Jul 03 2024

The Learning Loft Project at Brantwood, Ruskin's home.

July 3rd 2024

The fascinating story of the Learning Loft project, kindly shared with us by Anita Abrams & Rosie Taylor.


'It was a wonderful day and we had fun! The most bestest nature trip ever!' Waiting for the ferry to Coniston at home time.

The Learning Loft Project at Brantwood.


Ruskin’s belief in the whole child and his dislike of competition puts him firmly in the camp of progressive educators. His holistic approach, embodying the principles of vivid experience, sharp observation, the making of connections and contemplation transcends the content of the curriculum and emphasises the importance of both individual experience and cooperation. 

As well as advocating free education for all in anticipation of the 1870 Education Act, Ruskin promoted libraries and museums, playgrounds, physical education, and school gardens. He also emphasised that learning should take place in an environment that was attractive and well resourced with good quality products and works of art.

He saw the importance of drawing skills as not so much to make children become great artists, but to enrich their lives by developing their powers of observation. This begins by looking closely at Nature with one’s most intent gaze and developing sensory awareness as the focus of early learning. Exploring the environment through movement, looking, listening, touching and smelling – all essential elements in both physical and intellectual development – linked to a sense of wonder about the natural world.

Planning the Project.

The refurbishment and development of the Hayloft at Brantwood into a new learning resource area provided a unique opportunity to put these beliefs and principles into practice in Ruskin’s own territory and to offer experiences to children and young people who might not be aware of Ruskin or visit Brantwood. How would 21st Century children respond to simple experiences in a natural setting? Many of them are used to learning and playing in a virtual world. A day spent using simple materials – paper and card, pencils and crayons, natural objects and materials gathered from the gardens and grounds would be very different.

It was important to provide the right environment for children and staff to sit and work comfortably, to have access to basic materials and resources in sufficient quantity and for those resources to be as good quality as could be provided within the budget. The activities also needed to be carefully designed to comply with the Ruskinian principles, to challenge children as individuals not as competitors, and to give every child the opportunity to achieve independently and enjoy the experiences.

Outdoor Learning Specialist Rosie Taylor was funded by the Friends of Brantwood to develop the activities for the Pilot Project and to work for three days with the visiting schools. She spent considerable time exploring and photographing the grounds advising on suitable resources for the Loft, reading up on Ruskin as an educator, developing new activities and adapting ideas used successfully in other locations to Brantwood and to the Ruskinian principles. We finally selected the Observational Drawing Trail, Natural Bookmarks and Natural Colour Palettes as the key activities, with Magic Potions as an option if time was available.

The Activities.

Observational Drawing Trail.

Children use the map on the leaflet cover to take a journey round the gardens, stopping to record what they see through sketching. Viewfinders can be used to help children focus on the area to be sketched. On wet days the journey can be taken round the garden and the sketching can be done once back in the Loft using photographs. There will also be a selection of natural objects and Ruskin artwork that can be used as inspiration for observational drawing.

Natural Bookmarks.

While on a short journey around the gardens, tiny items are selected to stick on a bookmark back in the Loft. These items need to be flat and no larger than the width of the bookmark. Children can choose a theme such as colours or leaves or just a selection of things they like. Once carefully arranged, the bookmarks are laminated and will be a useful and beautiful reminder of the visit for many years!

Natural Colour Palettes.

Children use natural materials (leaves, petals, soil, moss) to explore the colours that can be found in nature. A small piece of the natural item is rubbed on the palette card to reveal the pigment.

Magic Potions.

Children are given a disposable cup in which to collect a given number of tiny objects that they would like to add to their potion. Then choose a special stirring stick, no bigger than your hand, a small amount of water is added and the potion is stirred to release the magic! Potions can be passed around for admiring and sniffing, then poured in a special place as a wish is made!


Vivid Experience! The power of Ruskin's Seat!


Sharp Observation - Exploring the woodland paths and following the Fern Trail.

The Schools and the Visits.

The three schools invited to participate in the pilot project were all in Barrow, two primary schools and one for children and young people with special needs. We decided to focus on Barrow initially as we were very aware that there were many children in the town who would not have had the opportunity to visit Brantwood or the Lake District.

Following initial telephone contacts and discussion, we met with a small group of teachers and support staff to discuss the objectives of the project and the activities, explore the Loft and the gardens and the resources and to set dates and times for visits the following term. This informal workshop was very valuable for all of us as it enabled the staff to put the activities into context in terms of both the Brantwood environment and the Ruskinian ethos. So by the end of the Summer Term of 2016, we were ready to begin in September with dates booked for classes of Y5 (age 9/10), Y4 (age 8/9) from the primary schools and Y7/8 (age 12-14) from the special school.

