Surrey's hidden heroines
- Credit: Freewheelers
To mark International Women’s Day 2022 on March 8, we shine a light on three inspirational Surrey women who are blazing a trail in their respective fields and making an impact in the name of charity, the arts and beyond
‘Everyone can pursue their artistic passion’
Viv Colvill founded Freewheelers, an inclusive arts company based in Leatherhead, which offers disabled people opportunities to develop their skills in everything from singing to film-making
When Viv Colvill founded Freewheelers in 1989, she had just five members. Her vision was to make acting, dance, singing, film-making and theatre production skills more accessible to disabled people and today the company has around 95 members taking part in weekly workshops. What’s more, Viv has made a lasting impact in the world of disability arts with her students shining bright in ambitious and thought-provoking productions in Surrey and beyond, including at prestigious venues such as the National Theatre.
A trained LAMDA teacher, Viv was led to the role through a chance meeting.
‘A 19-year-old Andrew Marber [brother of comedian Patrick Marber] and his mother Angela had visited Queen Elizabeth's Foundation for Disabled People at Dorincourt and was surprised to see there was no drama. They were, and still are, a very theatrical family so raised it with the principal, Margaret Huxtable, who happened to be a neighbour of mine. Angela offered to pay for a drama teacher and Margaret thought of me.’
Viv started off doing two hours a week and worked at Dorincourt until 2006 when the company outgrew the space and moved to The Bridge Centre in Leatherhead where it’s still based today.
‘Freewheelers teaches all of the performing arts and visual arts due to the skills of the tutors who have joined along the way,’ she says. ‘The way we teach isn’t any different. The members say “for goodness’ sake, just treat us like anyone else”. There are communication difficulties sometimes, but we use British Sign Language (BSL) and Makaton. All our performances are signed and surtitled.’
During covid the team moved their work online but says it’s lovely to be back in person. Viv describes the latest production titled Do Not Disturb, a multi-media detective story written and produced by the students that has been two years in the making, as ‘incredible’.
‘They’re also making a film of it so it is more accessible to people, especially during covid,’ she adds. ‘Our new Degas: A Dance-Drama is also excellent.
‘The students love to perform,’ she says. ‘People waiting to dance Degas can't wait to get on the stage and the energy of the live audience ramps up the excitement and enthusiasm. We watch with admiration and almost disbelief because we rehearse for such a long time and suddenly with the audience there the performance is exactly where it needs to be.’
Viv has seen a lot of changes over the years. ‘Rose Ayling-Ellis' Strictly Come Dancing win has persuaded more people to learn BSL, which is wonderful. There’s still a lot to learn about different disabilities. The paralympics has been a force for good too.’
Recently retired, Viv is planning to spend more time with family and tending to the garden.
‘At Freewheelers, everyone has the chance to move forward in their artistic passion,’ she reflects. ‘Everyone is cared for, their needs are met and everyone is kind, careful and hard working. The staff are tremendously loyal and the members stay so it’s a family. It’s my vision to see all members, staff and volunteers happy and artistically fulfilled. It has been a very large and joyous part of my life.’
To find out more about Freewheelers and to donate, visit freewheelerstheatre.co.uk
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‘My disabilities don’t hold me back’
Sophia Wyatt has overcome major physical disabilities as a result of contracting meningitis aged 16 and carved a successful career in the beauty industry, working with people who are seriously ill. She lives in Guildford with her partner and children
‘When I was only 16, I was struck down with a rare strain of meningitis septicaemia,’ says Sophia. ‘The infection ravaged my body and to save my life I had to have both my legs and most of my fingers on my right hand amputated. I spent four months in hospital, having numerous reconstruction operations and many months in a wheelchair.
‘I remember lying awake at night, feeling pretty sorry for myself, but I would hear the cries and screams coming from the burns unit next door. I knew the people in there were in agony, not just physical but mental torture. I was in pain too but I knew one day I would be able to get false legs and I would walk again but that it would be much harder for others who might never recover fully.
‘After months of physiotherapy, I learned to use my new legs. I even managed to ski again the following year. I’ve never allowed my disabilities to hold me back and now ski, cycle and run my own business while also being a wife and mother to my young children.’
It took grit and determination to get to that point, from being first admitted.
‘Every Monday morning, I watched a lady park up outside my window. She was really glamorous and always took two suitcases out of her boot and wheeled them into the burns unit next to my ward where she’d stay for a couple of hours,’ she says. ‘One day I plucked up the courage to ask her what she was doing. She told me she was a make-up artist and that she worked in TV and film but in-between jobs she volunteered for a charity showing patients in the burns unit some camouflage techniques.’
Sophia was invited to watch and the experience was inspiring.
‘She taught the patients techniques to help them manage their scarred skin and make them look and feel better,’ she says. ‘I saw, in those few hours, these people gain confidence and self-esteem. It was life changing. I always loved hair styling and make-up so this gave me the push I needed.’
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Sophia emerged with a newfound passion to become a beauty therapist, but her journey got off to a bumpy start.
'When I first went to enrol on a beauty therapist course, the tutors were not very accepting. They tried to tell me I would find the course too difficult and recommended I look for another more suitable career. This just made me more determined to prove people wrong.’
Sophia went on to find a beauty therapy course at Guildford College where she happily trained for two years before going on to study media make-up in London and special effects make-up in Shepperton.
