Interview first published in April 2020
William Wordsworth urged to the world to “come forth into light, let nature be your teacher”. He was obsessed with the natural world’s power to help, heal and nourish...
Surely then, the lake poet would have approved of the owners of his old Cumbrian bolt hole.
For they are also channelling the power of nature, in the name of rehabilitation.
On the outskirts of Keswick, down the sort of road that only the Lake District can produce – dramatic skies, looming peaks and ancient trees stretching their arms over the narrowest strip of tarmac – stands Old Windebrowe.
The finishing touches are just being put on restoring the 500-year-old tithe barn and dairy cottage when NR Times arrives on a wintry morning.
Fortunately the heating is working and, over coffee in the barn’s vast communal space, Jill Beswick updates on the progress.
She recently moved here from Shetland to take up her role as clinical lead for Calvert Reconnections, an acquired brain injury (ABI) rehab centre harnessing the great outdoors to drive better patient outcomes.
Her experiences of running a community rehab service on the remote Scottish island could stand her in good stead for rolling out her new employer’s big plans.
“I’m used to remoteness, weather and small communities that really seem to look after each other. We moved up to Shetland for a two-year adventure and ended up staying for 16 years but when I saw this job it struck me as a brilliant opportunity and I’ve been on a rollercoaster ever since.”
We’re sitting in an area where brain injuries survivors, support workers and therapists will gather in the morning, anticipating a day of outdoorsy adventure; and socialise in the evening, windswept and glowing from the best the Keswickian elements can throw at them.
“When I show the locals round they all remember the ceilidhs they used to come to here,” says Jill. But the real historical highlight of the building is its Romantic connections.
Wordsworth’s close pal growing up was one Raisley Calvert, and their friendship continued into adulthood.
By age 21, however, Raisley had developed tuberculosis and was dying. He saw great potential in his young writer friend and wanted to help him fulfil it.
He made sure that his family’s Old Windebrowe cottage was given rent-free to Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy and they lived there for several years.
He also left him £900 in his will to afford him the freedom to write, prompting William to pen the sonnet, To the Memory of Raisley Calvert declaring: Calvert! It must not be unheard by them / Who may respect my name that I to thee / Owed many years of early liberty.
It’s fitting that the room where Wordsworth lived, and which was a launchpad for his career, will be used for life-changing interventions once more; with Calvert Reconnections developing it into a classroom for residents and staff.
The organisation believes it has created the UK’s – and possibly the world’s – first intensive ABI rehab centre focused on outdoor activities.
Residents will typically stay for three to six months, with accommodation for up to ten adults with ABI at any one time.
The centre offers a “24-hour interdisciplinary approach”, with clinical and rehabilitation support combined with various outdoor activities to challenge individuals and deliver evidence-based outcomes.
Before its £1.4m redevelopment, the property had been largely unused, save for some activities like archery. Thanks to a fundraising drive by the Calvert Trust, the charity which provides outdoor adventure holidays for disabled people, it has undergone a dramatic transformation.
The Grade II-listed building now has accessible bedrooms, a self-contained flat to help support people in their independent living, alongside a living area with kitchen and laundry facilities to encourage residents to do as much for themselves as possible.
The centre also has links to Calvert Trust’s portfolio of other facilities, including outdoor activities centres and accommodation also in the Lake District.
The facility adds much-needed residential brain injury care capacity, helping to alleviate a problem continually highlighted by neuro-rehab professionals; the chronic lack of available resources, which can jeopardise patient outcomes.
Recent research carried out by Exchange Chambers barristers and Calvert Reconnections highlighted this further.
It shows that ninety-seven per cent of senior brain injury lawyers believe there are a lack of residential- based brain injury rehabilitation units in the UK.
Also, 71 per cent say the NHS is unable to provide effective support. (Clearly this research took place before the Covid-19 crisis, and time will tell what impact the pandemic has on NHS investment in the future.)
Calvert Reconnections is helping to plug this gap in residential ABI care, while also offering a novel approach – drawing on the benefits of outdoor activity.
“The fact that we really focus in on the outdoor activities and adventure as part of our therapeutic model makes us completely unique. There is nowhere else doing what we do,” says Jill.
“The outdoor activity approach is our therapeutic medium to reach the goals that people want to achieve around things like planning, time management, social interaction and managing impulsive behaviours.”
