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Health and wellbeing case studies

From exercise to mindfulness, being around beautiful things to being in the great outdoors - historic houses offer the perfect place for boosting physical and mental wellbeing, and these examples show

Health and wellbeing
Yoga at Powderham Castle in Devon
Fireside yoga, sensory gardens and inclusive histories

Powderham Castle, Devon

Powderham Castle in Devon follows a broad and inclusive approach to health and wellbeing as part of their mission to embed Powderham at the heart of their community. Welcoming almost 40,000 visitors a year, Powderham works closely with local groups and partner charities to develop inclusive programmes that engage all sections of the community.

The castle places a strong emphasis on educational partnerships, welcoming groups from near (local primary schools) and far (University of Pennsylvania post-graduates). They recently signed an exciting new Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Exeter, which will include further research into the untold LGBTQ histories of the Courtenay ancestors. Powderham are active in the LGBTQ community, regularly hosting local youth group X-Plore for their fundraising events, and supporting Pride events throughout rural Devon. Powderham also offers a Pride Tour of the castle, which helps visitors engage with historic sexuality conversations.

Powderham have developed a programme of wellbeing-focused events at the castle, including ‘An Evening of Zen’ – a mindfulness inspired evening including meditation in the pleasure gardens and outdoor Tai Chi sessions. A new sensory garden installation, developed with Dr Diana Waters, will include a soundscape of audio triggers to help participants with memory engagement and meditation. This garden is also intended to provide an immersive experience for local dementia groups such as Mede Care Home, which Powderham host for regular social meetings.

Bringing a whole new meaning to ‘hot yoga’, Powderham offers popular weekly fireside yoga classes in its dining room. The ‘hygge’ inspired classes are lit by soft candlelight, often accompanied by live music from a local cellist, adding to the relaxation of body and mind. Feedback from the participants showed that the historic surroundings of the classes contributed to their wellbeing benefits. One participant said, ‘Where you practise makes a big difference – a bland leisure centre does not have the same effect as a panelled room full of beautiful paintings, or a breezy lakeside listening to the rustling of ancient trees. Yoga at Powderham is not just yoga, it’s a spiritual journey into history. When the lesson starts, I forget where I have been and where I need to be, I feel safe and at peace.’

Abbotsford Children's Trail
Learning in a Heritage Landscape

Abbotsford, Scottish Borders

The Abbotsford Trust’s community engagement project, Learning in a Heritage Landscape, was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s passion for the outdoors. Not only the leading Scottish writer of his age, he was also a champion of health and wellbeing long before it was popular, and believed that fresh air, social interaction and physical activity had multiple health benefits.

The project drew upon this philosophy by encouraging participants to engage with their own health and wellbeing alongside Abbotsford’s unique built and natural heritage. The project aimed to offer new skills and enhance employability for young job seekers and adults experiencing long-term unemployment. Through the project, 58 local people engaged with a programme of horticultural and creative tasks that developed a range of life and work skills.

The wellbeing elements of the programme involved woodland art, poetry writing, tree planting, mindfulness sessions and sensory trails. On the skills side, participants gained practical experience of horticulture, forestry and estate management through hands-on tasks in the gardens and woodland. Numeracy skills were developed through practical activities such as calculating the height of trees and weighing the harvest, whilst personal journals filled with poetry, creative writing and reports helped to improve literacy skills. Feedback from participants and organisational partners consistently praised the project for developing confidence, communication skills and independence, and all participants reported a heightened knowledge of the natural world.

This project reached out to groups who are used to barriers blocking their access to positive experiences. Here, each person was encouraged to immerse themselves in this beautiful local resource, and connect with a shared root of cultural heritage. In the process we saw some of those barriers fade away and, in their place, a growing confidence to believe they can belong, be part of such a historical place – and be part of the legacy.’ – Mary Kenny, Heritage Engagement Officer

Park run Holkham
Park Run

Holkham Hall, Norfolk

Holkham Hall in Norfolk welcomes up to 300 people at its weekly parkrun, which has taken place every Saturday on the estate since 2015. The free event is open to everyone in the community and attracts a variety of people, from local running clubs to families to the Earl of Leicester (owner of Holkham Hall). It is just one of many parkruns taking place at Historic Houses member places across the UK, including at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, and Castle Howard in North Yorkshire.

