Wellbeing on the South Downs

Rosie Linford shares her recent experience of the Changing Chalk, a new partnership project with the National Trust & the Heritage Lottery Fund, bringing ecotherapy style events to the South Downs. 

The last three months for me have been focused on several pleasing alliterations, as ‘Changing Chalk’, Back to Bike, and Pilot Participants have appeared in my day-to-day vocabulary. Returning to work after furlough, I was given the task of organising five pilot events as part of the Changing Chalk projectMy part to play in this project is a small piece of a much wider network (more on this later) and involved running ‘ecotherapy’ style groups at new locations across the South Downs. Brighton is lucky to have multiple therapeutic outdoor projects, most of which are members of the Green Wellbeing AllianceWe are hoping to expand this work if our next round of funding is successful. 

A total of 25 people, most of whom are living with less visible health conditions or struggling with their mental health, came along to help test out some new ideas at five new locations, in exchange for their feedback.  

Young people learn about our diverse grasslands  

One of the groups involved young people from youth group ‘Esteem’, in Shoreham, most of whom have been in care or experience mental health issues, such as depression, isolation and anxietyThey came to visit Truleigh Hill near Shoreham (see local walking route) where we fed rare breed sheep and learned of their importance in grazing the chalk grassland.  

We learned that there is as much biodiversity in a meter square of precious chalk grassland as there is a rainforest and how they are both endangered. We made flatbreads and cooked dinner on the fire and tried foraged roasted chestnuts.  

When you go back to basics [like coming here], you’re more in the here and now, more present. It helps you get out of your head.

 Several of the young people spoke about the community aspect of sharing a meal together and the sense of achievement in cooking for their peers. Almost all of them talked about feeling better as a result of getting outdoors.  

“I have anxiety which affects me a lot. [Today,] I’ve come out of my comfort zone. Being around a fire has calmed me down, it feels homely here. 

“This is the first time I’ve done anything with the Esteem group. It’s been nice because I don’t get out much or do stuff like this normally. Honestly, this is the best thing I’ve done in a long time. Hopefully more people can experience this. I made garlic butter and bread for the first time. To hang out and have fun is nice, It’s really made me feel hopeful”.  

Learning to cycle with confidence  

Another group was a partnership with Sustrans where we delivered a two-part workshop to improve confidence for people wanting to be able to cycle more, including to be able to cycle to the Downs. The second part of the workshop included outdoor activity restoring some of the facilities for future wellbeing groups on the Food Partnership site in Stanmer Organics. 

One participant, Eileen told us I am 67 & although quite outgoing and active, had to retire for health reasons & recent lockdown meant almost total isolation as I live alone. I bought a bicycle during summer as I was aware my world was rapidly diminishing, and I needed life expansion as well as exercise. However due to fear of traffic I only used a few well-known cycle lanes (seafront etc) so my new bike stayed mostly indoors – like me! 

Cycling the road in Stanmer towards Stanmer House and the woodland beyond. 

 The second longer session, with Woodland Restoration at Stanmer Park was an unexpected joy…the whole experience of being outdoors for a purpose. I am more of an urban girl, so mostly occupied myself by lifting armfuls of nettles and brambles in our path clearing project, … I loved learning more about what was really on my doorstep in Stanmer Park – especially now I know I can cycle there. Have definitely caught the woodland bug as well as improved my cycling confidence.  

I realised the last time I had cycled on the road, in traffic was 43 years ago, when I was a teenager. Before this course I had been dreading entering into a bleak winter period of isolation (with ongoing low level depression). Now I can see that this next season will bring its own rhythm – and I feel confident I can access the outdoors and benefit from it.  

Since [the workshops] I have felt so much more cheerful, more upbeat and wake up after a full night’s sleep looking forward to each day, whatever the weather. Have been cycling now most days. On the road. With traffic. With far less anxiety, knowing I had a right to be there!  

The combination of road cycling & outdoor activity was truly inspiring and life-changing.” 

Other sites we visited were Lullington Heath and Frog Firle Farm, both near Alfriston, and Castle Hill near Woodingdean (more info on our local Nature Reserves). All were incredibly successful and had plenty of positive feedback. 

We are hoping to be successful in our next round of funding application which will enable us to develop more opportunities like this across the South Downs. 

Read on to find out a bit more about the Changing Chalk project:

Chalk Downland is facing rapid decline with only 4% of original habitat remaining. At the same time, there is increasing public recognition of the importance of nature and place as a determinant of individuals’ health and well-being. This ambitious project will bring together people and nature to tackle these threats and to grasp the heightened opportunities that the area offers. The vision is to reverse the decline in chalk grassland and establish a long-term collaborative management plan which is sustainable because of the equal benefits it will provide for people in the form of health and well-being, recreation, skills, employment and eco-system services.

The project is being funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with all our organisations that have helped develop the Changing Chalk: South Downs National Park Authority, Eastbourne and Lewes Council, Brighton and Hove City Council, Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, Kew Millennium Seed Bank, BugLife, Sussex Wildlife Trust, Natural England

Changing Chalk Programme, National Trust

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