On each of the three days we travelled into sunshine after rain on our journey to Coniston – days of lifting cloud, incredible views across the lake, every beck and waterfall glinting in the sunshine and the trees bright with beautiful Autumn colours – an unexpected blessing and an ideal setting for the activities!

Thanks to the very welcome help of the Brantwood staff, the Loft was set out in readiness with long tables for the children to sit and work. Tables by the window carries a display of shells, stones, pine cones and feathers, with coloured paper, pencils, crayons, and magnifiers for the children to use. The children and staff came into an environment which was warm, spacious, welcoming, simply and naturally resourced and comfortably furnished. They were invited to hang up their coats, intrigued by the lovely wooden coat hooks, to have a look round and to settle down for a short time to be introduced to John Ruskin, to the location and to the activities.

The magnifying glasses were very popular – sharp observation from the outset! Handling the objects, looking at them closely, listening to the sea in the shells, talking about the origins of the rocks and stones, choosing a favourite object to draw – sensory experiences that many children who live in a world of technology and virtual reality are missing.

Just as interesting and captivating for many children was the view of the lake and the fells. Conversations about size and distance, reality and fantasy, questions such as:

‘Are those boats real or toys?’ ‘Are you allowed to go up there?’ (Coniston Old Man) ‘Look at the waves, is it the sea?’

made us realise how little opportunity town children may have to just look at a view and absorb what they can see!

The children soon ventured out into the gardens in groups to collect items for the Natural Bookmarks. This was a good way to give everyone a feel for the environment, some idea of the terrain and to assess what routes they could take for the Nature’s Palette and Drawing Trail activities. It was fascinating to observe the individual differences in the approach to this task. Some children needed to collect a much bigger quantity of materials from which to choose, others were very selective, planning their finished pattern or sequence as they went along, coordinating shapes and colours, making connections in different ways. Concentration and fine motor skills were required to stick the fragments onto the bookmark correctly. All three schools had extra support staff, so everyone was able to produce a beautiful, unique bookmark with the minimum of guidance and assistance.

The Lower Gardens, being most easily accessible were selected for the Nature’s Palette activity and despite being steeper and much more uneven and more challenging for some children with restricted mobility, they were able to find a lovely selection of natural colours from the Autumn leaves and flowers and to be delighted and intrigued by the results and the experience. 

The Drawing Trail took the mainstream children on their own journeys around the estate, looking for bridges, gates, walls, ferns, and steps. The children delighted in their discoveries, enjoyed showing them to each other and to the adults and loved sitting or lying on their individual mats to draw their findings. They enjoyed using the viewfinders and appreciated having their own beautifully produced trail booklet. Ruskin’s Seat provided inspiration, photo opportunities and the chance to talk about this very special man who they had learned about in school in anticipation of the visit. We were very encouraged to see that the children and staff responded so positively and enthusiastically to the activities.

The three classes ended their visit in different ways. The Y5 children chose to go down to the harbour and the jetty, to look more closely at the water and the waves, to observe the variety of craft on the lake from canoes and sailing dinghies to Gondola and the Coniston Launch. A lovely opportunity to discuss streams, rivers, lakes and seas, to think about scale and distance, experiences which were remembered in the classroom and related to the curriculum in maths and geography. 

The Y4 pupils had been studying Ruskin’s life and work and chose to spend some time in the house where they were able to increase their knowledge and understanding by actual experience of his home, his belongings, and his Art. Their teacher later told us how pleased she was at the extent to which Ruskin and the Brantwood visit had captured their imagination and extended their learning through Art, English and Philosophy.

The young people with special needs spent their time on the Terrace, relaxing and looking at the views. This time spent in quiet contemplation was particularly valuable to a class who are often restless, have difficulty concentrating and in controlling their behaviour. Their teacher said that she had never seen them so relaxed and calm!

Forward Planning.

Inspired by the success of these three visits, and with the continuing support of the Brantwood team and the Friends, we embarked on the preparation of a five-year plan detailing the resources and funding needed to develop and extend the project through to 2021. We had already identified schools in Barrow and Ulverston through local mayors and councillors, plus we were aware that Brantwood’s local school, Coniston Primary would be interested in being involved.

Whatever developments were to take place in the future, there is no doubt that the project would never have been launched successfully without the help, support and encouragement of the Friends of Brantwood. We believed that what we had achieved so far was most certainly in the spirit of Ruskin. Our aim was to take the project forward to make many more children and young people from challenging backgrounds aware of and influenced by his life and work through their visits to his home and gardens through participating in activities which embody his principles and also through having an exciting, enjoyable and memorable day at Brantwood. 


The Project in Action: 2017-2019 Summary and Highlights.

The first year began on a very positive note with successful applications for grants from Cumbria County Council for schools from Barrow, Walney and Ulverston, and the Rusland Horizons Project for schools and groups from the local area. We also had continuing support from the Friends plus a very generous donation from Artist, Sally Bamber, who painted portraits at the Christmas Craft Fair and donated the proceeds! This enabled us to move forward with planning for the year, confident that we could afford to support schools with the cost of transport to Brantwood, which we had soon realised was the biggest obstacle to their visits. 

