Celebrating 100 Years of Village Halls

Show notes (summary)

As well as bringing communities together, village halls can help improve people’s health and wellbeing. Our guest Sian Highnam, talks about a new friendship garden in Fontmell Magna in North Dorset, which the village hall has developed in partnership with the local medical practice. It’s all part of a broader drive within the NHS to rollout something called ‘social prescribing’, which offers a more holistic approach to health. Could your village hall become a social prescribing partner too?

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 7

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK is largest specialised provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, bringing people together has always been, well the main purpose behind village halls. Doing so can have all kinds of benefits for the community by lifting people’s spirits and creating a sense of togetherness. My guest today is Sian Highnam, who along with others at Fontmell Magna Village Hall in North Dorset has been developing a fascinating initiative that not only brings people together, but also works in partnership with the local surgery and tries to improve the health and wellbeing of the community through something that’s known as social prescribing. Hi, Sian, thanks for joining me today.

Sian Highnam 00:46
Hi, Johnny. It’s great. Thank you for inviting me to come and talk to you.

Johnny Thomson 00:49
No it’s a pleasure. Thank you. Now I’m really looking forward to hearing more about, you know, your social prescribing partnership and what that’s all about and how it works. But before we talk about that, tell me a little bit about you and, and your connection with the village hall there.

Sian Highnam 01:02
Well, my name is Sian, Sian Highnam and I was a piano teacher for 18 years in the local Primary School in the village Fontmell Magna, and also in the independent school Clayesmore just up the road. I had 18 very, very happy years there. Prior to that was in business management and was always involved in community activities, mainly through music, if I’m honest, with concerts and those kind of community events. But really felt that I wanted to get more involved with village life, as my children are now old and hairy, and have left home. A bit more time on my hands from that point of view. And it just seemed the right time in my life to think about doing a little bit more in the village. So I decided last January, before the world changed, that I would take step back from teaching and I gave two terms notice at the end of August and decided then to get more involved in charitable work, not knowing for a minute that everything was going to change during that six month resignation period.

Johnny Thomson 02:06
Great timing yeah?

Sian Highnam 02:07
Absolutely! But you know, probably quite fortuitous because it really gave us time to really establish some community activities and to really crack on with the work.

Johnny Thomson 02:18
Okay, so that brings us nicely to something called the Fontmell Friendship Garden, which is the main thing you’ve kind of been developing since then, and how and why did that come about?

Sian Highnam 02:29
So when I left teaching, or just prior to leaving teaching, I had gone through a Village Hall Open Day events, where I met the new Chair Rosie-Anne and the new secretary Lisa, at the Village Hall Open Day. And I really went along just out of interest, because they’d been looking for a village halls bookings manager and the vacancy had been there for fair to say a few months. And I met Rosie-Anne and Lisa and was just so inspired by the work that they were doing in the community. At that time, they were establishing community lunches, for example, having already identified that there was some social-isolation in the village and there was room to get people together. And we’d already established, or tried to establish some links with the Blackmore Vale Practice our local health practice and they were very keen to do some work with the village hall, because the surgery in our village is actually situated right next door to the village hall. So it couldn’t be better placed. So we’d been talking about things like food banks, we’d been talking about maybe having a community hub, those kinds of initiatives, and then COVID hit. So everything ground to a halt from that point of view. And I am a lifetime avid and passionate gardener and had already been thinking whether we could do something with gardening and it was a conversation with a social prescribing lead who came to our Christmas early, early Christmas fair I should say in October and I asked her what were her views on maybe us having a cut flower garden. And she was really, really keen. And it really went from there Johnny, I presented an idea or my ideas to the village hall team first to gain their support. They were fantastic. And then we presented those same ideas to the social prescribing lead and she was just so supportive and gave us the green light immediately. There were no barriers. So that’s really I guess how it started off.

Johnny Thomson 04:26
Yeah, whas a cut flower garden Sian, for anyone who doesn’t know too much about gardening, and me included?

Sian Highnam 04:32
Well, I guess it’s what it says on the tin really, Johnny. It’s a garden where you grow flowers, which you can cut and enjoy. And cut flowers by nature are cuts and come again. So the more you cut, the more blooms you produce and the more you can enjoy.

Johnny Thomson 04:48
And presumably they’re like a seasonal things. So you can have different different flowers at different times of the year. Yeah?

