A group of women of south-east Asian heritage sat around a table taking parts in crafts.
Tinsley Time and Travel project - making roman mosaic crafts with a local careers group. © Heeley City Farm
Tinsley Time and Travel project - making roman mosaic crafts with a local careers group. © Heeley City Farm

Heritage and Social Prescribing in Action

Sharing good practice on social prescribing delivery in community heritage projects.

One of the most important sources of community support in these testing months of dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has come from the voluntary sector. The hard work of all local Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations has been invaluable - especially for the most vulnerable groups. Our immediate natural and historic environment was often the only solace and opportunity to take fresh air and inspiration in times of hardship and restrictions in all spheres of our lives - and these unsung local heroes helped us to do this effectively.

Social prescribing is a way of referring people to activities that can support their wellbeing – as an alternative to traditional clinical approaches and medication. These referrals are usually done by social prescribing link workers, employed by the NHS and hosted within the Primary Care Networks. Social prescribing is proven to work well for a wide range of people, but especially for those with one or more long-term conditions, complex social needs or who are lonely, isolated or needing support with their mental health.

Social prescribing and similar approaches have been practised in the NHS for many years, but in the past few years they have been actively rolled out across the country. The NHS long-term plan (2019) incorporated social prescribing into its comprehensive model of personalised care, aiming to enable people to take greater control of their health and wellbeing.

Social prescribing has community support and local environment at the core of its philosophy and practice. The other crucial element is the individual need: the link workers look at what matters to the person, what their needs are and what could best support their wellbeing. This assessment is then followed by a referral to activities drawn from a range of agencies, such as those connected with heritage.

Social Prescribing is person-centred and with social justice at heart – and it can work well for supporting both individual and community wellbeing.

We have already shared some of the evidence and practice on heritage and social prescribing in an earlier issue of this magazine.

Through our partnership with the National Academy for Social Prescribing, Historic England is able to  better promote the role of heritage in supporting individual and community wellbeing. We are now proud to announce a particularly exciting new initiative, led by the Restoration Trust and supported by a Historic England grant: a 2-year Test & Trial pilot project embedding a Heritage Link Worker within the existing social prescribing infrastructure in Great Yarmouth.

You can find out more about how heritage relates to wellbeing and social prescribing in the recently released Heritage Special Podcast , which aired on the 2 December 2021, as an episode of the National Academy of Social Prescribing’s Podcast on Prescription series.

Making heritage count in local social prescribing projects

The power of heritage to bring positive change in our lives is showcased brilliantly by the local community and grass-root organisations that help people on daily basis. We have had the chance to encourage and support several truly inspirational projects.

Somers Town Museum – 'A Space for us'

‘A space for us’ is a living memory project, created by the Somers Town History Club in Camden, London, founded not only to celebrate the local heritage and history, but also to benefit the local community as a social enterprise through education and arts.

The club’s director Diana Foster’s vision was to offer people opportunities and not just activities, to help them feel a sense of purpose and to build a network – whilst also allowing them to participate in something they feel passionately about. Through workshops, campaigns, walks and talks, members meet to discuss art, historic publications and photographs - but most importantly, they share their stories.
The club has been very successful and has been helping its attendees for years – many of them are older people, typically those suffering with loneliness or dementia.

The next step was linking the existing activities offered by Somers Town History Club with social prescribing. Heather Allen, a social prescribing link worker, explains why people are referred to this initiative

People share stories with me of their lives and they just want to be heard – some want to volunteer and make a difference, some would like the opportunity to be more creative, improve their physical fitness, connect with nature, preserve their community or reignite the lost artiste inside themselves. The History Club is an amazing place to explore this, bringing people together across generations sharing their stories.

Heather Allen, Social Prescribing Link Worker

George joined ‘A space for us’ shortly after suffering a personal loss. The History Club helped him to deal with his grief through sharing his memories and knowledge of Somers Town with others. His experience and enthusiasm have since attracted others to the club, while also provoking interest and spreading awareness among younger generations. George took part in many of the club’s public engagement events, including through media and film.

Archaeology on Prescription

Archaeology on Prescription is an innovative social prescribing project that seeks to engage York’s residents in archaeology to improve their health and wellbeing, foster new social connections and improve confidence.

The project is being piloted by the York Archaeology Trust in the shadow of York’s city walls, on the Council-owned site of a former care home. Whilst the project engages with people from all over the city, local residents from the surrounding Walmgate area are specifically encouraged to get involved to help create the most detailed picture of life in this part of the city from the medieval period to the modern day. With activities such as site clearing, excavation, finds processing, archive digitisation, and report preparation, participants are continuing to work with the incredible archaeology being uncovered at Willow House.

The scheme brings together York Archaeology and a range of local partners working with those who will benefit most from taking part. For the first pilot, delivered in Autumn 2021, these included Converge, an educational charity for those with lived experience of mental health based at York St John University, and Changing Lives, which works with people recovering from addiction. The user response to this has been overwhelmingly positive and a second phase is planned to involve more partners across the City, in particular those working with younger people.

The innovative nature of Archaeology on Prescription has resulted in the national Community Renewal Fund awarding York Archaeology a £120,000 grant for the next stage, which includes embedding a social prescribing link worker and utilising the project’s activities for social prescribing referrals. The project to date has been supported by a number of funders including the Assura Community Fund, Ed de Nunzio Charitable Trust, City of York Council, Arnold Clark Community Fund and Culture and Wellbeing York.

Heeley City Farm – Heritage department

For the last 13 years, Heeley City Farm’s Community Heritage Team have engaged thousands of people from the Sheffield area, including many volunteers, work placements and general participants of all ages in a variety of local heritage and wellbeing projects. These have included excavations, art, building roundhouses, transcription of medieval documents, sharing of memories, workshops and much more.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the work of the charity severely, but also mobilised it to play a very important part as a community hub in Sheffield’s voluntary sector response during lockdown. They enhanced their capacity by securing a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant for the appointment of a Heritage and Wellbeing Officer, who is now helping them explore social prescribing as a new delivery model, connect with local link workers and reach more people through engagement with local heritage.

Currently, Heeley City Farm’s Heritage department is preparing another NLHF application for the 'Heeley Heritage Hub' project, aiming to engage under-represented and vulnerable groups from their community to connect with their local heritage and history through social prescribing pathways.

The above case studies illustrate the potential of using heritage to address specific local need, address inequalities and empower local people. They also demonstrate how such approaches can be adapted to fit a social prescribing model that is designed to link people with what matters to them in a way that addresses their wellbeing needs.

About the author

Dr Desi Gradinarova

Senior Policy Adviser (Wellbeing) at Historic England and Historic Environment Lead at the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP)

Desi has been working in heritage, research, education and policy for many years and is a passionate believer in the potential of heritage to bring people together and its crucial role in maintaining a vibrant and healthy society.

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You can download this article along with others in Issue 20 as a PDF magazine.

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