As the Loft was closed until Easter due to refurbishment of the café and terrace, we had some time to arrange workshops, ensure we had sufficient resources, contact the schools, to put together some Teacher’s Packs with Brantwood and Ruskin information, and for Rosie to put the Activity details and Teacher’s Notes on the Brantwood website.

From late April through to early November we welcomed eleven classes from nine different schools to Brantwood including all four schools from Walney and two classes from Greengate, where most children live in terraced housing with no gardens, two classes from Coniston and our first school from Ulverston. The first groups to make Magic Potions were spellbound by this imaginative sensory awareness activity, a slowworm and a squirrel were spotted, many beautiful and brightly coloured bookmarks and nature’s palettes were completed, celebrating the seasons, the meadow and the falling leaves! Exploring the grounds, finding the features on the sketching trail and ‘drawing what you see’ were all enhanced by fine weather and wonderful views – a real ‘wow’ factor for many of the children and staff too!

We began to receive ‘Thank you’ cards, letters, and emails from our young visitors about their favourite experiences and found it lovely to be appreciated and to be creating memories and also to be made aware of the spin-off from visits back in the classroom.

Meanwhile, alongside the visits, other exciting developments were taking place. It was always the plan that the majority of the visits would be led by the school staff with Volunteer support from Brantwood on the basis of ‘meet and greet’, introduction to Ruskin and Brantwood, preparation of resources and the Loft and assistance with the organisation and timing of the day. Rosie was delighted to start the year with a Workshop for a group of five Volunteers who were all enthusiastic and eager to work with schools and groups and to contribute ideas to resource and activity development. Elizabeth, Alizon and Anne very soon undertook the class support role with enthusiasm and confidence while Lynda and Heather worked on the development of new resources and activities.

By the end of the year an exciting an innovative ‘Brantwood Bingo’ had been devised and produced – ideal for follow-up work in school or for an indoor session on a wet day, plus quiz worksheets for the ‘Ideas Room’ and ‘Ruskin Rocks’ exhibition were also being devised. This innovative work by Volunteer Lynda, contributing significantly to our young visitors’ knowledge and understanding of the many facets of Ruskin’s life and work.

Rosie also produced a pictorial map of the grounds – in the style of Winnie the Pooh- to link with a range of trails and activities planned for use with schools, families and community groups.

Sally painted lovely Holly and Ivy watercolours and Lynda designed and produced a set of three beautiful and evocative greetings cards to be sold to raise money for the Project. 

Friends and Volunteers, Heather and Alan donated and assembled fantastic new shelving and storage in the ‘break-out’ room and we began to develop a collection of books, artefacts, photographs and other resources to enhance the visits and complement the activities.

By the end of the year over 200 children and the adults who work with them had enjoyed a lovely day at Brantwood and hopefully taken a little bit of the spirit of Ruskin back with them and into their lives!

Moving on into 2018, we increased the number of school visit days to 16, with pupils from 14 different schools participating. The Learning Loft Project, being just a small part of what Brantwood has to offer in the context of lifelong learning in the spirit of Ruskin plus its essential visitor attraction role in the Lake District, we were well aware that it was important not to make unfair demands on the staff team, the Volunteers, wear and tear on the paths, or on the use of the Loft. Many visitors also come to Brantwood for the peace and quiet and inevitably, school groups will make some noise, no matter how much they are being encouraged to contemplate!

For the first time we invited two schools from Kendal to participate, focussing on those serving the communities most severely affected by the aftermath of Storm Desmond and the severe weather conditions and flooding of the subsequent Winter. We had some wonderful feedback from these classes of 7 and 8 year olds in the form of beautiful handwritten and carefully laid out letters which not only emphasised the relevance of the Ruskin principles of learning, but also the ways in which learning in a lovely outdoor environment can be used back at school to promote both literacy and social skills.

School Newsletters, blogs and websites featured the visits, emails came from appreciative teachers and photographs and posters from one of the Barrow schools showing how they used their visit in their ‘Localities’ project and how they investigated different aspects of Ruskin’s life.

We also ran three lovely sunny days of free Outdoor Learning Activities during the school Summer holidays for the schools who had visited during the earlier part of the year. This was a great opportunity for the young person who had visited to take charge and introduce parents or grandparents, brothers and sisters to the delights of Brantwood. Several families came on the launch from Coniston, while others travelled from Kendal, Ulverston and Walney. Other visiting families also enjoyed the activities including a group from Germany!

The year of Ruskin’s bicentenary was incredibly busy! Access from the Loft to the grounds was made much easier by the construction by the Gardens Team of super new steps, gate and railings opposite the door. The resource room was increasingly well stocked and well used with a lovely selection of nature and art books for all reading ages.