Sian Highnam 04:55
Absolutely. I mean, this is obviously our first season so all the seeds are growing now. We’re going to be opening the garden in June, planting out in May. But from that point, there’s no reason why we won’t be able to produce blooms all the way through until October and then start again with our early daffoldils and tulips from next March time.

Johnny Thomson 04:56
Okay, so social prescribing then. I guess this is where we need to understand the connection between a cut flower garden, the local doctor’s surgery and this term social prescribing and what that means therefore?

Sian Highnam 05:31
Yes. I’m no doctor I’m a savant. But social prescribing is, it’s just something I think which is just so inspirational. And then, if you don’t mind I’ve taken the liberty of actually going on the NHS site and I have actually got their definition here, because I think it needs to be explained completely accurately. So the NHS site actually describes social prescribing as a way for local agencies, to refer people to a link worker, who can then give those people their time and focusing on what matters to them. And they can then take a holistic approach to someone’s health and well being. So it can work for a whole range of people, maybe people with one or more long term conditions, maybe someone who needs support with mental health, and maybe someone who’s lonely or isolated. So for example, our wonderful local practice, they gave us some statistics that mean over 40% of patients might attend the surgery two or three times a week, with nothing physically wrong. And they may be the prime people that would fall into this category, who would really benefit from a holistic approach to doing something different, rather than just taking a pill? Yeah, so very powerful, actually.

Johnny Thomson 06:43
Yeah. So this is like a lifestyle sort of thing. Your making yourself feel better, not just as you say, popping a pill and hoping that whatever you’ve got goes away. But yeah, doing something that’s lifestyle, or that brings you into contact with other people and so on. And just as a consequence of that improves your health and improves your wellbeing overall. And I guess what better place to do that then outdoors in the in the fresh air, and doing something with nature as well. And I guess that’s you having a garden connected to the village hall, it’s also connected to the surgery, it’s just the perfect combination isn’t it?

Sian Highnam 07:20
It absolutely is and the cut flower, I think a cut flower garden, in essence is even more related to that whole drive. Because in a cut flower garden, you get a packet of seeds, so the seeds have been distributed to 25 growers. You have nothing. You know it’s in the soil, you nurture them, you watch them grow. You plant out together socially, will then have the blooms that we cut together again, socially, and we can share those flowers with other people. So I just think by the nature of a cut flower garden, nurturing, growing blooming, that’s what one would hope to achieve with social prescribing itself really.

Johnny Thomson 07:59
So it’s quite, it’s quite early days as you said. And obviously you’ve had the added aspect of the pandemic as well to deal with, but how’s things going so far?

Sian Highnam 08:09
Do you know it’s been absolutely remarkable. When I started the project in November, you know, it’s scary, I guess, because we had no money, there’s nothing. So it was a case of emailing businesses and calling businesses to see if first of all we could get the materials. And it started off with you know, five or six people saying ‘yep, I’d like to help’. And it’s just gathered just the most incredible momentum. I mean, I’m really quite humbled by the whole thing. And when I stop and think about it and reflect on it, it’s it’s just been truly so inspirational. One of the happiest things I think I’ve ever done in my life. That sounds a bit profound. But just to see that the growth I mean, every day, there’s emails, I’ve had another four today offering garden books, another one offering cakes, jam jars. And everyone, irrespective of their age, or their ability, has been able to offer something to share in the whole project, which it’s just been fantastic. It’s certainly exceeded all my expectations.

Johnny Thomson 09:12
Yeah. And it’s great when you see that momentum starting to develop with something like this. So where’s where some of the funding that you’ve needed come from Sian?

Sian Highnam 09:19
A lot of it’s come from local businesses. So we’ve had some some big local businesses, BV Dairy, Waitrose, Tesco, Wessex Fire and Security, Homebase and some garden centres Oasis Garden Centre, Cranborne Garden Centre, Gold Hill Organic Farm, and they provided us with all the materials basically for the garden. But I should say as well that although those are much larger companies and we are incredibly grateful for their support and their huge financial inputs, equally as important, we’ve had people that have donated things like propagated plants, a tree, a trough, some seeds, all our topsoil, are the people that have provided all the plant identification labels. So the Art Club painted freehand all the labels for the plants and they’ve put that on weatherproof backing paper for us. The Craft Group have made all the bunting and big banners for the garden, which will adorn the garden when we open. And we’ve also had businesses that have bought benches for the garden and also some ladies in the village who have bought benches in memory of their parents, or a loved one who’s died. So that’s very poignant as well. So all those people have made, and are making a huge contribution to the garden. So thank you to them, very much indeed.

