Guest Blog: Ali from RISE recovery

Sunshine beating down on my skin nourished and calmed me. In silence I left my Tribe – this journey was one that I had to do alone: to think, to reflect, and ask myself what was my truth, what had drawn me to this quest.

I climbed over the stile and headed into the woodland. In a split second I had entered another world – cool air stroked me, damper danker smells of mystery demanded to be drawn into my lungs. I felt safe here; safe in the knowledge that I am just a tiny insignificant spec amongst a beautiful landscape.  I was safe from the noise, rushing, pushing and jostling of everyday life that I can still struggle with.

Slowly drawn towards the beat and lure of the boron drum I walked up the winding track. Tingling within as my thoughts and senses were captivated by the beauty around me, I stopped and picked up a piece of stone, the colours spoke of the autumn to come. Into my pocket it went, a memory to keep and treasure.

This weekend for me was about answers: Who was I, what purpose do I have in life and how to move forward keeping my truth pure. The drum beat drew me onwards whispering its song, you’re nearly home, you’re nearly there just keep on going we’ll all be there. Like a heartbeat slow safe and comforting.  I reached Caspar and Ben – they invited me to take off my boots and socks. The moss slightly damp between my toes felt good, my toes wriggling and spreading with delight. I was then blindfolded reassured that I would be safe in the hands of another warrior. Trust is part of my struggle in life – when people and life has torn you apart the instinct is to go it alone, leave the pack behind. The experiences over the last couple of days were encouraging me to challenge that belief and curiously it felt good to hold onto a strong arm and be led.

Without sight my other senses were heightened. I could hear water and feel every small differing texture between my toes. My heart was racing, roaring, fast – a different drum beat.

After what seemed like an eternity we stopped. I was calm now. I was beginning to trust my brother, he hadn’t let me down. He had kept me safe and steady. I was learning to trust again. Unsure of what was to happen next, I caught my breath, felt the sun on my face and smiled.

RISE Moorland Reconnection Day

It’s been a few months since our successful weekend with RISE (Recovery and Integrated Service) on Dartmoor. We’ve stayed in regular contact and are now in the process of putting a joint funding bid together to continue the programme on a regular basis. We’ve also been in regular contact with the participants who’ve remained amazingly positive about their time with us on the high moor. It really does feel like it’s been a life changing experience for all those involved. What we’d hoped for and more.

What has always been close to my heart in this work is in finding a way of making the vision of ongoing support for our participants, beyond the powerful transformation of the residentials, to become a tangible reality. It’s a noble, crucial dream but the logistics to make this possible on the ground can be complex and a pull on our already stretched resources. But with RISE, it seems to be happening, slowly but surely, as a mutually beneficial, supportive partnership.

We met on Dartmoor last Thursday for the first of what will be a series of days together, reconnecting, sharing, walking, messing around (with an eye on health and safety!) and discovering ways we can continue to support this fine group of human beings. Within RISE they are collectively known as peer mentors and already have one to one supervision support there. Most attend regular 12 Step Recovery groups and therapy. What we are offering is working with them as a group, addressing the dynamics, the strengths and the challenges. We’ll be meeting once a month through the autumn, winter and into next year. We’ll evaluate the process as we go, to measure its success and viability for funding.

Tribe Warrior remains an important part of their time with us, using its themes as a guide for their own daily journey through life. One participant brought his along with great pride!

We had the usual offering of Dartmoor’s very own climate. Walking to the magical Bench Tor, with its dramatic view down into the East Dart Valley. The traditional Dartmoor Mizzle (mist and drizzle for the uninitiated) rolling down the steep sides of the valley into the river gave it an eerie feeling. We headed from the high windswept open moor, down into the woods, toward the river where heavy rain soon turned to welcome sunshine and clouds. My perfect Dartmoor day. Our mini trek finished by a gentle flowing part of the river where we wrote and talked and paired up to explore what challenges lay ahead and what support was needed. By the end of the day, a reconnection to land and our ‘tribe’ was made. Continuity and a reminder of where batteries can always be recharged.

