a lot. I've not always had a very flattering view of humanity. Now, I think much better than I did. There are more nice people than not."