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Local Learning and Bristol Ideas Ruth Myers and Pete Insole

Written by Ruth Myers and Pete Insole

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Ruth Myers and Pete Insole of Local Learning outside Hillfields Library for Hillfields Homes for Heroes community event © Zed Photography 

Local Learning – created in 2005 by Ruth Myers and Pete Insole – is a small Bristol-based community interest company that aims to explore local heritage with all members of the community to uncover and share what we learn about our past, helping to collectively shape a better future. Local Learning worked with Bristol Ideas on many projects, including Homes for Heroes 100 and Film2021. Heritage projects for Bristol Ideas were always about using the past to understand the present and to help plan new futures. The work of Local Learning was essential in this.

We have enjoyed working closely with Bristol Ideas in neighbourhoods across Bristol on many innovative grant-funded projects, using heritage as a vehicle to help strengthen community cohesion. We work with a variety of partners to create engaging and inclusive learning experiences for all participants, incorporating street theatre, storytelling, art, film, photography, radio, archaeological investigations and digital technologies. We adopt creative approaches that promote an understanding and appreciation of Bristol’s heritage and culture and ensure learning can be easily disseminated to the wider community. Our first collaboration with Bristol Ideas saw the city come together to mark the centenary of the First World War in 2014.

With Heritage Schools and National Lottery Heritage Funding, Local Learning and Bristol Old Vic worked in Avonmouth and Shirehampton, the scene of Bristol’s own ‘War Horse’ drama, where more than 300,000 horses passed through the Remount Depot on their way to the Western Front. Charlie Day was one of hundreds of soldiers caring for these animals. His letters home describing life stationed in the fields around Shirehampton and Avonmouth helped to inform a roaming drama performed by Avonmouth Primary School on the former site of the Remount Depot.

Recreating the international delegates’ visit to Hillfields in 1920 for Homes for Heroes 2019. (Local Learning)

Bristol Ideas enabled this project to be connected to the wider city events, the national and international context, thereby increasing the audience and appreciation for this little-known but significant story. The role of these animals was most recently recognised in the 2023 unveiling of a permanent War Horse sculpture in the Daisy Field park in Shirehampton, made from hundreds of horseshoes like those from the war which continue to surface in back gardens today.

Building on this connection, Local Learning and Bristol Ideas collaborated on a different First World War story in 2019. The story of Hillfields Homes for Heroes began as servicemen returned from the Great War to an overcrowded, industrial Bristol where many still shared an outdoor toilet and washing facilities in the backyard with their neighbours. The Prime Minister at the time, David Lloyd George, announced that Britain should be ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’, with newly created neighbourhoods based on Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities vision that stretched far beyond bricks and mortar.

Our project explored the important story of Bristol’s first council estate in Hillfields. Bristol Ideas helped to connect our community activities to similar projects in Sea Mills and Knowle, ensuring that these stories featured in the citywide programme of events and publications. In 1920, people from around the world, curious to see how this universal issue had been addressed, arrived at Staple Hill railway station where they were met by boy scouts and girl guides to escort them around the new houses. Just over a century later, as we were beginning to emerge from Covid 19 lockdown, Bristol Open Doors saw hundreds of people from beyond the neighbourhood visit Hillfields for the first time to attend resident-led history tours, helping to raise awareness of the role that this place played in the creation of quality living environments locally and nationally.

Bristol Ideas edged forward in time to 1921, celebrating Bristol’s filmmaking past and marking the centenary of the death of William Friese-Greene, a Bristolian inventor and the pioneer of early motion picture filmmaking. Opening Up the Magic Box – the title of the Film2021 project – allowed Local Learning the opportunity to revisit connections made through Hillfields Homes for Heroes in a different area of post-First World War housing, on the other side of the city in Knowle West. Drawing on recollections from residents of smuggling in popcorn and a stray dog, of plush red velvet seats and hazy smoke-filled auditoriums, pupils from Christ the King Primary School collectively composed ‘A Cinema’s Memories’ with city poet Caleb Parkin.

Bristol Ideas made it possible for us to take around 100 pupils from three Bristol primary schools to the Curzon cinema in Clevedon, where they had the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen in a film made by Michael Jenkins, who was documenting community activities within and beyond the classroom. They watched themselves making silent films. They played with Bristol Cinema Top Trump-style cards and lanterns, drawing on shared memories about the lost cinemas of Castle Park. The culmination was a magical final outdoor heritage trail / lantern parade in Castle Park. For many of the pupils, visiting the Curzon was their first cinema experience. This was a lovely, unexpected opportunity that was made possible by Bristol Ideas to provide such a special introduction to cinema in one of the country’s longest continuously running heritage picturehouses.

Many threads can be followed through the Local Learning experience: threads that are often facilitated by Bristol Ideas, allowing us to build on existing networks and create new connections. The latest collaboration was Bristol 650, our most ambitious project to date, going from the post-First World War garden suburb vision to post-Second World War comprehensive education, from the Industrial Revolution to universal health and wellbeing, and from the steam and electric powered transport networks to the technological and sustainable vision of the future city.

The Bristol 650 project involves co-creating a community atlas telling the story of how a union of unique neighbourhoods has created an overarching city identity today. Through shared activities and conversations, we are exploring how the heritage of these distinct places can inform the city’s unified future and who we are and who we want to be.

Writing this piece has emphasised for us the interwoven connectedness of these stories. One of the integral threads has been Bristol Ideas. It was following primary school teacher Celia Jenkins from Avonmouth to her new school, Fonthill Primary, that led to our Southmead community soap opera, Meadows to Meaders, telling the true stories of people who have lived, worked and grown up in the neighbourhood. With continuing support from Bristol Old Vic, this long running storytelling adventure grew into a larger community drama performed live by residents on the streets of Southmead. The same Avonmouth and Shirehampton First World War project explored the inter-war housing in the area, ultimately leading to the Homes for Heroes project in Hillfields.

Conversations with Bristol Ideas, from the initial project inception and throughout the process, are always inspiring, creative, ambitious. Opportunities are rarely missed, often taking us beyond the expected outcomes. It is these unanticipated results that make for an exciting, engaging journey for all participants. As custodian of our city’s interconnected cultural ecosystem, Bristol Ideas has continued to foster collaborations, promoting an ethos of sharing ideas across the city, bringing citizens together to celebrate Bristol.

Ruth Myers is part of Local Learning and works with local communities on stories of place, community narratives about neighbourhoods and the landscape legacies created by people there, past and present.

Pete Insole has worked as a heritage professional in Bristol for 30 years. He created and manages the Know Your Place web resource for Bristol City Council.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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