In February we celebrated Ruskin’s birthday at Coniston Primary School, working with year 5 and 6 pupils to create art and poetry inspired by the weather, the natural environment and a small collection of artefacts from the Brantwood collection. We were proud to feature on Radio Cumbria and then to hear the children read out their work at a special memorial service in Coniston Church. At this service the village celebrated Ruskin’s very special and significant contribution to the life of the community which still influences so much that is happening there today!

In March Rosie designed and constructed a living willow sculpture, planted with the much-appreciated help of Heather on a bitterly cold day in a secluded spot near Ruskin’s Pond. Beautiful bench seating was kindly built in the structure by Peter, the Brantwood craftsman, in keeping with the other seating around the grounds. Visiting children and adults were encouraged to visit this special place as a quiet spot in which to contemplate and immerse themselves in the natural environment. The Willow Circle also became a destination for storytelling and for the mixing of Magic Potions!

We developed and updated a colourful house quiz for the children to use which encourages them to stop, look and think about different features and aspects of life in the house. We also put together a Family Activity Pack for sale in the shop to provide a focus for visiting families.

The original Art activities and the garden map and trail continued to be very popular with the school groups, forming lifelong memories for our young visitors.

To try to encourage teachers to promote learning in the spirit of Ruskin back at school, each visiting school was given a selection of books (The Lost Words, King of the Golden River and Bloke’s Progress) thanks to kind donations from the Friends.

We held two family activity days at Easter, early and very cold, memories of reading ‘Daffodils’ by a frozen lake and warming up with toasted marshmallows. Fortunately, Rosie had brought a firepit and the hardy participants, especially one family who had cycled from Coniston on these days were suitably rewarded! The Summer activity days were on a hot August weekend and very busy, this time we had families arriving by canoe from the campsite!

We were delighted to welcome a group of young refugees from Syria and Eritrea with the Skelmersdale International Refugee Support Group. Having very recently escaped from terrible situations of war and persecution, they really enjoyed the opportunity to relax and unwind in the beautiful and very different Brantwood environment.

By the end of the year over 500 children and young people had visited from Barrow, Ulverston, Walney, Kendal, Blackburn and Coniston. This included several new schools, several who were up to their fourth visit, our first special school sixth form group and a class from Blackburn on a ‘culture camp’ at a nearby residential centre. A great year with exciting plans for new activities and initiatives to follow!


Sharing Magic Potions.


Beautiful Nature's Palettes.

The Challenge of Covid: 2020- 2021.

It was a challenge to keep the Project alive and to promote learning in the spirit of Ruskin during the Covid 19 pandemic. The schools were open only for the children of key workers, Brantwood was closed to visitors with the staff on furlough and the team who work and volunteer on the Project were separated by many miles.

In early March we had held a very successful Teachers Workshop, met new and enthusiastic teachers and renewed our acquaintance with regular visitors. We had spent time on developing new activities, attended workshops at Dunham Massey and Lancaster University, collected and prepared resources for the Easter Family Activities and for the ‘Get Creative’ festival in May. The dates for school visits were fully booked throughout the Spring and Summer and into the Autumn term. By the following week we were becoming aware of the impending catastrophe and the major changes and challenges it would impose on all our lives.

With schools closed and families confined to their homes and gardens (if they were fortunate enough to have one) how could we focus on Outdoor Learning? We found ways of ‘Bringing the Outdoors Inside’ by exploring what organisations such as Wildlife Trusts were putting on their websites or Facebook pages that could be easily accessed, that could be forwarded to children and families via the schools, that were inexpensive and didn’t require specialist equipment or iPads, and that resulted in real life natural experiences.

Some organisations had a fantastic range of activities and challenges – Wildlife from your window, Nature Diaries, scavenger hunts, mud kitchens, birdsong identification, webcams and virtual tours – a whole range of things to do meeting our Ruskinian objectives, both online and in the real world. Kew Gardens, the RSPB, the National Trust and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom offered many opportunities. Cumbria Wildlife Trust had so much to do that was related to the local area and updated weekly. Rosie made a mini-video of how to build a simple ‘Bug Hotel’ using natural and recycled materials,

 and an online guide to Painted Pebbles with designs from nature which led to happily housed minibeasts and decorated paths and gardens from Yorkshire to South Wales, as well as the catchment area of the Brantwood schools! In this way we were able to make a start on providing teachers, carers and parents with positive and enjoyable ways to engage with Nature despite being confined to their homes.

In May we had planned to host and deliver a week of art, music, crafts and well-being activities at Brantwood as part of the ‘Get Creative’ festival. Our lovely plans for Blossom Day, Pixel Portraits and many more activities had to be put on hold but the national festival went online as #GetCreativeAtHome with a wonderful range of activities to be accessed despite the restrictions of not being able to participate in live events. As well as forwarding details of how to access the festival to the schools and community groups who would have been participating at Brantwood, we also wanted to make a contribution on behalf of the Project.

