From Marbles to Monsters: Sharing adventures in delivering creative river engagement projects

Jayne Mann


Eden Rivers Trust have just finished Cherish Eden - a 5 year £2.3million community engagement project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. They wanted to share their learning with other Rivers Trusts about what was delivered through Cherish, what the outcomes were and the organisational learning they took from it …but they also wanted to learn from other Rivers Trust experiences too.

It was the first type of event to focus on community engagement in the Rivers Trust family for over 5 years. In total 26 people from 19 Rivers Trusts attended, a fabulous turnout. Participants found it truly inspiring. When asked what one thing each participant would take away from the day, some of the feedback included:

“I’m overwhelmed by number of interesting, passionate, inspiring people here”

“Importance of sharing ideas and finding the right platform to do so”

“I’m going to think BIG! /try new things”

“It’s given me the confidence that I’m doing the right thing, I’m going to go away and believe a bit more!”

A number of projects were showcased, ones they felt were potentially slightly different from the ‘norm’:

  • Eden Rivers’ Wonder World Exhibition – working in partnership with a regional museum to produce an interactive family exhibition and events programme that attracted 14,000 visitors.
  • Inside Out riverside felt trail and Marble Run: River - two artist-led projects that helped communities come to terms with floods that devastated their homes and helped them reconnect with their river.
  • Rivers for Life – cross-curricular 2-day primary schools programme and The Adventurous Salmonproducing an illustrated storybook working with schools and illustrator.
  • Litter Monster – 3 schools, 3 artists, one massive 5m high litter monster and 80+ children who inspired David Attenborough.
  • Elma and the Giant - how a primary school and their local community got involved in a major re-meandering project, then developed a story trail for the newly created permissive path.
  • Youth Rangers and Young Anglers – challenges faced by two projects engaging young people with rivers.
  • My Tyne - Adopt a stream – citizen science water quality monitoring project.
  • Living heritage of the River Don– engaging local communities with fish pass works.
  • Unlocking the River Severnhow Severn Rivers Trust went about securing £12million+ for a major river improvement and community engagement project.

Julie Lawrence, Head of Engagement for ERT, commented: “getting Rivers Trust staff together to focus on community engagement activity is vitally important to sustaining a strong internal network to support the development of our work, it keeps us inspired and develops potential new partnership working. Hopefully, this workshop was also a small step in helping us shout much more about the amazing community engagement work Rivers Trusts across the UK and Ireland do to the ‘outside world’ ”.

Presentations didn’t just focus on what was done and what was achieved, but importantly on what happened when things went wrong and how projects overcame – or not- challenges thrown at them. Everybody was very open and honest about their experiences – positive or negative – the learning they took from successes and challenges and importantly were prepared to share this information.

However, this workshop wasn’t a ‘death by powerpoint’ event, two ‘hands-on’ sessions were included where everyone had a chance to try out engagement resources including: Marble Run, a mobile classroom from Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust; crayfish game, river wildlife costumes, a soil experiment and digital resources for secondary school geography pupils. Janine Bebbington from Gorgeous Media trained everyone in how to use their mobile phones to make short stop frame animation as an engagement activity for groups.

Discussion sessions took place on topics that had been identified by participants including how River Trusts ensure community engagement is at the heart of every river conservation project; how do we meaningfully engage ‘hard to reach’ audiences; what opportunities are there for us to link into the emerging health and wellbeing agenda; and designing evaluation activity to identify and measure the impact of engagement activity.

So, what happens next?....after sharing learning, getting all excited about the amazing work we undertake the question was ‘how are we going to maintain and develop this community engagement network’? The result was that two Rivers Trusts (Don Catchment and Severn) have volunteered to arrange a similar event in 2020 and 2021, plus an online forum for anyone from the Rivers Trust movement interested in sharing engagement resources and ideas, asking advice has been set up by Jayne Mann at The Rivers Trust.

So, the Rivers Trusts’ community engagement activity is set to go from strength to strength…Watch this space!

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