Nov 15 2019

Community is at the Heart of Smithills

At the centre of the National Lottery Heritage Funded project at Smithills Estate is community work. How do we engage Bolton’s communities with the site? Why are some communities not engaging with the site? And how do we open up the wellbeing value of our walks and activities to those who would really benefit, but might have barriers to accessing the site?

We’ve been building relationships across Bolton as the project has progressed, engaging with new visitors through a widened events plan – which has included art, creative writing, theatre and archaeology events as well as wildlife and conservation events. Alongside this we have also been working with specific groups to broaden engagement in demographic groups who are under-represented in our visitor profile, but who we know make up a sizable proportion of Bolton’s population. This year, we have focussed on three things in particular: dementia-friendly activity, tackling social isolation, and welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to the site (Bolton is a ‘gateway town’).
In April we ran our first dementia-friendly walk, and we now have a regular group of walkers who have made new friendships through our regular meetings. Every single person who has attended a walk has answered ‘yes’ to our feedback question ‘Do you think walks like this improve wellbeing?’ – we can’t ask for better than that. Each walk has a nature-based activity afterward led by staff from City of Trees, so it’s a real partnership project. We have had feedback to say that the walks have given people confidence to do more things outside of the home, and that ‘without community groups like yours, [we] would be stuck at home or walking around towns and cafes’.
In August we ran our first Walk & Talk, in partnership with Bolton Council of Mosques, which was specifically designed to tackle social isolation, and to remove some of the barriers we know people face in joining us on the Estate, with referrals coming from the NHS, and various local services helping people with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. We ensure that we have at least one qualified counsellor present, not to offer therapy, but to listen and signpost if necessary. This group is really valued by those attending – ‘I wouldn’t leave the house if it wasn’t for this walk. It’s a safe place for me to be.’
Finally… we work with two local refugee support charities (City of Sanctuary Bolton and BRASS), and through this we have offered volunteering to asylum seekers, and run Welcome Walks to show people where we are, how to get here on public transport, and easy walking routes on the Estate (followed, of course, by lunch and chat!)
All of this shows what we can do with funding to support us – it has allowed us to spend time engaging with communities around us, bringing those communities onto the Estate, and sharing the benefits of being outdoors. We’ve helped people to create new friendships with others, as well as to do something positive for themselves and their wellbeing. We have been able to train volunteers as Health Walk Leaders, which is invaluable in welcoming visitors with different needs to the Estate, and allows us to expand what we can do.
Lots of the groups we work with are also joining us during our tree planting weeks – all of us coming together for the #BigClimateFightback in Bolton… it sounds corny, but our community is helping us to create our new woodlands at Smithills, and hopefully they will be helping us to look after it for years to come!
Vicky Entwistle- Engaging Communities Officer, Smithills
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