I felt a sadness seeing them all drive off. Matched with a genuine joy in knowing I will see them all again soon. We’ll be meeting, back on the moor, toward the end of the month. I’ll be asking them to contribute to this blog page. Which I’m sure they will, with their trademark zest, humour and eye for the detail of the moors and more.

Caspar – Creative Director, Write to Freedom

New Leaves: reconnecting families after fathers are released from prison

“Imprisonment can be profoundly destructive for families intimate and social relationships. The current rate of inter-generational re-offending is alarming.’’  Crime can often be more shaming for the surrounding family than the criminal themselves, and HMS Parc Prison’s flagship Family Intervention Wing aims to reduce re-offending by developing a positive sense of attachment and responsibility with fathers who have been or are, in prison.  We’ve worked alongside this wing to create the project ‘New Leaves’, to work with the whole family as part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation.

We’ve taken six imprisoned fathers on six separate residential courses with their families, with an aim to connect them to the wild landscape and support their reconnection with each other. Through planned activities, the use of myth and story, the families get a chance to step out of the stress of readjustment and spend time re-bonding and having positive shared experiences. We hold a relaxed environment for safe, heartfelt communication. There’s plenty of opportunity to express feelings and emotions usually difficult to articulate in normal life.

“It has been shown that the use of fairy tales has emotional and symbolic importance for children and their emotional growth.” By using mythical stories, the project seeks to aid children to understand and positively channel their emotions in symbolic terms.

During a ‘New Leaves’ program, families co-create a storybook together as they follow an outdoor trail of activities with the threaded themes of shy Wizards and a hunt for a Dragon’s layer.  The culmination of the lived mythical story is a large wood-sculptured dragon breathing real fire. It’s a striking symbolic connection to the Welsh Dragon that engages the family with their cultural and geographic heritage, whilst playing within the myth and wilderness of the post-industrial South Wales landscape. After finding the Dragon’s Nest and gold, the family co-writes a short piece with the title “The gold we have found in ourselves”.

An interesting by-product of running the pilot year is a sense of ‘cross fertilisation’ that happens during each course. Living in the presence of facilitators who have different daily habits and lifestyles is a worthwhile cultural exposure. Families eat home-cooked organic meals, socialise and play music around a camp fire, without a TV or Internet all weekend.  It’s these subtle, shared new experiences that may increase the family’s sense of unity and strength as they transition into having their fathers and husbands back from prison.

Now, at the end of our pilot year of delivery, we are aiming to set up a reunion day where all the families can meet, celebrate and socialise together, continuing the community bond through their shared experiences within New Leaves. We are also hoping to produce a coffee table style picture book that highlights the political climate of children affected by parental imprisonment, our work with ‘New Leaves’, and some anonymous stories of the families.

Ben Ford – New Leaves coordinator and trainee facilitator

RISE residential Recovery course

The dark surrounding the fire would be ominous were it not for the warm reflection of the flames on the faces of the men and women in front of us. A mixed bag of travellers from all over the country and from all manner of heartbreak. The Bodrahn drum in my hand has been in its case for a too many months. The skin needs tightening. I bring my hand over the flames to test the heat, then the drum, letting the orange and yellow fire shine through the skin. It’s a good bit of storytelling theatre. The eyes watching widen as I strike out a single beat, then another, and another. The instrument rises in pitch, tuning itself to the heat of the fire.  I’m nervous. I also need some tuning up!

This is how our time together starts. With a circle, a fire, an old story, the night, new faces, new friends and silence. The drum is ready.  Each time this is different. Following the same theme, similar threads but told to each group as if it were the first. Responding to the season, the weather, the feeling within the group. This fine circle of beings who have each been impacted by addiction are each seeking to deepen their healing and recovery. They’ve come to us through RISE (Recovery Integrated Services – link). Each bring a gift for themselves and for us. What those gifts are will unfold over the next few days.