Outdoor activities can also enhance wellbeing and confidence, Jill explains.
“The goal might not be to climb a mountain, for example, but it’s the fact that what you are doing is a challenge that matters, and this alters how you feel about yourself and your own mental wellbeing.
“If I can do this, which I never thought I could do, then what else can I do? It starts opening up other horizons.”
The outdoor element is underpinned by an interdisciplinary programme which Jill and her team build around the needs of individual residents.
“With a neuropsychologist, neurophysiotherapist and junior occupational therapist employed on-site, alongside rehab coaches with a background in enabling support or activity instruction, the team has been put together to respond to bespoke needs.”
And daily routines do not follow the norm in neuro-rehab.
“We don’t have a clinical model here,” she says. “We don’t have say, physio at 10 o’clock and speech therapy at 11. We don’t have a set programme of that kind at all.
“We work in conjunction with our participants, get to know their aims and work together to achieve them. It depends on their interests as to how we match that and also decide what therapies are appropriate.
“Certainly, we don’t have a programme that everybody has to fit into. We speak to people, find out their interests, the difficulties they have, their aspirations and what they want their future to look like.
“We can then look at how we can build that into their own therapy programme.”
An array of activities is offered to residents, depending on their individual needs and preferences. Calvert Reconnections has an adjacent horse riding centre and is also only four miles from the Calvert Lakes Activity Centre.
“Taking the access we have to the stables as an example, it’s not just about horse riding, there is equine care, stable management, repairing fences and outdoor management. We are focusing very much on the activity challenge alongside the vocational one.
“We have two people carriers which will enable us to get out and about, and we do want to work with the community and with local businesses and groups.
“The response we have had so far has been fantastic and we hope there are many opportunities for us to work together.
“We’re not a secure unit, we’ve developed this as being a part of the community, and we want people to feel able to go out into the community. Doing this helps to open up further opportunities for life experience.”
After busy and active days, the Calvert Reconnections centre itself offers a homely environment, with ten individuals bedrooms on the ground floor and a first-floor living area including a snooker table to increase the opportunity for social interaction.
The centre is designed to be both relaxing and challenging.
“If you go to most rehab units, they are a bit like hotels in that every bathroom and bedroom looks the same. But that’s not what we’ve got here. Every room is different, which gives it character, but also provides a better opportunity from a rehab perspective because it can offer different challenges.
“Depending on what type of bathroom facilities they have at home, for example, we can try to replicate them to better prepare them for the future.
“Also, with a lot of newly-built rehab units which are very accessible, but very clinical, you find that when somebody is going home, they may not have had any experience of steps, slopes or other walking challenges that occur in real life areas.
“Whereas here, while some of it is a bit quirky because it’s a very old building, we have a real life setting and we want it to challenge our residents.
“If you make things too ideal, you’re setting people up for failure when they go out into the community. Can they go to the local shop if you’ve not been practicing on stairs or different surfaces?”
The approach is also designed to support residents’ mental wellbeing, helping them to better manage the cognitive challenges of daily life.
“Often, when people are going through their acute phase of rehab and to get them out of hospital, the focus is on whether you can walk, wash and dress yourself. But actually they may not be able to manage a daily routine.
“They look good because they’re walking fine, but planning their day and managing their activities within the day is a real struggle. So we feel that to be able to work on that cognitive rehabilitation, mental wellbeing is a massive aspect that we’ll also be addressing.”
As well as focusing on the needs of her residents, Jill also hopes to help to build up the hard evidence for Calvert Reconnections’ distinct approach.
“Previously this type of service has not existed, which is why we need these evidence-based outcomes.
“But everyone we have spoken to and consulted with, whether that’s potential clients, clinicians, case managers, physicians and personal injury lawyers, is really excited about the model and feels that this is absolutely the way forward.”
And once such evidence is collected demonstrating the value of Calvert Reconnections’ approach, Jill aims to share it as widely as possible.
“We are very excited about the work we are doing and the impact this will have on the people who come to us from across the country, and hopefully on many others too,” she says.
Our visit to Calvert Reconnection took place pre-COVID-19. The facility is now taking referrals ahead of its opening next year.
Developments since our visit include the creation of the UK’s first COVID-19 compliant brain injury rehab programme combining traditional interdisciplinary clinical therapies with physical activity in the outdoors.
See www.calvertreconnections.org.uk for details and updates.