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You may remember back in February this year I caught up with Julie Norman to find out more about her developments and progress with using natural elements, colours and dyes for her inspiration in her work and art.

This time I am back to find out more about Julie’s work and more specifically the Exploring the Wild Edges project.

I first asked her what is the “Exploring the Wild Edges” Project and how it came about?

Open green spaces and a chance to connect with the natural world became an essential part of life for most people over the last 18 months. After long periods of time indoors, often isolated from friends and family, everyone craved for social activity and meeting people face to face in a safe environment. Our local community demographic includes a high percentage of women age 50 – 75 years who spent much of lockdowns on their own or caring for others.  They were craving for something to distract them from the news and a couple of hours a week of positivity, skill sharing and friendship.  “Exploring the Wild Edges” grew from here as an outdoor wellbeing project designed to meet their need.

Cooking in the outdoors.

Where did you meet?

QEII Park View Playing Fields in Lytham, we have an outdoor woodland classroom where we usually deliver Forest School activities.  It is regularly used by children and families but we adapted it for the project by adding a few luxuries such as blankets, camping chairs, a selection of foraged teas, dandelion root coffee, that kind of thing.  We wanted everyone to feel connected to the outdoors without feeling too far out of their comfort zone.

Were the participants chosen because of their love of the outdoors?

No, actually a few of the women involved took some encouragement to take part as they didn’t consider themselves “outdoorsy people”. Some of them hadn’t sat around a campfire for 50 years but there is something comforting about sitting with a group, eating, drinking and chatting around a fire, it brings people together in a way that doesn’t happen indoors.

Lots of opportunities to make things.

So what did you do in the woods?

The aim was to introduce everyone to something completely new each week, help them to gain confidence in using tools, identifying trees and fungi.  We taught them different techniques for cooking over a campfire and helped them view their natural surroundings differently so that they could find new ways to engage with nature after the project has ended.

Each week had a different theme, from making natural inks and dyes to learning seven methods for lighting a fire. None of the participants had tried whittling before but after carving mushrooms and butter knives some of them invested in their own whittling knives and continued projects at home which they would bring to show the group each week.

Everyone had different skills and passions which we helped them to develop throughout the course.  Cath was fantastic at twisting natural cordage, we started by teaching her how to make it from simple materials such as corn husk, and daffodil leaves. She now gathers plants from hedgerows or her garden and twists the fibres to create metres of twine, it is therapeutic as well as a great environmentally friendly resource.

Handmade wooden items

Were the women involved keen to try fire lighting and woodworking?

Yes, they were delighted by the sense of adventure and creativity.  Using froes, drawn knives and shave horses to turn a log into a spatula that they could take home and use was a huge sense of achievement.  Not everything went according to plan but it didn’t matter, mistakes were part of the learning process and often produced the best results.  One of the ladies made a spatula but the wood split down the handle, it was then reshaped to become a new tool perfect for scooping food from the edge of the cooking pan. Everyone then wanted to make one.

During another session we were melting pewter over the campfire to make jewellery, a small amount fell onto the forest floor.  It created its own design and became a beautiful pendant which has a story behind it.

She's a fire starter
Preparing to build a fire or getting ready for some whittling?
Working together to cut wood.

It sounds like a unique project, are your group continuing to “Explore the Wild Edges”?

Thanks to Lancashire Women’s Fund and COVID funding we managed to deliver 14 weeks of sessions for 18 women to take part.  By the end of the 14 weeks they had definitely become feral and were calling themselves the Wild Women, I don’t think that we could tempt them back from the wild edge now, ha ha.  It has been pure joy to see how much of a difference the project has made to everyone involved.  Like many people, everyone who took part has had a lot to deal with since the pandemic began and this provided them with the escapism they needed.  They have told us how it has ‘saved their sanity during unprecedented times” and is “the closest thing I have had to a holiday in years”.

Time to put your feet up

Although this part of the project has ended, our Wild Women have continued to stay engaged and active outdoors by joining our weekly green health walk and community gardening hub, where we cook in a pizza oven rather than over a campfire.

We have also continued to explore natural colour making with the group who are helping us to develop our next project “Plants to Dye For” – a community natural dye garden to grow our own plants which we can harvest and make botanical colours from. Look out for an exhibition of our creations in the Eco Pod next year.

Want to find out more, or get involved, call in to see Julie or one of the team at: The Eco Pod, QEII Park View Playing Fields, Lytham.

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