Each have been on a road, heading to this turning point, on the high hills of Dartmoor, for months, years, decades. Weather-worn by what life has handed them. And choosing to do something good with it. Turn it into something they can work with, something they can transform and be proud of. And part of that journey is to discover a new relationship with nature and their own, unique story. To rediscover themselves inside its wildness. John, one of our lead nature-connection facilitators, stops mid-sentence as the rapid trill of a Nightjar fills the air. He calls to it. It calls back. The Isle is Full of Noises.

We know the power of these weekends but never know quite how that power will unfold. We respond to what meets us. Each of the staff have, in their own lives, been touched, one way or another, by addiction. We know the hard road. And we know the joy and freedom that comes from stepping off it, onto another path.

We share our discoveries as the days unfold; through words, poems, journals. This land has been shaped by ancient weather, as have we. This group are no different in how extraordinary they are. How engaged, connected, loving, wise, funny and willing to step out of their comfort zone time and time again. To take their recoveries and their gifts, to the next level.

Long may it continue!

Caspar Walsh, Lead Facilitator and Creative Director

Guest blog from our new Chair of Trustees- Brett Sentance

Hello, my name is Brett Sentance and I have recently become Chair of Trustees for Write to Freedom. I work in social housing, have managed a number of homeless services and moved to Devon just over 2 years ago. In 2014 I came across Write to Freedom, met with Caspar Walsh and had an instant connection with him. I understood what he was doing with the charity and a few months later, he asked if I would like to be involved, so here I am.

A few months ago, I was asked if I could help out for a couple of days with some of the delivery on the ground. Dartmoor it was then…

Nestled just outside Moretonhampstead is some land owned by Gordon, a Write to Freedom mentor. He teaches archery, amongst other things, and is a very gentle and wise man.

This place was beautiful, peaceful and a great place to work with people.

I was with Gordon and Ben, another mentor and who again is very interesting, wise for his age and very welcoming and supportive.

For 2 days I was immersed in things; helping, observing and being part of what Write to Freedom do. I kind of knew what Write to Freedom did, but I needed to experience it first hand so I can really be a part of it.

The participants arrived along with support staff from a statutory provider and we started the day. I was feeling a mix of anxiety and excitement but looking forward to working with some new people.

Once we’d set up for the day; preparing workspaces and the eating area, setting up an archery space and other areas for activities, we sat down and started the day by sharing how we were feeling about the day and where we were as individuals. After these honest and open introductions we warmed up with some archery. What an amazing way to focus and be centred on what the day will bring. It’s a great start for the young men when they arrive.

There was a difference in what the men experienced here to other approaches I’ve seen.  Planning and talking about how the day is going to go, preparing for any crisis and unplanned events is incredibly beneficial for the participants and staff and something that does not happen that often in support services. Quite unique.

Some of the young men were incredible at archery and gained many skills as the course progressed. I saw young men from difficult backgrounds and chaotic lives really using the archery as a way of being calm and focussed. It blew me away, to be honest.

Archery is only a part of what Write to Freedom does, and throughout the day there was also writing, sharing feelings, cooking healthy and wholesome food, mentoring, being part of a community, and the list goes on.

I felt connected and all who attended felt the same. It was an incredible 2 days and I felt very grateful to be a part of Write to Freedom. I also thank the young men who attended for their brave shares and getting fully involved.

Dartington Now and Then Trail

‘For each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth’

This summer, Write to Freedom embarked on creating a written word trail around the Dartington estate that was launched during the Ways with Words festival in July.  Taking inspiration from Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst (who purchased the neglected 14th Century Dartington Estate in 1925) and their links with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the trail sought to revisit the Elmhirsts’ original vision, and invite Dartington’s current workers to engage with and respond to their ideals.

Whilst researching archive material for the project, and requesting folder after folder of letters, articles, essays and notebooks, I was often stunned by the foresight of what I was reading.  For instance, Rabindranath Tagore (with whom Leonard Elmhirst worked closely in the 1920s) wrote in 1922: “A civilisation which has attained such an unnatural appetite must, for its continuing existence depend upon numberless victims”.