‘I can’t say I chose the easiest career for someone with a disability like mine,’ she says. ‘The world of fashion and film is full of people who are striving for perfection. The biggest challenge for disabled people is how others react to us.
‘Some people can perceive disabilities as a negative thing. It gives the opinion that someone can’t do something, but in reality, someone who has lost one ability compensates with a heightened ability elsewhere. When I tell people about my legs, I try not to say I’ve lost my legs. I say I have lots of legs. It’s about flipping the negative to a positive.’
Today, Sophia has 20 years’ experience in hair and make-up styling, has worked with stars such as Keira Knightley and James McAvoy and travelled the world.
‘I worked with over 1,000 brides on their wedding day too, but I’ve always had a passion for helping people who have suffered with illness or injury or who simply have self-esteem issues,’ she says.
She launched Sophia Wyatt Aesthetics in Guildford in 2016 to provide a range of beauty, skin care and hair loss treatments, including cosmetic tattooing, which enables her to help those with scars or who are experiencing hair loss. She’s also trained in medical tattooing, which can be utilised to help those with cleft palate scarring or as part of cancer treatment recovery, such as areola reconstruction.
Building on her success, Sophia has just opened a new, larger clinic in Send. It’s fully accessible, has a wheelchair accessible back wash basin and five spacious treatment rooms offering both privacy and the ability to cater to a broad range of clients, including anyone with physical and visual challenges. She’s fully booked for months.
Sophia’s wish? ‘I’d love to see more disabled people choosing to join the beauty industry and more therapists realise just how life changing our treatments can be for disabled clients.’
To find out more, visit sophiawyatt.co.uk
‘My swim challenge makes people smile’
Jule Harries has set herself the challenge of completing 100 open water swims wearing a different hat each time in the hope of raising £1,000 for charity. She lives in Beare Green with her husband and son
On a brisk November morning, Jule Harries donned a vintage tin helmet (to mark Remembrance Sunday) and took the plunge at Buckland Park Lake with The Surrey Hills Adventure Company, kickstarting her fundraising challenge to complete 100 open water swims wearing a different hat each time for charities close to her heart: Surrey Young Carers (part of Action for Carers) and Alzheimer’s Research UK.
When we caught up with Jule at the start of February, she’d just completed her 27th swim (wearing a homemade version of a Chinese opera headpiece to mark the Lunar New Year) and is well on her way to achieving her goal of raising £500 for each charity – an amazing achievement for a self-confessed swimming novice.
‘I started to compete in triathlons about 15 years ago to get back into shape after the birth of my son, but I was absolutely rubbish at them,’ she says. ‘I was usually the last one to finish, crossing the line as everyone else was packing up to go home, with my forlorn husband the only person left to congratulate me on finishing. I didn’t like running, and the cycling terrified me, so why I bothered I’ll never know, but I did enjoy the swimming and I always wanted to get back into it.
‘A friend of mine was swimming regularly at the lake and persuaded me to join her. I was so nervous and worked myself up almost to the point of tears before that first swim but once I was in, I absolutely loved it and haven’t looked back since. That's not to say there aren’t days when I really don’t want to get in that water and it’s a massive effort to get the swimsuit on and force myself to wade in, especially when it’s drizzling or blowing a hooley. Somebody described the feeling as being flayed alive by a million frozen cocktail sticks and believe me, that’s exactly how it feels. But I can honestly say I have never once regretted a swim. It makes you feel great afterwards and of course the health benefits, both physical and mental, are enormous.’
One lap of the lake is about 400m, although Jule does two laps of a 200m course in the winter months in a wetsuit for safety reasons (temperatures can drop to around 2.5-3° C, with ice on the surface) and will typically do two or three laps in the warmer months.
‘Last week I plucked up the courage to bin the neoprene and swam two laps in just my swimming cozzie… I think I was borderline hypothermic by the end, so I’m now limiting my time in the water to around 10 minutes. It’s easy to forget that cold-water swimming is classed as an extreme sport and can be dangerous if you’re not careful.’
She puts a huge amount of effort into selecting hats, aiming to tie in with special occasions where possible. Stand outs have included a Freddie Mercury tribute hat to commemorate the date he died, as well as a Carmen Miranda mountain-of-fruit hat, and a full-length Christmas tree. People in the community have started to lend and send her options in support but it helps that Jule already has an impressive collection of unusual and vintage hats at home gleaned from a love for fancy-dress parties and built up over decades of collecting from antique shops, flea markets and boot fairs. Indeed, it’s what sparked the idea for the challenge.
Her favourite hat yet? ‘I think it has to be the tribute hat to Meat Loaf who died in mid-January,’ she says. ‘It represented the last verse of Bat Out of Hell and I made it using a life-sized heart and black, feathered wings. It was very dramatic, and I was pleased that so many of my fellow swimmers that morning understood the connection.
‘Once the challenge is completed, I think I will feel a great sense of achievement as it will have taken the best part of a year, but I will also feel completely bereft,’ she says. ‘By my rough calculations I estimate I will complete my 100th swim in October, so I'm hoping that my challenge will continue to raise money as more people hear about it. Both charities are doing fantastic work, and I am so pleased to be able to help them make a difference to people’s lives.’
For updates or to sponsor Jule, see justgiving.com/team/onehundredhatschallenge and you can follow her on Instagram @Jule.Harries