Restoration of Riverside House: Engaging people in practical activities

Last December, we visited Lloyd Stacey, founder and director of Riverside House, at the beautiful historic site and former early 19th Century ironworks, to meet some of the wonderful people who are transforming the derelict site for the benefit of the community.

As we made our way through the wilderness of woodland located between the Stourbridge canal and the River Stour, we found the team busily clearing rubbish, cutting back the overgrown brash, chopping wood and burning the dead wood over a crackling campfire.

Riverside House has fascinating heritage, history, geology and wildlife. The space includes woodland, a grade II listed house and workshops, a walled garden, a dry dock and narrow boat basin. Lloyd and his team are working to expose the heritage features through clearing the overgrowth, cleaning graffiti and restoring brickwork.

Over the next few years, Riverside House will be renovated and transformed into a heritage centre with gardens, restaurant, crafts shop, woodland and workshops. The idea is to create a place where people can learn and develop skills by transforming the site, in a social environment.

The project aims to help young unemployed adults and young people to participate in practical activities and learn traditional crafts, gardening and hospitality through their involvement of the conservation, preservation and restoration of Riverside House. The joy of learning practical skills have proven to provide outcomes such as improvements in well-being, confidence, self-esteem, social inclusivity, relationship building and physical health. As the project develops there will be more and more opportunities, the idea is to get the whole community using this space, take part in creative art projects and bring back traditional skills such as blacksmithing.

After a quick tour of the site, it was time for tea and biscuits around the campfire, a welcome reward for the team after a couple of hours of hard work! Sitting on handmade benches made from tree stumps, having a chat and a chuckle around the fire with a warm cuppa in hand… it was easy to see why people felt so happy and comfortable here.

We were introduced to Helen Garbett of Artworks for Change, an artist, who has been involved in Riverside House through social art projects, exploring place, natural and cultural landscape, heritage and social change through contemporary art. Helen runs participatory workshops and projects for individuals, organisations and communities that wish to engage in exploratory, creative activities, focusing particularly on those with a disability, caring responsibilities or health conditions.

Helen introduced us to her son Callum, an enthusiastic volunteer at Riverside House who was one of the first to join Lloyd at the beginning of the project, she said,

“When Callum left college, we were looking for things he was interested in doing. One thing that seemed to emerge over time is Callum’s interest in local history and horticulture, so when I got to hear about Lloyd and what he was doing down at Riverside House it just seemed ideal. He now goes 3 days a week and he absolutely loves it, he is so enthusiastic and never misses a day. They have a really tight group.

With autism, social interaction has always been difficult for Callum. Now, he’s having good conversations and feels relaxed with everyone, all of these social things I wasn’t expecting to come out of it has really benefited him. He now feels like he is part of a little community. He has taken ownership, Riverside House to him… well, he feels part of it, and it isn’t just a place that he goes to, he feels like it’s ‘his’ place.”

People from all walks of life have been attracted to the historical site, including historians and archaeologists, volunteers, including a retired builder, a former teacher and many young people with enthusiasm for horticulture, metalwork and woodwork. All sharing their expertise and knowledge.

John, a retired teacher from Stourbridge College, has lived in the area most of his life, walked past the site quite often and didn’t even know it existed until he was alerted to the Riverside project by a friend. He now volunteers 3 days a week and is interested to learn more about the historical importance of the site from the Dudley archives, and share his findings with others.

The former ironworks once consisted of forges, fineries, rolling-mills and foundries which transformed pig iron into casted and wrought iron products. Wrought iron was, at that time, the most widely used form of iron product.

Metal enthusiast, Tom, wearing a safety helmet (one of many from his collection!) has collected all kind of old metals from the site, which we hear he proudly displays in his bedroom!

Whilst we were keeping warm around the campfire, a small piece of scrap metal was found in the overgrowth, one volunteer heated it up, hammered it,  formed it into a small loop and cooled it down in a little pile of snow. You could already see the interest and enthusiasm for blacksmithing!

Riverside House has also adopted the towpath from Canal & River Trust and will be renovating this historically significant section of the canal which includes the entrances to the dry dock, canal basins and crane base.

Riverside has now become a CIC, achieved successful fundraising and has been networking and making connections which have resulted in referrals to other professionals. Dudley CVS supported Riverside House on formation of CIC and charity, writing charitable objectives, business planning advice, fundraising, general advice on recruitment, trustee appointments and volunteer work.

It will be fantastic to see the former ironworks site turn in to a waterside community attraction with café and shop selling local crafts and produce. The journey and all the things that will be learnt along the way will prove the most exciting part!

Read more about Riverside House at www.riverside-house.org.uk

If you would like more information or support for your group please contact Becky Pickin at smallgroups@dudleycvs.org.uk

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