We collated three collections of links to enable the spirit of the Learning Loft Project to reach a wider audience and help to meet the challenges of confinement with confidence and positivity. 

By searching the websites of regional and national museums and galleries we were able to find lots of interesting, challenging, and accessible ways for our schools and families to explore collections and pursue new interests. In the North West, The People’s History Museum, The Lowry, Tate Liverpool, Manchester Museum and Art Gallery, The Museum of Science and Industry and Liverpool Museums offered everything from virtual tours, online sessions, activities and challenges inspired by their collections, story-telling sessions and resources for home educators, carers and families.

All these fascinating venues, currently unavailable to us but maybe through their online activities at this challenging time providing the stimulus for a future visit for the real-life experience. At present all feeling a world away, but in the future easily and freely available!

We next looked for ideas to support well-being, which for many children was being compromised by quarantine and isolation. We found activities from Mind, Childline, and Partnership for Children plus great ideas from Merseyrail, Holland and Barrett, and Happy Beaks – colouring sheets, journey plans, recipes, exercises, meditation, quizzes, links to birdwatching sites! So many organisations had taken the well-being of their clients, customers and the community to heart and provided us with super inspiration to pass on to the Learning Loft schools.

Finally, we looked at Music – listening and making, linking with many of the plans and ideas for Get Creative 2020. The resources list which we compiled was eclectic ranging from the electronic music of Caro C and Drake Music, through Classic FM and the Benedetti Foundation, Andrea Bocelli at the Duomo di Milano, Beccy Owens Pop-up Choirs to flash mob concerts on YouTube! Greenpeace provided natural sounds for relaxation and serenity, Yellow Brick Music produced relaxing music for sleep, meditation and study, Shake-up Music had a wonderful Bird Song Opera! Many opportunities for listening, composing, and participating, hopefully something interesting and enjoyable for everyone!

As the Spring and Summer went by, we updated our links and added new organisations, but it soon became clear that school life and opportunities for learning were going to be very different for the rest of the year. Visits to Brantwood were an impossibility so how could we take the Project to schools and families in a practical, Ruskinian and meaningful way without communicating entirely online?

Heather, Rosie, and I put our heads together (virtually!) and came up with some ideas based on the ‘Lost Words’ Project, the national campaign based on the book by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris to save and celebrate those words from the natural world which have been ‘lost’ from the Oxford Children’s Dictionary.

All the schools had already received a copy of the book as part of the Ruskin related package to enhance follow up work after their visits. Rosie was working on new related activities for future visits including ideas for Lost Words painted pebbles and trails which could be implemented in the local environment. A new book and CD ‘Spell Songs’ had recently been published with lovely music and poetry and more ideas and suggestions for creative work on this theme with endless possibilities.

We also found some super ideas in leaflets from the Ruskin bi-centenary exhibition at Abbot Hall with great suggestions for simple art and well-being activities linking to Ruskin’s thoughts on Looking, Detail, Shape, Change, Colour and Mental Health.

We felt sure that these activities would greatly benefit anyone suffering from the stress and restless brought about by lockdown as we’d tried them out at home first!

So, the package contained starting points and possibilities for a variety of ages and abilities, a link with the Learning Loft Project and with Brantwood and a message that we intended to stay connected to the schools and their communities. In the towns where the project schools were located, the incidence of the virus was extremely high and opportunities for learning outdoors or visiting the countryside were severely restricted.

We had some very positive feedback from schools and families: emails, Facebook posts and Twitter and also from resource providers who were happy to hear that their ideas and activities were so much appreciated. As we began to plan tentatively for the future, we realised that there were still major challenges ahead moving into 2021.

Many children, families and staff had had an extremely difficult year, had lost loved ones, been affected personally by the virus, been separated from family and friends, suffered financially and emotionally. Everyone involved with children and the environment has realised how much it matters to be able to connect with Nature and how much this lack of interaction with the natural world is detrimental to mental health especially to those who live in an urban environment.

Our own travel opportunities were severely restricted by living in areas that were in and out of Tier 3, nevertheless when Brantwood grounds and exhibitions reopened we forwarded the latest opening times, routes around the grounds, outdoor café menus, and children’s activity pack, reasoning that while class visits could not take place, it may well be possible for staff or parents to make family visits during times of less quarantine restrictions. We also continued to search websites to find interesting and challenging resources and to promote activities such as the RSPB Garden Birdwatch, Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s seal and osprey webcams, Kew Gardens exploration of the Rain Forest, Keep Britain Tidy resource pack and the Manchester Science Festival. Again this was much appreciated and put on online learning platforms for home schoolers.