Johnny Thomson 09:26
What kind of benefits are you seeing from the initiative so far? I guess you may have one or two stories that some, some people have relayed, what it what it means to them?

Sian Highnam 10:48
I have and I’ve had permission, actually, from some people to share this with. I sent a little email where I do a little weekly update every every Sunday night with photographs of what’s happened in the week and to share it. So that goes up now to over 85 people and I popped a little question in there just to ask if anyone would like to share how they feel that the project might have benefited them. And there were one or two that were really moving actually. Without exception, everyone has said they’re really enjoying it. But this was really profound. And I think it’s what the whole project is about. So the person concerned said: ‘This project has helped me so much in the dark and lonely days of lockdown. All my normal activities have been cancelled. And having something positive to look forward to in the shape of a beautiful community garden has really raised my spirits.’ I just thought that was lovely. And another another lady said: ‘The ability to take part in one way or another when there’s some sort of disability involved has been really welcome and inclusive’, which is great. And the third one, perhaps I’ll give you three: ‘The Friendship Garden has bought back the community feeling in the village after being unable to meet up. Doing something so positive and long lasting for others is also welcome change after being unusually inward looking when self isolating to keep safe and to keep others safe.’ So I think they’re really profound, aren’t they actually and…

Johnny Thomson 12:21
No, that’s fantastic. And I mean, how rewarding from your perspective to see something that you know just just developed like you said, as a seed, as an idea. Brilliant. So what have you got planned next, I mean garden and after all is one of those never ending projects anyway, isn’t it?

Sian Highnam 12:39
I mean there are things going on at the moment with the growing of the seeds, of course. But on April the 24th, we’ve got our first garden prep morning. So there’ll be around about 20 villagers joining up to get all the structure in place for the garden. So it’s things like all the sweet pea wigwams all the trellis up for the sunflower seeds that the school are growing. So that’s April and then I’ve got at the end of April the under five nursery group are coming to plant seed bombs, bee seed bombs. So it’s a little bee friendly garden. They’re planting that out at the end of April. Closely followed by the local school, who are planting sunflowers at the beginning of May and they’re going to use that also as a curriculum, gardens are going to measure their sunflowers and and see who can grow the quickest sunflowers there’s a bit of competition going on. On May the 20th I’ve got the local agricultural college, who do forestry as it happens. Their final year students are going to come and give us a floral demonstration. And that’s just before I must plant out on May 22nd, when all those little baby seeds which have been nurtured are going to be put into situ. So the seed growers are going to be there there’ll be people serving teas and cakes, a real community day. And then on June 26th we’ve got our grand opening and and that’s quite a big affair because obviously from the 21st we can meet, all being well. So there’s live music, country dancing, the pub, local pub The Fontmell are going to do a barbecue and bar. Big raffle prize and I’ve approached only local businesses for that and 25 local businesses have all come up trumps and have provided the most wonderful prizes which is fabulous. We’re gong to have a plant store with, we’re going to make ‘jars of joy’. So those are jam jars filled with our cut flowers. We’re going to be giving out jars of joy. And one of our wonderful crafting ladies in the village is going to run a friendship bracelet store, which is completely appropriate to the name of the garden. And I want to just give a shout out actually Johnny for all the clubs in the village who’ve got involved. So one of my one of my remits, so one of my my real wishes was when doing the garden was to get every stakeholder in the village involved in some way. So the garden club has been growing seeds, the Fontwell, which is our local pub, we’re going to be planting up their car park garden with flowers from the garden. The shop are selling, going to be selling flowers. So we’re going to take buckets of flowers down there and excess plants they’ll sell. They’ll have some of the profits and we’ll have some supplied back in the garden. I’ve already spoken to you about the nursery and the school. The church are going to use the flowers for flower arranging. I mustn’t forget anyone. The Springhead Trust, which is an amazing garden in our village, they are going to be or they are building two beds for us and are going to provide a calm garden for us. And so we’re liaising very much with them, taking some of our produce down there as well as a link with the garden. So we’re trying to dot all the i’s and really join the whole village up from one end to the other. And from the youngest to the oldest, you know.

