Since 2020, Dr Sarah Bell of Sensing Nature and the University of Exeter has been working with Westonbirt, the National Arboretum and Andy Shipley of Natural Inclusion, to develop sensory walks on site at Westonbirt Arboretum, led by visually impaired volunteer guides, as part of the ‘Re-Storying Landscapes for Social Inclusion’ collaboration. This is an Impact Acceleration Account project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (2020 – 2022).
Through the project, we have been exploring creative, collaborative opportunities to dismantle disabling barriers to participation in landscape interpretation and decision-making; to make unseen or rarely felt qualities of nature more compelling across varied backgrounds, histories and life circumstances.
A key part of the project has been to encourage a shift in how access and inclusion are approached within landscapes like Westonbirt; recognising disabled people not just as visitors to make adjustments for, but as skilled curators – as site volunteers, storytellers, writers and communicators – of rich, multisensory, inclusive visitor experiences for everyone.
During 2021, we recruited and trained four new visually impaired volunteers to join the existing volunteer guide team (as ‘VI Guides’); Mark Austen, Louise Rounds, Barbara Harris and Mike Kelly. The guides have explored and enabled new multisensory ways of experiencing and sharing the widely celebrated qualities and histories of the arboretum through the site’s popular guided walks programme. Each VI guide was paired with a sighted assistant, and an assistant guide with responsibility for health and safety during the public walks.
The VI Guides ran their first programme of sensory walks on site in Autumn 2021 and have gone on to develop a new programme of sensory walks for 2022.
You can hear more about the project online in this short video, produced by film-maker Chris Smart.
A written description of the video content can be downloaded here: Video description – Westonbirt Unseen.
BBC Gloucestershire featured the walks back in April 2022, with a summary available to read online, and BBC Radio 4’s In Touch programme recently spoke to Andy Shipley about them in a fab feature on the Great Outdoors.
Through the walks, the VI Guides have been enticing visitors off the main paths to explore the rich textures, sounds, scents and sensations of the arboretum. As commented by one visitor after joining one of the Autumn walks:
“New guided walks at Westonbirt offer a different way of experiencing autumn. Led by visually impaired guides and their lovely dogs, these walks encourage you to stop, feel, listen, smell and think. You might become aware of the earth and roots beneath your feet and the wind against your face, the rustle of the canopy or the chatter of children, the sharp citrusy smell of a leaf rubbed between your fingers, the knotty toughness of a branch. You might appreciate the astonishing dimensions of trees and develop a new sense of their form and structure. You might find words to record and retain your experience. All of this equals and enhances the conventional visual pleasure that most of us get from autumn at Westonbirt”.
Reflecting on the experience, VI guide Louise explained:
“Taking part in the project has been, and continues to be, a wonderful experience and a privilege. Westonbirt is a very special place, and being able to explore it every week as the seasons pass and the trees grow and change, has been a fantastic opportunity. The purpose of our walks is to take time to tune into the wonders of Westonbirt – which I am able to do on every visit. Our three aims are to: take time to awaken your senses in Westonbirt’s wonderful world of trees, use your senses to recharge and connect with yourself and nature, and to discover the essential role of trees in our lives. I experience these things week by week, and am honoured to be able to share this newly acquired passion with others. The team of Westonbirt Guides have been so welcoming, thoughtful, creative and enthusiastic in sharing their extensive knowledge and insights. One of the greatest outcomes for me has been the chance to work with other Visually Impaired people on a shared project – to exchange ideas and experiences, to support one another, and to become firm friends”.
Meanwhile, Westonbirt’s Learning and Participation Manager, Ben Oliver, commented:
“The Re-storying Landscapes Project has once again demonstrated the value of welcoming and working with people with diverse experiences. By collaborating on the project, we have grown our understanding about how every decision we take can create barriers to participation and the loss of personal agency. The value of listening carefully to individual life experiences and the constructive feedback provided by all those involved has been immeasurable. Though challenging at times, the result has been a project that has delivered significant new experiences for our visitors and supported our continued journey to becoming a more inclusive site”.
Each stage of the project has revealed both disabling barriers to participation and creative opportunities to dismantle such barriers. The project team will soon be sharing a set of guidance bringing together key learning points from across the project, so do check the Sensing Nature news pages for more details soon!
Written by Dr Sarah Bell.
For more information please contact:
For queries around Westonbirt Unseen, please email Sarah.Bell@exeter.ac.uk
For further information on ESRC IAA funded projects, or to see if you’re eligible, please visit the University’s Translation Funding webpages.