In Inspiring Buckinghamshire

The Heart of Bucks ‘Inspiring Buckinghamshire’ series gives local people from a range of sectors a chance to share their knowledge and insights to help inspire others.

Here we are speaking with Jacqui Gellman, Project Lead at Chiltern Open Air Museum 

Tell us about yourself and your connection to Buckinghamshire.

For someone who studied Textile Economics and Management in Manchester (and yes, I was a regular at the legendary Hacienda during the infamous club scene of the 1980s), I should have ended up working in M&S underwear (well I did in one sense if you get my drift) or similar. It was, however a great passion of mine, the theatre, that drew me in and my early career started on the front line in the box office of a theatre close to home – I grew up in Pinner, Middlesex – and then onwards to lead on communications at The Almeida in Islington, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, a handful of West End shows, a bit of international contemporary dance, a few national tours and then onto senior management roles at the fabulous Soho Theatre.

After a stint as Operations Director for a short-lived and inspiring festival celebrating the creative industries in and around Soho, it was all change; redundancy at the same time as moving with my family from hustling, bustling Crouch End in North London to the Bucks border in Chorleywood, Herts. That was in October 2016.

As the old saying goes, ‘as one door slams in your face, another one opens’ and sure enough, that is what happened to me. I was fortunate to join the amazing Chesham-based Chiltern Music Therapy as Operations Manager – it seemed a good way not only to transpose (excuse the musical pun) my skills, but also to learn about a field I was unfamiliar with and, as I soon discovered, to work alongside some of the most compassionate and talented people I have ever had the honour to know. I helped the team double in size during my time with CMT, assisted in setting up new services all over Buckinghamshire and beyond, and just when the organisation was flying higher than ever, I left. Leave while the party’s still going…..

During the summer before the Pandemic hit, I was a hire’s client at Chiltern Open Air Museum in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, holding a fabulous celebration for family and friends on a stunning July evening. I couldn’t help myself. I fell in love. I fell in love with Museum and now, since 2020, I work there.

What personal achievements are you most proud of?

Getting a new initiative off the ground is always very rewarding. Before the start of the Covid Pandemic, I was asked by Chiltern Open Air Museum to set up a wellbeing project, funded by the wonderful Sherling Charitable Trust and King/Cullimore Charitable Trust, to support a group of older adults who are amongst the more socially isolated in our surrounding community. The plan was to liaise with Social Prescribers in the locale and put together an eight-week activity programme. Then, along came Covid. The Museum closed and with the first lockdown, inevitably, difficulties for those members of the elderly community who were already experiencing social isolation, were exacerbated.

Fortunately, being an open-air site, the Museum was able to reopen to the public in July 2020. Going out for a (socially distanced) walk and having a chat with a chum was one of the most beneficial pursuits for me during the height of the Pandemic, and it occurred to me that the Museum could offer a supported version of such an activity. With the permission of the funders, I redesigned the wellbeing project and launched our Accompanied Walks programme for over 65s.

In summary, we invited individuals and couples (and some dogs!) to the Museum, free of charge, for an accompanied walk with a COAM volunteer. Visitors had the opportunity to enjoy an hour’s walk around the Museum (or were driven around in our golf buggy) and learn about the 37 heritage buildings, gardens, park and woodland, or simply just chat. Before heading back home, walkers were offered a cuppa and snack and time was given to further conversation.

It became very clear that Accompanied Walkers benefited in so many ways from this special dose of ‘Vitamin green’; from being outdoors in a rural setting and the social interaction that came with the experience.

Feedback from the 2020 pilot was amazing and with support from the Sherling Charitable Trust and the King/Cullimore Charitable Trust, we were able to offer Accompanied Walks throughout 2021. Again, feedback was fabulously positive from the walkers themselves, the referring Social Prescribers and the accompanying volunteers. I’m delighted to add that we have just won the national Social Prescribing Network award for best local Social Prescribing Project! For me, the award was in meeting so many lovely and interesting people, witnessing their improvements in confidence, outlook and overall wellbeing, and working alongside the caring and compassionate Accompanied Walks Museum Volunteers. The Accompanied Walks programme for older people recommences in April and runs to the end of October. We are also piloting a version of the project for young adults (16-26) with autism, supported by Amersham & Villages Community Board.

What are some of the challenges you have faced, and how have you overcome them?

Other than getting thoroughly confuzzled when answering the telephone at COAM, mixing up Chiltern Music Therapy, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Chiltern Open Air Museum, saying something like, ‘hello, Chiltern Open Air Music Theatre’, challenges I have faced are perhaps amongst the most common for all of us; change and loss. My own experiences pale greatly next to current activities in Ukraine, which incidentally, echo those endured by previous generations of my family.

As already mentioned, my family and I moved from London, where I had been living for 25 years, at the same time that I was made redundant. We define ourselves in so many ways and I realise, rightly or wrongly, that for me, both where I live and my work are major factors in describing my identity. Both criteria changed within a week. It was not what I had planned. I wasn’t sure who I was. But I had my anchors – my parents still in my childhood home a twenty-minute drive away and my bestest friend in the world, even closer down the road in Ricky.

A bit of reinvention and adapting my skills and interests on the work front, alongside some effort in making new friends and reinvigorating old connections, soon had me more settled and a refreshed sense of ‘me’ soon arose.

And now to loss… Within a few months of the move, both my father and dearest chum were diagnosed with cancer. My friend died in 2019 and my father during the second lockdown in 2020. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them.

But the distractions and engagement of daily life – my work, my friends, my family – fill me up, and regularly walking and talking with a friend or two does me the world of good. I strongly recommend it.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

My mother, who is much wiser than she realises, told me to never serve spaghetti for a dinner date during the earliest stages of a romance. What did she mean by this? Well, eating spaghetti, and I’m talking about the long slippery stuff covered in tomato sauce, invariably ends up being a messy affair. Splashes on the tablecloth, down the chin etc and heaven forbid, a request for a knife! Not everyone knows how to twiddle spaghetti neatly onto a fork, Italian style. So, really, it’s a metaphor to do with putting people at ease and not making them feel uncomfortable or foolish. It’s about bringing out the best in a person. It’s about how we conduct recruitment interviews and how we can support a colleague who appears shy or anxious, or someone who is new in a role and learning, or somebody visiting a place for the first time.

What is your greatest hope for the future for Buckinghamshire?

Another rewarding project that I set up at Chiltern Open Air Museum is Campfire Heritage Stories, designed to tell the stories of those who’s heritage comes from further afield. Three community representatives shared stories of home, food, journeys, family, celebrations and traditions around a campfire. We toasted marshmallows and recorded the stories for all to share. It wasn’t just the campfire that gave me and the 100-strong audience a warm fuzzy feeling; it was our celebration of interculturalism within the county. More of that please!