Article for Curative Education Journal – Point and Circle

This is an article by Lloyd Stacey for curative educational journal Point and Circle, Summer 2017. It gives some background to the impulses that have inspired Riverside House.

Riverside House is a pioneering and progressive social regeneration venture in Stourbridge, West Midlands. The inspiration is derived from the place itself, an abandoned early 19th Century iron works, one of the most significant of its time. Pig iron, coal and limestone, mined nearby, was transported into the heart of the factory via currently concealed narrow boat basins. The minerals were converted into wrought iron rods and bars, which laden boats distributed to far reaching markets. The iron works itself no longer stands, but what remains is the destitute mangers house and estate with echoes of an orchard, a walled ancillary courtyard, market gardens, dry dock and the riparian habitats that are nestled between the River Stour and the Stourbridge Canal. The place is mysterious, enigmatic and faintly romantic, perhaps the very antithesis of its intended pragmatic, commercial purpose. Across the river is the New Foundry, the longest serving anywhere, of almost two centuries. Its imposing classical architecture has, in recent years, undergone a handsome restoration, and is now a thriving medical practice. The heavy castings, formed in the foundry, were hauled, by means of a narrow-gauge rail track, through the iron works to the canal side and craned onto narrow boats. This included the first commercial steam engine in the USA and roof spans for the customs house in London.

 

Since moving to Stourbridge twelve years previously, the founder, trustee and CEO of Riverside House, Lloyd Stacey, has had an appreciation and fascination for this place, its possibilities and potential. He incidentally and quite unintentionally, lives in a nearby terraced house that was originally built for the workers of the iron works. Lloyd and the trustees have arranged a deal with the landowners whereby the charity will eventually be gifted Riverside House after an extended licence enabling the organisation to access the site and commence works.

 

This fascinating place sets the stage for a particularly innovative venture that will seamlessly amalgamate cultural, social, ecological and heritage facilities for the local community with a health and social care provision for a wide range of clients. Practical skills and traditional crafts, congruent to the history and spirit of the place, will be integrated for the salutary participation of clients, staff and the local community. Horticulture, woodland management, retail, catering and hospitality skills will support the everyday functioning of Riverside House through its eventual café, locally procured craft and produce shop, parkland and market gardens. Carefully introduced crafts, such as blacksmithing and metal casting will offer further opportunities for clients as well as the visiting public, by means of demonstrations and master classes.

Riverside House will address ways in which:

  • social relationships.
  • relationships to spaces and places
  • meaningful and empowering activities

can be radically transformative for both individuals and communities. This is based on personal experiences by Lloyd, and substantiated by relevant practice and research, including a master’s degree in Practical Skills Therapeutic Education. The fundamental idea behind the venture is that individuals become empowered through transforming their environment, through forging a hook or landscaping a garden, within a social context: ‘I helped make and hang that gate and this is the person I have a connection with who supported me making it and these are the friends I have made in the process and this is somewhere I can return to because I have a connection to the place and the people who work here.

 

Riverside House will fundamentally be addressing individual isolation and will work with individuals who are marginalised due to disability, those not able to access conventional education and training, or those inhibited by mental health or social difficulties. This will be achieved through the implementation of a social, cultural, heritage, ecological and leisure facility that will be accessed by the local community, whilst providing integrated health and social care facilities in an unapparent and non-institutionalised manner. The social value of Riverside House is potentially significant and, more prosaically, a cost-effective contribution to the local authority through a plethora of consequential outcomes.

 

Lloyd recognises the correlation between his own sense of enhanced personal wellbeing during ‘periods of engagement in meaningful practical activities in a conducive environment and a social setting’ and it is these tripartite conditions that he would like to see integrated at Riverside House. The efficacy of craft activities to provide residual benefits for the practitioner is widely recognised and nothing new. It was popular in psychiatric hospitals in the mid-20th Century and specifically adopted by the Camphill movement and later, central to Ruskin Mill Trust’s method. However, the therapeutic benefit of craft is universally recognised and it is common for us to refer to such activities as ‘therapeutic’, as indeed they are.