Our next package for schools focussed on well-being and included copies of the lovely resource book for children ‘How are you today?’ and a selection of mental health leaflets and activity sheets. We also included a copy of ‘Paradise is Here’ by Ruth Nutter which is an inspiring review of community projects in Sheffield based on Ruskinian values, and the principles, values and techniques which guided their implementation. We hoped that this would be a great way to emphasise the value of Ruskin to 21st Century society and may even sow the seeds of future projects in the communities with which we had been connecting.

By late March 2021 a small group of Volunteers met with Rosie and I and the Brantwood manager to discuss how we could make start on organising and delivering the project in the light of ongoing and possibly longer-term restrictions affecting Brantwood visitors and the schools. A new vision for the Loft as part of the Visitor Experience and the loss of the resource room which had become part of the Coachman’s Quarters holiday accommodation led to radical changes in how we organised our resources and to the layout of the main room.

The three Volunteers who had returned after the pandemic met regularly to reorganise the resources and to maximise the use of the new mobile storage. These smart units, to be locked away between visits, replaced our collection of shoe boxes and Tupperware which had served us well for over five years but we still felt the loss of storage space, the extra room. and the easy access to books, paper and equipment.


We also set up a Working Party to look at broadening the range of activities offered to schools and families in line with the original five-year plan for the Project. We were fortunate to be working with committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic Volunteers Heather and Elizabeth and very experienced local experts Jamie Normington, Education Officer for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, CWT Volunteer and fern expert Bryan Yorke and Geologist Livi Adu. Our focus was on Geology and Botany, both subjects very dear to Ruskin, with particular themes of the Coniston Skyline and Coppermines (maximising the fantastic views from the Brantwood Terrace) and on some of the most distinctive Fern species in the grounds and the local area. Livi set to work on the design of resources which could be used by school groups and families, while Heather and Bryan worked with Rosie on the content and design of a Fern Trail around the gardens incorporating map reading, identification, art, poetry and storytelling. We were also inspired by the knowledge that Brantwood was formerly the home and workplace of W J Linton, chartist, social activist, fern expert and author of ‘A Guide to the Ferns of the English Lake Counties’ in the mid nineteenth century. 

In July, with the easing of restrictions, we welcomed our first small class visit, a lovely group of young people and their enthusiastic staff from Sandgate School. During their Science Week they had been studying Botany and the flowers and plants of Brantwood were the focus of their visit. They enjoyed time in the Lower Gardens and the meadow, collecting petals for Nature’s Palette and Natural Bookmarks, identifying plants with the Flower Quiz, listing, classifying, and counting, very engrossed in their activities. They looked at the new Sally Bamber mural in the Loft and searched for the plants they had seen in the grounds. A walk up to the Painter’s Glade and through the Professor’s Gardens, examining the ferns and checking out Ruskin’s Seat culminated in visiting Sally’s exhibition in the Severn Studio. A very well planned and implemented visit and a delight for us to participate as volunteers.

In the Autumn Term we were able to offer Volunteer led visits to a small number of schools with limited class sizes, but were often thwarted by local outbreaks of covid stopping schools from venturing offsite, by staff shortages and ongoing problems with coach hire at short notice.

So many aspects of the Project had been both challenging and changing during the preceding years, but our enthusiasm and commitment to achieve our objectives remained undiminished!


Making a wish in the Willow Circle.


Conversation and Friendship in the Willow Circle.

Foundations for the Future. 2022/23.

Following Brantwood’s Winter closure, we began our programme for the year with the March Workshop for Teachers and Leaders attended by over 20 people from Primary and Special Schools, Carers Associations and Cumbria Wildlife Trust. They enjoyed a morning of presentations on the background to the project and the influence of John Ruskin, the Outdoor learning activities based on his ethos, new Lost Words activities inspired by the Ferns of Brantwood and the new geology activities designed by Livi Adu. After a very welcome lunch in the Terrace and a tour of the house, everyone ventured out into the grounds and gardens, led by Rosie, to try out a range of activities despite the wet and windy a weather. A very full day enjoyed by everyone!

Beginning later that month and up to the end of the Summer Term, we had nine school visits, welcoming over 150 children and young people to Brantwood. Three special needs classes from Sandgate resumed their annual visits as did schools from Barrow and Ulverston, joined by new schools from Haverigg and Windermere.

All the groups enjoyed specifically chosen and targeted activities from Magic Potions and Storytelling to studying the Treasury geology collection and the Ruskin and Science exhibition. A challenging term with our youngest and oldest participants since the project began and some very diverse classes including refugee and migrant worker children and a wide range of individual needs from autism to severe learning   difficulties

         In May we participated in Geoweek with a ‘Mountains in Miniature’ event, beginning with establishing the Ruskin mindset through detailed drawing and colouring, then moving on to pebble trails, Inukshuk building and environmental stories with a message such as ‘Milo and the Magic Stones.’ The aim of the day being to introduce awareness of geology and interaction with the environment in an enjoyable and meaningful way.