Johnny Thomson 13:31
Brillian, I love that! Yes you’ve got so many different people involved. And I think what I like about that is you’ve got this great collective thing to look forward to As you say, hopefully everything will open up, things aren’t looking too bad right now. And obviously that day will come anyway. I just think that idea of everybody having a single thing to really look forward to and to enjoy in the summertime, is just it’s just wonderful as well. Brilliant.

Sian Highnam 16:23
And we obviously hope that the. well we’re not hoping we are determined that the knock on effect will be that by having people coming to the village and enjoying the garden, because it’s right next to the village hall, we’re going to make sure the village hall is open one morning a week just for people who might be dropping into the garden, they can have seen a coffee and obviously promote the village hall as well. Because every village hall up and down the country will appreciate and empathise, you know, COVID has really obviously hit our income levels. So anything that we can be doing to promote the village hall, alongside the garden and be in partnership, which we are, obviously is going to be beneficial to the village hall as well.,

Johnny Thomson 17:04
Hopefully Sian a few other village halls will feel a bit inspired by this as well and, I’m just wondering, you know, if social prescribing is something that they’re interested in, what’s kind of the starting point with this? What would you you suggest having gone through all of that?

Sian Highnam 17:21
So basically contact their local health partnership. And all health partnerships at the moment will have a social prescriber. It’s a huge initiative from the Government. And if I just get these figures here that the big driver in the NHS and the long term NHS plan is to is to commit 1,000 new social prescribing link workers in place. And with a target of around about 900,000 patients referred to social prescribing by 2023, 2024. So that’s a huge goal from the Government and the NHS. Certainly any village halls, I would suggest that they contact their health partnerships and get in contact with their social prescribing leads. And it may very well be, it doesn’t have to be a garden. It could be a befriending morning that they have, where the surgery suggests that patients go to a village hall, you know, once a week for coffee, tea and coffee, that kind of thing. So it could be something as simple as a befriending service, it could be a new club, you know, inviting people to come to certain clubs, walking clubs are very popular with social prescribers, music, clubs, pilates dancing. So it could very well be that they’ve got things going on already in their village halls, exercise classes, etc. That could be directly relevant to a social prescriber.

Johnny Thomson 18:42
Wonderful, I mean, I have to confess social prescribing wasn’t something that I’d come across until we had our initial chat And I’m already kind of blown away by it. I think sometimes, you know, we can all feel a little bit frustrated that the go to response is just to be prescribed with medication, when often that just sort of masks the symptoms of whatever people are suffering from. And I think that’s particularly case with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety and so on. So, it’s great to see that there’s a there’s this forward thinking medical practice that you’re working with, but that also this is a, you know, a widespread initiative, an idea that the village halls could really get on board with and help to deliver. So wonderful, thanks, Sian for for telling me and our audience about this and, and just well done! You know, the stories that you relayed from the early participants are really inspirational as well. And to imagine that being multiplied across so many different people would just would just be a wonderful outcome. So, so great. Well done. I think your work is fantastic.

Sian Highnam 19:50
It’s a privilege to be involved in it. It really is and very humbling and brings people together in a very special way I think.

Johnny Thomson 19:58
Yeah, one final thing. So if people want to find out a bit more about the Fontmell Friendship Garden, where can they look Sian, where should they go?

Sian Highnam 20:06
I have to admit, I’m going to put my hands up here and say that I am not very good at social media. But I’ve done my best Johnny. So we’ve got an Instagram page, and it t’s @fontmellfriendshipgarden, and I am posting regularly now anything that’s new in the garden goes in there and it will be increasing, obviously, as more people get together and there’s more photographs. There’s a Facebook page as well. And it’s quite simply the Fontmell Friendship Garden.

Johnny Thomson 20:32
Yeah, well, I’ll do the usual thing with this episode as well and I’ll put some links on our website so that people can can click through and find those quite easily. And great, you know, thanks again for your time and for telling us all about the garden. And just just good luck with it all in the future.

Sian Highnam 20:47
Thank you very much for having me on and for allowing me the chance to share it with you. It’s been brilliant,

Johnny Thomson 20:51
Absolute pleasure Sian.

Sian Highnam 20:52
Thank you very much.

Johnny Thomson 20:54
And as always, many thanks to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster, for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And also online booking system provider Hallmaster, you might be interested in them Sian with the position you were talking about earlier on, who also sponsor our show and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again in two weeks time with another episode, so if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages and just to find out more. Until the next time, goodbye for now.