Westonbirt Arboretum’s brilliant new community shelter
- Credit: courtesy of Forestry England
Building a new community shelter at Westonbirt, The National Arboretum has boosted participants’ confidence and wellbeing, Siân Ellis discovers
‘I think its technical term is a hyperbolic paraboloid,’ says Graham Anstey from Forestry England. ‘When we did the initial model making workshop and came up with the shape it quickly got nicknamed the armadillo because it’s like a dome with a head and a tail.’
The new oak and western red cedar community shelter, in Silk Wood at Westonbirt, The National Arboretum owned by Forestry England, certainly has a lovely gentle flowing form. Graham, Community Shelter Development Officer, also emphasises it has been designed and built ‘by the community, for the community’.
‘It was important that the people who will be using it helped to build it. Not only is it a fabulous shelter fit for purpose, but we’ve also used it as a tool, as part of our wider community programmes which have wellbeing at their heart,’ he explains.
Launched in 2014, Westonbirt’s community programmes work with people who might otherwise feel excluded or face barriers to visiting places like the arboretum: adults and young people with additional needs, or who are disadvantaged, or have mental health issues, for example. Tailored activities that make them feel welcome and boost their wellbeing range from natural art to green woodworking, campfire cooking and mindfulness.
Being involved in the design and build of their own community shelter has been particularly empowering. ‘Participants have gained a huge amount of self-confidence, self-belief, practical skills, social skills and team-building skills,’ Graham says.
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Bringing people to Westonbirt on the community programmes can help them to reap the physical and mental benefits of being in nature, but individuals can still sometimes feel daunted.
‘Many are not “outdoors people” and coming into the woods can be scary for them,’ Graham says. ‘That’s why we need a shelter, not only to provide cover from the elements, but also where people can feel protected, that feels familiar and where they can take ownership and feel comfortable before we move on to activities.’
When existing facilities had become dilapidated in 2017, the exciting opportunity arose to build a new, bespoke shelter. With generous help from supporters – including £7,200 from the Cotswolds National Landscape’s Caring for the Cotswolds grant scheme – The Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum raised a magnificent £185,000 from a mix of external grant funding and membership donations in addition to a legacy gift left to Forestry England which enabled the project to go ahead.
Community groups worked with award-winning architect Piers Taylor (Invisible Studio), supported by Xylotek advanced timber structure specialists, to design the shelter, which ‘developed organically’ through a series of workshops, model making exercises and participants’ wish / needs lists.
‘They wanted somewhere that felt homely and they wanted to remain connected with the surrounding woodland even when they were inside,’ Graham says. ‘They didn’t want corners – it was felt naughty people or people who don’t have a say are pushed into corners; if there are no corners everyone is on an equal footing. They also didn’t want the shelter to appear like a classroom – some of the participants who come to us struggle in the structured school environment.
‘They did want a fire for keeping warm in winter – we have a fire bowl that will burn logs from our ongoing woodland management.’
BUILDING SKILLS AND CONFIDENCE
All the timber used in the shelter has been grown, harvested, milled and prepared on site as part of Westonbirt’s natural woodland management cycle, while metalwork (excluding fixings) is made from old, recycled on-site signage that had to be replaced.
The build programme, from January to completion in May, took into account the different skill levels and needs of community participants, enabling them to be fully engaged in every phase, in collaboration with Xylotek, carpenters, Westonbirt staff and volunteers.
‘Community groups did a lot of preparation of timbers, taking off the sharp edges, sanding them down and cutting them to length,’ Graham says. ‘They were involved in the steam bending and assembling of the arches that form the skeleton of the shelter, and they helped to erect some of the arches. Most of the groups made some of the shingles that went on the roof – there are about 3,000. There are 32 arches.
‘For some of the participants the experience has fundamentally changed their outlook on life,’ Graham continues, highlighting as an example a student with additional needs and on the autistic spectrum who was struggling academically but who has now been inspired to consider going to college to pursue carpentry. ‘It is something they would never have imagined possible without being involved in this build.’
Another participant, a wheelchair user, was so keen to be involved he got down on the ground to help assemble arches, holding the wood in place, applying clamps and putting in a bolt. ‘It was the first time he had done anything like that. His verbal communication is very limited but he sat there for about five minutes afterwards with a massive grin on his face – which says more than any words.’
The completed shelter is four metres tall at the highest point, nearly 11 metres long and about five metres wide. Inside seating will be moveable because the space is multi-purpose and will be reconfigured according to need – whether for relaxation, green woodworking, crafts, art, and even ‘emergency sleeping accommodation if groups are camping in self-built dens and it absolutely hammers it down.’
Following the formal opening of the new community shelter in mid May, a series of celebrations – with pizza cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven – has allowed groups to show off to their guests what they’ve accomplished.
‘Our community programme is about wellbeing, and the shelter has been an amazing tool to help us achieve that,’ Graham reiterates with entirely justified enthusiasm.
FIND OUT MORE
Read more about community projects and learning at Westonbirt, and how to support through donations, on The Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum website https://www.fowa.org.uk/community-shelter
Caring for the Cotswolds grant scheme, run by the Cotswolds National Landscape and supported by local businesses and individuals who wish to keep the Cotswolds a special place to live, work and visit (featured in Cotswold Life, March 2022), re-opens to new applications towards the end of summer. Find out more at www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk/looking-after/caring-for-the-cotswolds