In spring 2018, Johnny Palmer, a property developer near Bath, bought the farming land by a popular local swimming project and founded ‘the Warleigh Weir Project’. He shares his lessons on how others can do the same
You might know a place like the one I am going to talk about.
It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like a little kid again, where everything around you is beautiful, your senses are heightened and all the stuff that was on your mind disappears. It’s also a place where you learn to appreciate the incredible world in which we live.
You may also know another kind of place: one that is full of litter, has an aggressive atmosphere, stinks of bad food and where you wouldn’t want to leave your bag unattended for more than a few minutes.
The place I am going to talk about was both of those and often switched from one to another in the same day. This place is the river island at Warleigh Weir – a piece of stunning land at the southern tip of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a short bike ride from the city of Bath. The site has been used for more than 100 years for picnicking and wild swimming, but in recent years this little paradise has deteriorated to the point where it was losing its magic.
I want to share the story about what a group of volunteers and I have done to make sure that the amazing Warleigh Weir Island has remained an amazing place for all people to keep using.
In 2018, I set up the Warleigh Weir Project and purchased the freehold title of the island and some surrounding land. The motivations and reasons for doing this is another story but you can learn about the Warleigh Weir Project and its objectives here. This is how we did it and how you can do it too.
It is no secret that to get things done you need passion. We live in a world where a lot of people are surrendered to the way things are or don’t feel empowered to make change. Deep passion is the antidote to this. It removes barriers, inspires others and, most importantly, gives a sense of purpose that makes you untouchable. Ask what is really important to you and why it motivates you. The answers to these questions will tell you where your passion is. I haven’t met you, but I expect you are already two thirds of the way to knowing what your passion is – afterall you are reading this article, which is a great first step!
I was blessed to grow up in rural Tasmania where I spent much of my childhood by the Meander River. While I love being a grown-up now, I generally think that being a kid is better – so I want to keep experiencing the sense of adventure I had at the age of ten. More importantly, I want to share this with my own kids and make these experiences available to others in our wider community. Equally important to me was that I wanted to do something to help solve the environmental disaster we are facing in decades to come – I believe that if we can get people to love nature and our environment more, then we can make people live their lives in a more sustainable way.
You and your passion in isolation are unlikely to get much done. Share your passion with others. Tell people about your ideas, vision and how you want your project to play out. Some people will give contributions and ideas – these are useful as you can’t think of everything yourself – encourage these people and keep sharing ideas with them.
Other people will want to get involved – keep these people updated on your plans and try to give them a role in the project because these people are going to be your biggest assets once your project is live.
Some people won’t understand what you are talking about – these people are useful for testing how well you communicate your ideas. So use them as a resource to develop your communication and refine what your vision is.
Some people will want to beat you down. They will do this because the awesome positivity you have reminds them of their own shortcomings. If you have the energy for it try and share some energy with them – but only if this doesn’t undermine your goals. If they are not receptive, run away from them and keep them well away from your project (and perhaps even your life altogether)
Sharing your passion will accelerate everything you want to do and will spread the word about your project – this is SO important. The passion I have for the Warleigh Weir Project now is not how it started out. It was only by talking endlessly to anyone who would listen about ideas that the ideas developed into action. Along the way I have met some of the best people in my life – many of whom are becoming valued friends.
As well as having great ideas you also need to be able to explain your ideas – especially if it is something new that people might struggle to grasp. It is likely that there are lots of things you want to do with your project. It is important to shorten this list to a few “objectives” (what you are trying to achieve) and/or “values” (why you are doing it).
When I was sharing my ideas and vision I found myself babbling a lot and trying to explain lots of things at once – this certainly did not inspire people! I needed a clear and concise way of explaining what I was doing and why. I felt that defining a set of “Project Values” was best and I have published these on the project website. The unexpected benefit of this was that it has made it much easier to build extended networks and gain secondary benefits from the project (a topic for another article if people like this one!).
In step 1, I mentioned how people surrender themselves to the status quo. People often feel like there are barriers beyond their control stopping them getting stuff done. If you are thinking like this you must identify what barriers these are and remove, redefine or reduce them – I aim to smash them to pieces where possible!
When I started thinking about the goals of the project I saw a lot of barriers. One of these was getting the landowner on board. The solution to this was to purchase the freehold of the land so that we had as much control as possible. While purchasing land might not be an option for many people you may want to consider taking a peppercorn lease, or do a joint venture (JV) with the landowner. After all, it is often the case that land can be a liability for some people, so someone who is prepared to take control of it is a godsend! I am happy to offer input and mentoring on ideas like this.
Another barrier and cause for concern was that of liability for people using the land. People’s safety will always be a concern as this is agricultural land with various dangers. After a lot of research and advice I have put a things in place to reduce risks for visitors and liability for myself. This includes owning the land in a limited company, endlessly communicating the dangers of the site and supporting any education around the safe use of countryside. This page is essential reading for anyone considering visiting the site. While there is still a risk, it has been reduced a lot. The Outdoor Swimming Society also published an excellent document for landowners about this. I must say at this point that I am not actively promoting the site for swimming, and never have. It is a wild river with endless risks that anyone wishing to swim in needs to understand and accept before jumping in the water – anyone who is not prepared to accept these risks simply shouldn’t be going anywhere near wild water.