         In June, the Friends Study Day gave us the opportunity to give a short presentation and to express our thanks to the Chair and the members for their support, especially to Annie Creswick-Dawson for the wonderful gift of £500 which enabled us to purchase a new laminator and to enhance the visit of a special group of young people who came to Brantwood in August. Rosie also worked on repainting and updating the models and information for the Animal Trail, a fantastic picture orienteering activity which was relaunched and immediately became popular with family visitors as well as organised groups.

          An Open Day in July gave us the opportunity for a presentation of the completed Geology programme for older students which will give them a range of activities based on the Coniston Skyline leading to a ‘Ruskin’s eye view of the local geology and an insight into the Treasury collection. A group of eight Friends and families came to investigate and we were thrilled to share some of our ideas and resources and to learn from other professions and projects. It was great to hear that the Ruskin Comics may be used on a storytelling project in Scotland and for Rosie to talk about her work in the Huddersfield area to Friends who have strong family connections in the town.

         In August we welcomed Young Carers from South Lakes and Blackpool organisations for a day of respite from their often stressful and challenging family responsibilities. The young people all helped to meet the needs of a family member, usually a parent or sibling with a disability, serious illness, mental health challenge or addiction. A visit to Brantwood provided a lovely opportunity to enjoy some of the childhood and teenage opportunities that most young people take for granted. As well as a range of Outdoor Learning activities, we were able to provide some super refreshments on their arrival- hot chocolate with marshmallows and traybakes from the Terrace- and a boat trip around the lake provided at a special rate by Coniston Ferries. A lovely day for everyone made exceptional by Annie’s generous gift, support from the Brantwood staff, the Terrace team and the Ferry crew! A lovely follow-up too, in that the two groups have continued their friendship and the youngsters from Kendal visited Blackpool to enjoy a session at the Sandcastle play centre and see ‘Shrek the Musical’! One of the leaders also told us that the Workshop and time spent at Brantwood has made him see the world differently! He now talks to his Duke of Edinburgh groups about environmental awareness, detailed observation, contemplation, and every stone being a mountain in miniature! Some unexpected but welcome outcomes!

          A very busy year drew to close with Teachers and Leaders drop-in sessions in September and the Autumn school visits in October and November. We were well aware that it had been a challenge to deliver a full programme with very limited funding, schools still facing post-covid challenges and only three volunteers returning from the original group of six. While the staff team at Brantwood, although already very busy, had given incredible help and support, it was very clear that to build on the work of the Project, Brantwood would ideally need a Community Engagement and Education Worker to contribute their skills and enthusiasm to the Visitor Engagement team. This was emphasised by the opening of the Estate Discovery Centre in the Hayloft as part of a renewed emphasis on the grounds and gardens for all visitors to Brantwood.

When the Spring re-opening took place in 2023 we began to work with Maria (Community Engagement) and Georgia (Woodswoman) from the Brantwood staff team to introduce them to the organisation of school visits, the activities, and most importantly, the Ruskin tenets of Vivid Experience, Sharp Observation, the Making of Connections and Contemplation which we always apply in the Outdoor Learning context. Our regular schools visited and enjoyed some lovely sunny days and carefully chosen activities with Maria and Georgia soon happy and confident in their new and developing roles with fantastic Volunteer support from Elizabeth.

In August we organised and delivered three super days of Carers Group visits, our Young Carers from Blackpool and Kendal and the Adult Respite Group from Blackpool. The older ladies enjoyed the outdoor activities but were also fascinated by the house tour and the influence of Ruskin on Education, on the National Trust, the NHS and in particular the cottage industries and Ruskin Lace! Future plans were made for a further visit and a lace-making demonstration!  

At the end of the 2023 School Year, the time came to review our achievements in the light of changes ongoing and proposed at Brantwood. By now over 1,300 children and young people had participated in the Project over the years, experiencing the excitement and wonder of learning in unique ways in the beautiful natural environment there. It was always our intention to focus on schools and groups who may not usually have the opportunity to visit the Lake District or Brantwood and to learn about John Ruskin in his home environment, so who are these children and young people?

Children who have no garden. (Barrow has one of the highest percentages of terraced and tenement homes in England.)

Children who rarely, if ever, visit the countryside.

Children and young people with complex needs related to challenges such as autism, Downs Syndrome, learning difficulties, physical disabilities or sensory impairment.

Young refugees and asylum seekers who need the opportunity to experience tranquillity, beauty and contact with nature in a peaceful environment.

Children and young people who provide care for a family member struggling with disability, addiction or mental health problems.