 

Riverside House will require skilled and tender stewardship to support its transition from current neglect to an environment that can support salutary experiences for clients and visitors. Its present condition is an opportunity to consider the conditions needed to create an environment that can support individuals for whom the management of sensory requirements take precedence. One advantage of the restoration of such a derelict site is that the environment can be explicitly designed and built in anticipation of those people who will use it, especially those with autism or mental health difficulties and for whom a conducive environment is essential. Quiet spaces and sensory gardens will be appreciated by all visitors alike and an aesthetic sensibility is necessary if the place is to be successful. It is also crucial that the way Riverside House is planned emerges from what is fundamentally there, rather than arbitrarily imposed buildings and landscaping. A Goethean observation will be implemented early on to better acknowledge and understand the spirit of the place and what its particular requirements are. Working at Riverside House engenders a sense of imaginative enquiry into the significance of its heritage and geology, and it is typically through creative participation within a landscape that an intimate appreciation is particularly cultivated. Questions naturally arise about the people who once lived and worked in the ironworks, the forge, the glass industries and on the canal. These questions, when asked through differing perceptive lenses and senses, deepens our sense of connection with the place as well as rooting ourselves in an historical timeframe. Early industrial heritage is something we can particularly understand and appreciate, as the skills and technology were on a scale and a complexity we can relate to-we can often work out for ourselves how the machines may have functioned, or attempt to form wrought iron at a forge, knowledge and activities that are eminently pedagogical. The industrial revolution was achieved by people whom we can relate to, and who, with their hands and ingenuity, and for better or worse, transformed the modern world.

 

The recapitulation of industrial blight by means of social regeneration is a poignant gesture and potentially transformative. Early industries contributed to the diminishment of agricultural communities, forming new urban communities and cultures which were, in their turn, devastated in the latter half of the 20th century, causing in many circumstances, social and cultural disenfranchisement, isolation, loneliness and subsequent mental health problems. Reassigning this industry through the pedagogical disbursement of traditional skills is a conducive way of embodying insights into what it means to be a human being through the reintegration of head, heart and hand and recapitulates human developmental stages. When this happens in a small group, the experience can be particularly transformational, the shared activities and social participation becoming a sum greater than ourselves and an intimation of a necessary relational interdependence that is emotionally cognisable. It is a mode of engaging with others that isn’t onerous or overwhelming, as is the activity itself that takes precedence, social participation being a consequence. This can be particularly helpful for those individuals who find social situations perplexing and confounding yet have a desire to integrate.

 

Riverside House is set to become particularly innovative as it seeks to combine a non-specialised health and social care provision with cultural, heritage and leisure provisions for the local community. The intention is that this will be achieved in as integrated and seamless a way as possible. Clients will necessarily be funded through different avenues including personal budget allocation and Education, Health and Care plans. The provision has recently become an approved provider for Black Country Impact who support young people not in education, employment or training. In particular cases, it is hoped that clients could eventually achieve, within the organisation, payed employment or be supported to start micro business’s such as traditional nail making.

 

Much of the start-up capital costs for Riverside House have been met by generous grant donors although the organisation is looking to eventually be self-sustaining through various commercial enterprises, including the café, craft shop, moorings and master classes. Riverside House intends to become particularly outward looking and inclusive, working closely with other grass root social enterprises, the third sector, local authority and other organisations.

 

Lloyd has previously been a farmer and houseparent in Camphill and spent ten years at Ruskin Mill Trust, and has also undergone extensive Zen Buddhist training, a practice he has had a particular affinity with. Buddhism and Anthroposophy, although, at least apparently having very differing underlying assumptions, are both fundamentally modes of inquiry into the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being and, contrary to some polarised misconceptions, have much in common. Riverside House is, in many way, a constellation of personal experiences involving community living and is the result of an ongoing exploration of what contemporary societal needs might be. Regardless of Lloyd’s sojourns in Buddhism and Anthroposophy, Riverside House will not have any explicit spiritual underpinnings. The reason for this is intentional and fits with our 21st Century individualistic, secular and multi-faith culture. However, the organisations implicit ‘ethos’ is a conscious respect for the place itself, the activities and its participants, which is in many ways, the beginning and end of any genuine spiritual practice.

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