Almost 100 years later, and we have stretched that unnatural appetite to its absolute limit. Sweatshops, environmental devastation and vast social inequalities around the globe have become the norm.  These are bleak times, and it is too easy to be swallowed by them.  Dartington offers a haven of likeminded people seeking solutions to the many issues that haunt today’s world. This was very apparent when we ran creative writing workshops with various projects around the estate.

Dartington has always been a work in progress. It has morphed and transformed over the years; from an experimental school and rural community, to a seed-bed for visionaries, to a creative arts college; to the active social enterprises that it consists of today.  The thread that gives continuity throughout is the Elmhirsts; their passions, interests, ideals and legacy they left to the world.

I was amazed to discover that the 1945 post-war Labour manifesto was written here, at Dartington.  The manifesto that gave birth to the Welfare state and the NHS.  It’s author, Michael Young, attended Dartington school as a child – The Elmhirst’s original ‘Dartington Experiment’ in rural education.

Today, as the systems that our grandparents’ generations fought so hard to put in place are gradually broken down and privatised, it felt very timely to be reminded that even huge entities like the NHS began life as a dream; a vision for a fairer society.  Those dreams were realised by collective action, by humongous effort, yet they began life by being given the right conditions to emerge.  Working on this project has taught me how the Elmhirsts’ vision was to create a place where conditions were ripe for all sorts of new possibilities.  I hope that somewhere in Dartington today, whether it’s a child at Park school, a social policy advisor at Research in Practise, or a student at Schumacher College, that the seeds of new dreams are being planted.

Learning about Dartington’s history has undoubtedly deepened my experience of coming to work on the estate (our office is based here), and I feel grateful to the Elmhirsts for their legacy. Dartington is an incredibly beautiful estate, left to all of us with the intention of creating a more just, sustainable and creative society.

The Dartington Now and Then trail is running until the end of September 2015. Trail guides can be picked up from the Visitors’ Centre.


Guest blog by Nicky Puttick – Project & Development Manager

Guest blog post: Introducing Ben Ford

It’s January 2014, and I’m sat on a sheep’s skin, crouched between two rocks on the high moor. I have been given a question from Caspar Walsh: ‘Why am I here?’

This scene was one of my first encounters with Write To Freedom, on a mentor training weekend.

My name’s Ben, and since that weekend, I’ve become one of the key forces within the charity.  I’ve mentored, facilitated, support staffed, and now I’m coordinating a project for imprisoned fathers and their families alongside Parc Prison and Barnados.

To tell you a little bit about myself and how I came to be a part of Write To Freedom, I grew up in the wildly awesome Cornwall where welly walks, roaring coastlines and blistering summers by the sea were the norm.  My childhood and teenage years were filled with all of the good things you would expect. But underlying this, I also had to contend with an absent father, and a succession of drug dealers and alcoholic men being my day-to-day role models.

A lot of young men have had similar, sometimes much worse, experiences than me. Some are not so fortunate to find a way out of the cycles and habits they have learnt from their role models growing up. These sorts of undeserved experiences force young people into drugs and crime. Luckily for me, at some point along the way I channeled that anger and fear away from crime and drugs, and plowed it into my academic life. I began a journey of personal development, which led me to Write To Freedom.

This year is an exciting year for myself, and for Write To Freedom. After a period of infrastructure growth we are turning our sites back to delivery, and I’m very glad to be involved. There is nothing more rewarding than taking young people on a journey out on the moors, away from their iPhones, and into a more instinctual reality where they are emotionally challenged, yet safe and held. And once more, I too am continually challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone working alongside Write To Freedom. As we continue to help others, we also continue to help ourselves. It’s that synergy which is so great about the work we do.

In answer to Caspar’s question ‘Why I am here’, in my time of need as a teenager, I came very close to straying down bad paths. If it weren’t for a couple of influential role models in my life, I would be in a very different scenario today. I am here because I want to make sure that Write To Freedom comes into the lives of others just at the right time, as it did for me, and that everyone has the opportunity to surround themselves with nature, growth, and solid role models.

I’m more than happy to talk in further detail about my experiences, both with Write To Freedom and growing up. Drop me an email on