The story of A Sense of Place 1: The idea

Beginning the story of the business Sarah Horton and I ran together from 1995, which later became the title of this blog.

It’s 1993 and Sarah and I have recently started living together in Liverpool. Each day she drives off to her job in Manchester, while I just go a couple of miles down the road to where I work in the centre of town.

Ronnie in 1994

I’m now a Director at Liverpool Housing Trust, where I began work as a volunteer back in 1975. I’d never intended to stay so long, but my desired career as a successful songwriter had never materialised! Besides, I’ve loved the work we’ve been doing providing decent housing for the people in the most need in Liverpool. And I’ve found really good friends here. Amongst them Sarah, who briefly passed through a few years ago.

Sarah in 1994, photo by Len Grant

Sarah, who’s an artist, moved on to a job doing large scale art installations in airports and garden festivals. Worn down by the stress of this, she’s now working in a housing association in Manchester doing PR and marketing – doing things like promoting their 30th anniversary, as pictured above.

But we’ve both come to realise recently that these jobs are now only ok. The places are decent places doing decent work, but we’re ready for serious change now, we just don’t know what that change might be. Recently Sarah’s had a conversation with Len Grant, a photographer she regularly takes on in Manchester. And Len said, ‘I think you’ll never quite fit in here or any other job, because you’re a self-employed type.’ So that’s started us wondering.

Our wandering takes us out on long walks and day trips where we talk and dream about changing our lives and maybe finding work for each of us that we’d really love to do. And on one of these trips we sit by a windmill on the sea front at Lytham St Anne’s and decide that Sarah will go and negotiate going part-time at her job, to get time to begin experimenting with other things. They agree and Sarah gets going. She paints, she makes quilts and other textile pieces. And she sells to arts and craft shops. But the money she makes from this isn’t enough to live on, so we continue thinking.

And reading. I read several books, mostly American, called things like ‘I could do anything, if only I knew what it was’ and ‘What colour is your parachute?’ This latter one takes me through a process which actually drops out a recommended career for me, after weeks of writing and thinking, at the end. And it is: ‘You are a DJ who works with small groups of people who want to improve the places where they live or work.’ At the time I’m exasperated by this. But it is in fact a major clue to the future.

Meanwhile, back at work, all of my department goes on an outward bound ‘Team Building’ course. It’s good fun, and we enjoy ourselves orienteering, abseiling and the rest. But some of the made up scenario exercises seem like a wasted opportunity to me. And make me think: ‘How would it be if we could find a way to directly relate the exercises to our real work in Liverpool? How could we use working in the outdoors even more imaginatively?’ These questions are the next major clue.

At this point I get an injury to my dominant hand, my left one – and have to learn to write with the other one. In the end I need surgery on my left hand. And while I’m recovering the idea comes to me, as John Lennon would put it ‘on a flaming pie’. And my shaky right hand writes the idea down. ‘It’s called a sense of place.’

And it’s about using real places, where people live or work, to open up people’s senses and creativity, and create ideas about the future – improvements in the place and people’s lives and what an organisation does – but all involving the place itself. Using peoples own inside knowledge of the place together with things we can find, like old maps so we can do things like explore the place, literally walk around and see how people have changed it, and then use our own ideas, huge sheets of paper, paint and glue and create collages of an imagined future. And then plan out the activities that will start to create this future.

I’m so excited by this. It’s October 1994 by now and this seems to sum up all of our dreaming and reading from the last eighteen months. The only thing is we’re not trainers. And both of us think an idea of this size and scope needs to involve ‘proper’ trainers. So as autumn turns to winter we invite the half a dozen ‘proper’ trainers we know to meet us at the Manchester Cornerhouse, to discuss taking part in developing the idea. Sarah, at this point, thinks ‘a sense of place’ is probably my thing. But being an artist she does the invites to the Cornerhouse. Little boxes containing hand-written cards about our ideas and what we might do. And featuring what turns out to be our first logo, little circular sticky blobs, representing the earth, hand painted by Sarah, and no two the same.

Our first logo. Hand painted by Sarah, no two the same.

Things go well and the following February we all go and stay in Llangollen for a couple of days to pilot the idea. See if it works for us before we try it out with other people.

That goes well too, but over the summer of 1995 things slow down. Everyone has their own lives and jobs and ‘a sense of place’ is only a priority for us. So Sarah and I take the idea back.

And what’s more I take the idea into Liverpool Housing Trust and we start using it. Pulling together groups of people on a particularly devastated estate in Liverpool, Norris Green, and working with other groups of residents frustrated by their situations.

And I stop being a director and go part time. Basically LHT let me job-swop with someone else in the team, so I can have a much freer role while I develop what’s next. I am forever grateful to the Chief Executive, Dave Bebb for agreeing to this. It changes my life.

Next thing, a little piece of good luck happens. All new enterprises need some luck. Somehow an organisation in Sheffield have heard of what we’re up to and ask us to send them some information as there could be some work they want us to do. So Sarah produces a beautiful hand-made leaflet, done in the style of an Ordnance Survey map. We get colour photocopies done and send it to them. We never hear from them again.

Our first leaflet, in the style of a map.

But we’ve got a leaflet now. And our good friend Janet Barnes, working elsewhere on housing in Liverpool then, shows it to a colleague who’s just been let down by whoever was going to run a weekend’s residential tenant’s conference for her. We hastily make up a price and we get the work – a sense of place has begun. November 1995.

The work takes place in North Liverpool and at Trafford Hall, the National Tenants Resource Centre, as it was then called. We will return here many times in the coming years. When Sarah stands up in front of the thirty or so people to begin the event, it’s the first time she’s ever done anything like this in her life. But you’d never guess. The work involves whistling, singing, memories of growing up, arguing and dreaming and turning it all into huge collages which get turned into plans. As we’d planned.

Collaging North Liverpool
Whistling and singing

We love doing it all. And just as importantly so do the people it’s all for. We are on our way to our future.

And in the next episode? Time to think about leaving our jobs…

Read all episodes

7 Replies to “The story of A Sense of Place 1: The idea”

    1. I know Rachel! I am of course proudly unemployable now. And I think it was only ever the charity and kindness of the people at Liverpool Housing Trust that kept me in a job for all those years!

      See the next episode of our story where the two chums leave the world of steady employment…

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