Of course, many of the young visitors do not have to contend with such extreme challenges, but still thoroughly enjoy the environmental awareness activities, taking pride and delight in completing their individual bookmark or Nature’s Palette while exploring the answers to big questions such as ‘What did Professor Ruskin think about when he was sitting in his special seat?’ ‘Are the boats on the lake real or model ones?’ ‘What do you wish for when you stir your Magic Potion?’

What would John Ruskin have thought of all this? Given that we know from his writing of his own childhood interest in the natural environment, that we use his objectives as the basis for all our activities, and that we are aware of his lifelong commitment to education for all in beautiful surroundings, we feel sure that he would approve! We have many anecdotes to reaffirm our conviction that we have provided something important from the little boy from Barrow who had never sat on grass before, to the young Eritrean refugee who asked if the creatures on the Animal Trail were models of the ones we needed to kill and eat – and if so, how big were they? – and to the ten year old girl who told how she was going to convey the excitement of her visit to her blind parents through the sounds, smells and textures of found objects as she explored the gardens.

As Brantwood moves into the new five-year plan which includes the next stage of development of Ruskin’s vital and relevant brand of holistic environmental education in this idealistic and inspiring setting for exploration, understanding and appreciation of the natural world, we are confident that the Learning Loft Project provides a sound basis in which to build for the future. We look forward to working together with the Staff Team, Volunteers, and the new Community Engagement Worker to ensure that Brantwood will always be a place that inspires young visitors to love, learn, remember, and return!


Anita Abram and Rosie Taylor.


Careful Concentration. Making a Natural Bookmark.


Making Connections. Finding secret pathways and crossing tiny bridges.


Young Carer on the Animal Trail. 'I don't go out in the countryside much so this was a special day for me.'


Of course, none of this would have been possible without the help and support of so many people. Howard Hull and the Brantwood House, Estate and Terrace teams have given fantastic support, especially Helen who prepared the Loft and resources for us, co-ordinated bookings and liaised with schools and group leaders for several years. The commitment, reliability and enthusiasm of the Volunteers contributing to the Project will never be underestimated or taken for granted! The support from Cumbria Wildlife Trust staff and Volunteers, from Geologist Livi Adu and from Kendal Museum, our temporary and always welcoming meeting place during Brantwood’s Winter closures, is very much appreciated. The support, encouragement and generosity is also much appreciated, especially from Chair Paul Dawson, who has been unfailingly supportive in challenging times and Annie Creswick-Dawson whose generosity has enabled us to provide many extra opportunities and resources for our young visitors.

On behalf of all those who have enjoyed wonderful and inspiring days Brantwood, our heartfelt thanks to all of you!

Anita Abram.
In my working life, I taught for over thirty years in Primary and Special Schools, including eight years as a Headteacher. Having studied both Geography and Education and undertaken research into Child Development, I soon came to realise the importance of Environmental Awareness and Outdoor Learning particularly for children and young people with special needs and ensured that it was a vital element of the curriculum for all our pupils.
Following redundancy, I decided on a change of career and spent the next ten years working in Community Development in the Voluntary Sector for RNIB, Age UK Lancashire and the West Lancashire Council for Voluntary Service.  After retirement, I stayed on as a Volunteer and Trustee at WLCVS, running the Winter Well-being Project for three years, then becoming Chair of the Board for a further three years. I had already been Volunteering for many years usually with organisations related to family or school activities including Scouts, Ramblers Association and various 'Friends' charities.
I came to Brantwood for a series of wonderful workshops on 'Drawing in the style of Ruskin' and remembered his relevance and inspiration from my own school days, when studying 'A' level Architecture and from college days as one of the Great Educators! This inspired me to join the Friends of Brantwood and to become a Volunteer.
Through working as the Volunteer Learning Coordinator of the Learning Loft Project, I have helped to introduce Ruskin's unique way of seeing and valuing the natural world through hands-on Outdoor Learning to a wide variety of children and young people.
Rosie Taylor.
I studied for a BAQTS in Environmental Science and Outdoor Education at Charlotte Mason College after Volunteering for several summers at Bendrigg Lodge Outdoor Centre. I then taught primary school children, teachers and leaders,  for sixteen years at a local authority residential Field Study Centre before deciding to become self-employed as an Outdoor Learning Teacher and Forest Schools Practitioner.
Most of my teaching takes place in primary schools near to where I live, in Holmfirth. I love being outdoors in the natural environment and I am passionate about encouraging young people to learn through practical experiences in an outdoor setting. Brantwood offers some amazing places in which children can become immersed and develop a love of learning.
The activities that I have developed for children to use when visiting the Learning Loft at Brantwood have been designed to encourage them to explore the grounds with purpose, closely observe aspects of nature and to encourage enquiring minds.
Maggie is my Cocker Spaniel who comes into schools with me to work alongside me with the children. She is the perfect canine assistant and is loved by both the children and adults that we meet, a definite wellbeing mascot!

Using a viewfinder to focus on an area to draw.