One of the other big barriers I faced was car parking. I explored all sorts of ideas on how to resolve this including running a commercial car park, operating a membership scheme and also having car park attendants. After investigating all these options I found that this was an area where I would need to adjust my vision – that vision is now one that is car-free and encourages people to run, walk, cycle or canoe to the site (all of which are much more fun and sustainable). Interestingly, this outcome is much more in line with the core values I have about being hydrocarbon free.
Much like sharing your passion, you must get people talking about your project. You will not know where the help and support you need will come from. By getting press coverage people will reach out to you to help and support you. And what is the best way of getting attention? It is to make noise by being controversial.
When I purchased the island the situation with rubbish was getting really serious. There were days when literally truck loads of rubbish were being left onsite by people who I can only describe as ignorant. Rather than taking a soft approach, the first thing I did was announce that I intended to close the site to the public. This got huge media coverage and rattled a lot of cages. The threat got people to pay attention which made them more receptive to the message that I was promoting. The message was actually quite the opposite from the threat I was making as my goal was to maintain access to the site for generations to come which is a commitment that has never been made before. This worked extremely well.
The top reason I hear people give as to why they have not fulfilled their projects is lack of money. Indeed, money helps hugely but you don’t need to scrounge around for donations to get money to fund your project. Take control and use your project to get some income so that it can be self-funding.
The Warleigh Weir Project is a not-for-profit social enterprise and it is never supposed to make a profit. But we do need cash to fund trees, better river access and various other ongoing plans. I realised that we have a huge captive audience on the island so there was an opportunity to offer concessions for food and drink vendors to sell sustainable vegetarian food and drink on the island. They pay a percentage of their takings to the project. There is a secondary benefit to this as well in that I can stipulate that their product is zero packaging which I think makes a compelling point about how we can have amazing food without any waste. If you know anyone who runs a sustainable and vegetarian food or drink please get them to reach out – I have witnessed queues for ice cream that last from 10am to 8pm so the site is an excellent pitch! Email me on email@example.com
I also realised that the island is an iconic location which lends itself to it being a location for film, tv and product shoots. This year we have had various shoots on the site which have paid a site fee to the Warleigh Weir Project.
This income funded the purchase of 500 trees. Future income will fund various other activities and improvements to the site, while making site access free. I have a vision that we will likely get some substantial income in the future that will fund the purchase of additional land where we can do more amazing work (all in line with the project values).
In 2019 we will run food and drink operations again, offer film/tv location services and will also be putting in a “suggested donation” box where we ask that people give £1-£2 to support the project.
Everyone knows that leading by example is powerful and inspiring. Make sure that you set a good example to the people who are involved in your project. Don’t fall into the trap of being a self-important committee member! The dirtier, harder, smellier and more unpleasant work people see you doing the better! It shows that you are of your word and are living by the values you have set out (see step 3).
This hasn’t been hard for me as I love physical work. I have dug toilets, planted trees, built scaffold towers, spent days picking up rubbish and put in stepping stones. This work is good for the mind and body. It is also a great opportunity to learn new skills that you never realised existed.
Hopefully by following these steps you will get your project off the ground. Using the approach I have outlined will mean that a lot of people have helped and supported you. You now need to give back. A common mistake is to try and give back to those who have helped you – chances are these people are contributing because they want to do be selfless. So pass on good vibes to others; do some teaching, inspire kids, share your experiences, donate what you can where you can.
Most of all, share your mistakes with others – the importance of this cannot be underestimated. It seems that everywhere we look there are people who know exactly what they are doing, have their lives sorted out and are masters of their work and projects. Not only does this image not help inspire others but it is mostly deceptive. Achieving anything worthwhile is hard work, fraught with challenges, mistakes and occasional conflict. By sharing mistakes people can both learn from them but also feel inspired as they know they are not alone when they make mistakes.
I want to share ideas where I can so always invite the opportunity to write pieces like this, do talks, run workshops or lead work groups on the island.
By now you will hopefully have an idea of how your project can be set up. A network of “guardians” who are engaged with your project will help to ensure it achieves its objectives. These people need to understand and share the vision for the project – if your project is relevant and solves a problem this should be easy.
You need to communicate openly and transparently with them – share ideas, get debate going and be prepared to let them do things their way. This is so different from the top-down leadership approach we see in business and in our work. Make your guardian network sociable by organising days when they can meet in person and be part of something. As gregarious creatures us humans like to be part of activities together. Giving your group a name is important. They need to have an identity they are proud of and can tell people about. Aim to get a diverse group of personalities and backgrounds involved – you will need a broad mix of people to get your group balanced in skills, approach and availability.
For the Warleigh Weir Project it was clear that we needed to affect a cultural change and some social pressure on the site. People often look at me blankly when I say that. I realised that places often have norms and behaviours associated with them and we need to take advantage of that people of human psychology. A good example of this is when you go to a music festival – you will very quickly pick up on the kind of behaviour that is and isn’t acceptable as well as the attitude you should adopt. If the music festival is curated well (as most are in the UK) you may find yourself becoming a better person; more friendly, more caring, more creative, more fun, more receptive to new ideas – maybe even a better dancer and (counter intuitively) drinking less as well.
To achieve this I realised that we needed leaders who set the mood and set a good example. We also needed people who would correct negative behaviour in a way that was respectful and educational – for this a “guardian” network was perfect. We are called the “Warleigh Weir Project Guardians”.