Supporting volunteers to learn heritage skills

Linden Groves recently wrote an article for the journal of the Landscape Institute about how the Gardens Trust is supporting volunteers to learn heritage skills through the Sharing Repton project.

“As a statutory consultee in the English planning system, the Gardens Trust has an important role in protecting and conserving historic designed landscapes. This statutory role sounds reassuringly solid, with heritage assets securely protected within an automated system in which the Gardens Trust is an efficient cog.

In reality, this only works if it is underpinned by people, with human skills such as experience, judgment, and diplomacy. Limited resources mean we have a single professional Conservation Officer to fulfil our statutory role, so rely on the contributions of volunteers across the country, within local County Gardens Trusts. Working with, or as, a volunteer is a very different situation from paid employment, even though increasingly we find ourselves asking volunteers to undertake very ‘professional’ tasks and workloads  – commenting on planning applications, contributing to local government plans, providing research to the designation system. For the planning system to function with such a dependence on volunteers, it is critical that we are able to inspire, motivate, nurture, support and thank them.

Benefitting from grants from Historic England, and before that Natural England, we run a capacity-building scheme that supports and trains volunteers to acquire skills and contacts to play a proactive conservation role. Although there is always more to be achieved, this scheme has been incredibly successful, producing an exemplary volunteer workforce. We are acutely aware however that these superstars increasingly feel the burden, which is carried by all too few shoulders.

It is now essential that we learn how to attract more people, so that we are no longer a ‘committed few’, but rather an ‘energised many’. Sharing Repton: Historic Landscapes for All is a two-year audience development project which has used the 2018 bicentenary of landscape gardener Humphry Repton as a springboard to pilot five easily achievable and repeatable activities. It is designed to attract new people to historic parks and gardens, and then motivate, upskill and grow our community of garden historians, to take the lessons learnt and share our subject with others and bring it fresh life.

We were delighted to be awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £99,500, and are deeply grateful to the HLF and lottery players. As a small charity, the Gardens Trust couldn’t have undertaken this kind of work without such substantial funding, but additionally we have found that simply being able to describe Sharing Repton as an ‘HLF project’ has brought it vital kudos and has been a considerable morale boost.

The pilots have been a social event aimed at people completely new to garden history at Blaise Castle in Bristol (a 21st century equivalent of the ‘lecture with wine’ standard), a coach trip to Wicksteed Park in Kettering for families from a multicultural community centre, a Heritage Open Day at Catton Park in Norfolk aimed at guests who wouldn’t usually visit a historic park or garden (pictured above), a research and recording project for people local to Warley Woods in the Black Country, and a workshop at Kenwood in London to empower people – in this case predominantly refugee groups – to care for heritage sites near them. We have been incredibly fortunate to work closely with County Gardens Trusts, Broadland District Council, English Heritage, and other voluntary groups.

The results have far exceeded our expectations: 600 people attended the open day where we only hoped for 60, some of the families on our trip offered to volunteer in future, and the rookie researchers asked to write a Statement of Significance to help protect the site before we had even completed training.

We are building materials from our capacity-building adventures into an online Resource Hub and, where funding allows, are also able to deliver support in-person.  Do get involved – it is imperative that we work collectively and inclusively if designed landscapes are to be conserved for future generations.”

Linden Groves
Strategic Development Officer, the Gardens Trust

The Landscape Institute

Stay connected

Stay up-to-date with our news, campaigns and events by signing up to our monthly e-bulletin.

Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith