We caught up with this project on a lovely, sunny Sunday in June. The project was awarded £1,282,000 from Create your Space. Welcome to our Woods works with a wide range of third sector organisations including Interlink, Valleys Kids, Keep Wales Tidy, Spectacle theatre, Blaencwm Chapel and Active Nutrition.
Welcome to our Woods has built on previous projects in the area to encourage local people and especially children to respect and enjoy the woodlands which surrounds many of the villages in the Valleys. The team are also exploring how they can use the woodlands sustainably to improve local employment.
We were met by Julie, the diminutive ball of energy who 22 years ago began the original project in Treherbert when the estate, which backs onto the woods, was virtually a no go area for social services and the fires then were from burnt out cars and uncontrolled fires on the mountain. These days the well-used Community Centre faces the path which leads temptingly up into the trees, gentle music and laughter drifts down from the hill.
“We started in a Council house right here” Julie tells me, “we gained the community’s trust by working in the estate, they felt safe to come and talk to us and we built from there.”
The original house and the three joining houses were refurbished as part of work to reinvigorate the estate. Julie has passed the running of the Centre to Caroline, Jonathan and Ceri.
“Just follow the path into the woods, you’ll find Ceri!”
We do indeed find Ceri, amongst a group of all ages practising whittling, “keep your eyes on the blade” Ceri tells one youngster before grabbing some rope to put up a hammock for some others. Ceri is in his element, he continues the story:
“When we started, we challenged everything that was being taught to these kids about the woods. The fire brigade used to be called up here three times a week. We decided the best way to deal with it was to teach the kids how to start fires in a safe and responsible setting. Everyone said we were mad! The chief of the fire brigade told me the other day he’s not been called out here in years. The kids said that the anti-arson teaching they had in school made arson sound exciting, they said they hadn’t thought of it until the authorities ‘suggested’ it to them! We teach them how to do it safely and then we help them to teach each other.”
As well as the wood we were in, the project includes woodlands for coppicing, allotments for community food growing, a hydro project to create electricity and a community garden. Ceri had help to clear the ground:
“A young man we knew through the Centre gathered up a bunch of his mates and co-erced them to come and help, he wouldn’t let them go until everything was clear. “Gotta give something back lads after what they’ve done for us!” he kept telling them.”
The project is proud of its bilingual credentials, Welsh speaking is encouraged and nurtured and adults who are learning enjoy speaking to the children, Wenglish is acceptable if you forget the words. In June this year the project has seen over 100 children visiting the woods and the Community Hydro electric scheme from Welsh medium schools, as part of a Welsh schools program,
We met a long-term volunteer who described how working in the woods had given him his life back after years fighting drugs and depression. “I feel really at home here” he smiled waving his arm to take in the trees stretching into the distance. He too talked about the amazing changes that came over the children and young people when they got involved in the woods.
The project relies on the strengths, enthusiasm and energy of the volunteers but its future depends on securing the funding to let it keep building on the extraordinary change it has wrought in the Valleys. Ian explained that they want to find ways to create employment and provide security – he sees this as the way forward, but they aren’t there yet. “The journey continues.” Ceri adds.