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What we do and how we do it.
THE WOODLARKS CENTRE
It is 70 years since The Woodlarks Centre, formerly for most of that time known as Woodlarks Workshop, opened its doors with two disabled women and 2 staff. It shares its name with Woodlarks Camp Site because the two ventures shared the same founders, Martyn and Dorothea Strover, and shares their vision.
First, in the 1930s, the vision was for people with disabilities to have the outdoor fun of camping. With a friend, Martyn and Dorothea formed a Charitable Trust, and set out to encourage volunteers to fulfil the vision and to raise the necessary funds. To many disabled folk who came, the surrounding countryside and the thrill of sleeping under canvas were life-changing.
The Waverley estate, from its centre off Waverley Lane, originally extended from the railway line almost to Tilford. Bit by bit the owner agreed to sell a series of pieces of land to the new Trust, so that by 1938 the camp site comprised the 12 acres of field and woodland which it is now, and where week-long camps continue throughout every summer.
But there was more to the vision. Martyn and Dorothea realised that many disabled folk were isolated at home with nothing to do. With local ex-Serviceman Captain Woolgar, expert in woodwork and who had lost a leg in WW1, they set up weekly sessions in the one camp building. There disabled people living within a 25 mile radius could learn a craft. They made wooden toys and kites.
During WW2 the camp buildings were used for other purposes until, in 1945, the vision was re-energised. Many of the younger disabled people who the Strovers met in camp lived in so-called chronic hospitals, some of them dismal, and it became clear that a residential place with meaningful activity was sorely needed for the “young middle-aged”. Although a number of existing residential projects did provide training in various crafts, none seemed to cater for people dependent on a wheelchair. So the renewed vision was for a real home which was also a workshop, with proper working hours and meaningful work needing only good hands and eyes.
In 1947 the Waverley estate was sold up in lots, and a loan allowed the purchase of the 2 acre strip between the camp site and Lodge Hill Road. On it was a pair of semi-detached cottages, a washhouse, a well, and a vegetable garden. Army huts, 18ft by 90ft, were being sold post-war, and with one of these, and the washhouse converted into a bathroom with water laid on – and thanks to a lot of volunteer labour – Woodlarks Workshop began.
The first residents were Sally and Maud, with Gladys Foy as Warden. Sally, from London’s East End, had had polio as a child and lived in a dreary “chronic hospital”. She moved about on leather-clad knees and hand knuckles, and had an infectious laugh. Her sister had heard about the camp site, Sally came and loved it, and it was from camps that she and Maud, with Gladys, pioneered the new Workshop. They became skilled toy-makers, and once they were fully trained they became the instructors for everyone who came after them.
Dorothea wanted each worker to be able to say “I made this” rather than being a piece-worker factory-style. She designed the toys and made sure they reached a high saleable standard – and sell they did. When some residents joined whose hands could not cope with woodwork, weaving was introduced, with tweed, towels, oven gloves and other items
produced over the subsequent years. New skills and persistent practice brought confidence – and pocket money – in both these crafts
It wasn’t all work. As the community grew they took up wheelchair square dancing with a musician who adapted dances for them. They sang in their own choir, and more and more residents embraced outside activities.
Volunteer help and fund raising are vitally necessary for the Centre to provide everything needed, such as the maintenance and expected replacement of the wheelchair-accessible vehicles. (Volunteer drivers are always needed!) The Fete on Gostrey Meadow on 15th will be both a celebration of The Woodlarks Centre’s 70 years and a fundraiser.
Woodlarks Workshop was separated from the Camp Site in the 1950s when, in order to borrow money for building, the Workshop had to become a charitable Housing Association. Since then it has run entirely separately with its own Board and staff, and its current title is The Woodlarks Centre. This title reflects the way development has taken place.
The enlarged community demanded bigger and better facilities, which have been added over the years. First was a large brick building in 1952, followed by a replacement of the Army hut in 1965. Then under the chairmanship of Leslie Fenn the original cottages were demolished and a unified building constructed. Now every resident has an en suite bed-sitting room of their own. This is a lively community open to ideas.
People with the level of ability of the earlier residents are now likely to live semi-independently, and the ethos of a work place, with any residual feeling of being institutional, became inappropriate. The Centre has moved towards providing a choice of activities and occupational crafts, encouraging the interests and aspirations of each individual with the freedom of personal choices. Some residents go out to activity centres and some belong to local churches, all of which expands experience. Visitors become valued friends.
The Woodlarks Centre, still close to the camp site, still welcome to join in some of the camp activities, in its own outstanding way is fulfilling the original vision.