The Holkham parkrun is renowned as one of the most beautiful routes in the UK, following an undulating 5km course through historic parkland which is surrounded by wildlife, including the estate’s herd of fallow deer. On the homeward straight, runners pass the magnificent 80ft obelisk at the highest point of the park, before enjoying sweeping views down to the Hall on the final stretch to the finish line.

The event is not a race but an opportunity to enjoy the landscape however participants please, whether as a leisurely walk, a training course, or a social activity. It is a chance for the local community to come together regularly to enjoy both physical activity and beautiful surroundings, and the organisers are keen to encourage people to participate irrespective of ability. Every week runners are invited to socialise after the run at the Courtyard Cafe in the park, an important aspect of the running community that has sprung up around this event.

The Holkham parkrun is entirely run by volunteers, who have found the events beneficial for mental as well as physical health. In the words of one volunteer: ‘Volunteering at parkrun has had a hugely positive impact on my mental health. Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but parkrun is the perfect medication, as are the great friends I’ve made at Holkham parkrun. I love my home parkrun because of the people, the location, the atmosphere and the positivity that surrounds a happy parkrun event. I wouldn’t be anywhere else on a Saturday morning.’

Wild Tots

Clytha Park, Monmouthshire

Grass roots community enterprise Wild Tots was started five years ago by two local mothers, Sarah and Zoe – who feel passionately about empowering families with young children to be confident in getting outdoors regularly. Wild Tots quickly gained a reputation for its welcoming atmosphere and for inspiring families to enjoy the freedom of outside play, whatever the weather. Wild Tots has grown and developed since they first started their venture, pursuing their deeply held aspiration for children to create joyful childhood experiences immersed in nature and wild play.

The Wild Tots programme is a prime example of how heritage sites are facilitating health and wellbeing initiatives across the sector. At Clytha Park, the wild tots group are able to take advantage of the idyllic parkland setting to create a safe and inspiring setting for wild play. There is already a significant body of research that demonstrates the long term positive cognitive effect of cultural engagement in such settings – and historic environments have been shown to help foster social cohesion in communities, create a sense of belonging, and provide unique opportunities for personal enrichment.

Playing outdoors is one of the best play environments for children, requiring imagination, creativity, logic, patience, motivation, negotiation with other children, and repeated trial and error. Sometimes adults fail to recognise how beneficial this free-form style of play is, and feel compelled to direct the play which limits the potential benefits of having these freedoms. Wild Tots offers bite sized workshops that support parents to become more confident and empowered to enjoy lots of different natures focussed aspects of their children’s first 1000 days. They offer peer to peer support to empower new parents to explore and enjoy these key times for their children, and to support their steps as a new family.

The benefits of unstructured free play in the outdoors, for both the child and the parent are enormous- and it is these social, environmental and health outcomes which are the key difference the co-founders are trying to make within the wider parent community. The conviction that being in nature helps to nurture resilience, creativity and well-being is fundamental to the creation of the Wild Tots family first 1000 days wellbeing concept, and its wider vision of being easily adopted in every community.

Vennersys Image
Social Prescribing Pilot

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

The team at Blenheim Palace partnered with Aspire, a local charity helping people into secure housing, the Eden Project and the University of Oxford to run a new social prescribing project funded by Research England. The project addressed some of the negative effects of the three UK lockdowns, including mental distress, physical inactivity and social isolation which many grappled with.

An initial 6 week pilot saw participants engaging in mindfulness activities and going on 2 hour walks round the estate, connecting them to nature, heritage, and the great outdoors as well as providing social opportunities. AA raft of positive feedback and results meant that the pilot was extended for a whole 12 months, ensuring many more could benefit from time spent with heritage and nature.

Walk Durham

Ushaw, County Durham

Walk Durham is a developing partnership with Durham County Council’s Thrive
(wellbeing and health) team. Ushaw is one of several locations across the county
where users can book a free guided walk. At Ushaw, approximately 10 people
come to a weekly walk on Thursdays led by a volunteer or a member of Durham
County Council’s staff. With a limit of 4 miles and 90 minutes the walks are
accessible to a range of people who want to do moderate exercise and enjoy the
outdoors.

The walks have been a great way to try out different routes with new users
within and beyond the Ushaw estate. The Thrive team also offer free training in
walk leadership and first aid to volunteers, which a number of Ushaw’s
volunteers and team members have taken up. Walk Durham also acts as a
gateway to further exercise and social opportunities. Recently, the group
enjoyed cake and coffee on Time to Talk Day to highlight the importance of
conversation for mental health.