What we do best – sprinkling a bit of magic!

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I moved to Pembrokeshire 2 years ago to get away from my hectic city life in Bristol. I had an image that living in the countryside would be sleepy and slow with nothing much going on. I was exhausted from years of full-on community engagement work, burning the candle at both ends, the death of my mother and six months later my best friend who I’d cared for through her illness. I wanted some time out.

When I moved here the leaves were falling and before long the dark nights had descended and the winter storms were smashing into the coast. I spent a lot of time feeling more miserable than I had expected to on what was supposed to be an extended holiday!

After half a year off, I realised that I needed to do something; I remembered that I like to make special things happen. Things that really improve people’s experience of their lives, their communities and their connection to the world we live in. It’s something I’m good at and also something which can, done in the right way be really nourishing for me too.

In April 2015 I applied for and got the job of managing the Span Arts’ Cheerful Project, then only in concept form. It was up to me and my team to shape the project and create something unique that would touch the lives of people in rural Pembrokeshire and particularly focus on intergenerational events and on involving people who are isolated or lonely for whatever reason.

The only problem was, it would involve working in communities I had hardly any connection with, many of whom spoke a language completely alien to me! I remember asking my boyfriend, “Who is Sir Benfro and why is he on all the signs round here?” Please don’t laugh as hard as he did!

The other thing I find easy to forget is that, however many successful projects I run, really connecting with communities takes time. A lot of time. Some people take a while to warm to you, they want to see what you’re doing from a distance first, they want to be invited by their friends or see you doing something at a place or event they are familiar with. The Cheerful project is a 3 year community arts project and now, 1.5 years in I feel like we are only just starting to crack it.

On Tuesday we held a very special event at The Queen’s Hall in Narberth, A Tea Dance and Cabaret, organised in conjunction with the Span Arts Oed Y Byd project. The hall was decked in gorgeous hand-made decorations; delicious cakes and scones were prepared by volunteers; open sandwiches on bread made at a community baking workshop the day before. The room was filled with the sounds of singing and poetry and of people laughing, eating and thoroughly enjoying themselves. It was attended by nearly 100 people ranging in age from 2 to 95. Have a look at the bottom of this post for a gallery of beautiful pictures of the event.

For me it really highlighted what I and what Span Arts does so well; we add a bit of magic, we sprinkle some sparkle and we transform spaces creating an atmosphere where people can experience the specialness of life.

Looking around the room I could see just how important community activity is in a place like Pembrokeshire and what a wonderful thing it can be to squeeze 100 people from different backgrounds and walks of life into a room together. My experience of city life was that I could be very choosy about who I was friends with! There were so many people to pick from that one could afford to discard those who didn’t immediately click. However, in a small rural community we don’t have that luxury – and in fact, it is what I have come to love about living here! I now have friends with a much wider diversity of interests, backgrounds and opinions than I did in the city. Here I find people look for what you have in common, not what divides you.

It is a real honour and privilege to work with people in rural Pembrokeshire. When I moved here I myself was feeling lonely and isolated, far away from all the people who loved and cared about me and spliced into a culture and community I knew very little about. Now I am surrounded by an incredible, strong and creative community at Span Arts, I’ve learnt a lot about the unique local culture from conversations, folk stories & songs and with the Cheerful project I’ve even done my bit to add to the local cultural landscape with new festivals and celebrations! However, the thing I’m most proud of is this: on Tuesday, I managed to have a whole conversation in Welsh with an elderly gentleman from Maenclochog! Being able to speak a little in the language of the land has taught me about how to feel part of this amazing ancient culture, full of rich tales and traditions – something that I didn’t even know existed before I moved here.

Diolch yn fawr i chi am ddarllen!

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Rowan Matthiessen

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    Simply lovely xxx

    Nerys Fri Dec 2

    Way to go Rowan. Still spreading the sparkle. Nihilist est Impossibilis.

    Claire Dowling Thu Dec 1