Silhouetted figures view the sea at dusk

Nature Narratives: Project conclusion and next steps for VocalEyes

Last November our Museums, Galleries & Heritage Programme Manager, Anna Fineman, wrote about the early stages of Nature Narratives: Vocalising Nature Sense – a new project VocalEyes was undertaking in partnership with the University of Exeter, to support natural heritage sites to offer more inclusive visitor experiences. As that exploratory initiative has concluded this is a review of what took place, what was learnt, and how VocalEyes can continue to support outdoor heritage venues to become more accessible.

Developing a training programme for natural heritage sites

We successfully delivered tailored two-day audio description, visual awareness and sensory training courses at the three venues, as planned: Leighton Moss, RSPB reserve in Lancashire; Durlston Country Park on the Dorset coast; and Sherwood Forest, RSPB site in Nottinghamshire. In addition, project funds stretched to a fourth course, so we were thrilled to also work with the National Trust’s Sheffield Park and Garden in East Sussex. While all falling under the banner of natural heritage sites, these four differed greatly, requiring us to plan tailored sessions in response to the unique characteristics of each place. Simultaneously, we developed guidelines to be applicable to a range of outdoor sites, which were subsequently incorporated into the manual distributed to all trainees.

Leighton Moss trainees in woodland
The Nature Narratives project team and Leighton Moss trainees take a sensory session in an autumnal clearing beneath trees. Photo: Anna Fineman

The inaugural Nature Narratives course

Leighton Moss was the guinea pig, and their enthusiastic, thoughtful team helped to shape the template of what we would deliver at the subsequent venues. Attendees held a wide range of roles, including Site Manager, Learning Officer, Live Interpretation Volunteer and Visitor Experience Manager. Such organisation-wide involvement is so important for fostering a collective responsibility for inclusion. Undertaking training and sharing discussion across departments helps to embed a shared approach to access – it should not be the responsibility of one individual or a subset of staff.

We kicked off with visual awareness training – how to welcome and communicate with blind and partially sighted people, with practical demonstrations of how to guide. The key message was not to make assumptions – sight loss is a very broad spectrum, and experiences and preferences will be unique to the individual. Outdoor sites present a much greater variety of terrain than museums, and of course an inherent unpredictability of what will be encountered. This need not present a barrier for visually impaired visitors – careful guiding with an awareness of what to flag up within the environment can ensure nothing is off-limits.

An introduction to audio description followed, with exercises to begin thinking and speaking in a descriptive way. The Leighton Moss team were used to describing the appearance and behaviour of birds, as many visitors to their reserve might be unfamiliar with these – however, the ordering of information is very important for audio description, in order to build a logical picture; so we focused on how to achieve that. In addition, there is the need to be more specific in your description when speaking to someone with sight loss; for example giving a more precise shade than ‘green’ or detailing the length of a ‘long tail.’

Leighton Moss trainees holding reed stems and moss
Leighton Moss trainees explore the natural, tactile opportunities available, holding tufts of verdant green moss and dry sandy-coloured reed stems. Photo: Anna Fineman

Description techniques for natural heritage sites

Natural heritage sites are expansive environments, inviting visitors to explore distinct landscapes, often of many acres, plus the contextual geography beyond the site boundaries. They are habitats for a plethora of flora and fauna, from forests and meadows to birds, mammals and insects. It is therefore important to be able to describe from the macro to the micro, setting the context and relaying the full vista. At Leighton Moss we practised beginning with the ‘long shot’, the broad landscape within which everything else was encapsulated, to the perimeters of the view; next was the ‘mid shot’, describing the more immediate surroundings; and finally the ‘close up’ – the detail of a tree, bird or fungus.

However, outdoor sites are living places, so there is also a clear need to be able to respond spontaneously. If a white egret swoops into view, you need to break off from describing the distant hills! Fleeting encounters such as this require a different sort of approach, as there likely won’t be time to give a comprehensive description of the bird. Instead, encapsulating an impression of what is happening and the behaviour of the bird is important, in the moment. It may appear as a whoosh of colour, dive down, chase a rival – capturing the energy and excitement of the activity is the aim. Once the action has passed a more detailed discussion of the bird’s appearance could ensue, plus a return to describing the wider arena in which this dynamic surprise took place.

The first day at Leighton Moss concluded with the team putting the day’s theory into practice – delivering initial descriptions for parts of the site and guiding their colleagues between locations.

Day two began with a sensory session within woodland, tuning in to the environment and taking the time to notice the smells, temperature, the ground, light and shade, sounds, wind, moisture, movements. This exercise is powerful for appreciating quite how much can be experienced and enjoyed non-visually; outdoor sites are innately multisensory.

With a heightened awareness of all their site had to offer, the team broke into small groups and focused on practising describing their extraordinary environment. The day culminated with everyone reuniting for an audio-described tour, with each group of trainees guiding and describing for a different leg of the route. The Nature Narratives team were hugely impressed by the knowledge and passion of the Leighton Moss trainees, and the ease with which they incorporated their newly acquired description skills into their engaging interpretation of their reserve.

 ‘I now feel I have the ability and confidence to help blind and partially sighted visitors enjoy the same experience.’
Trainee at Leighton Moss


Trainees describe the view out to sea
Three Durlston Country Park trainees face the view out to sea from the site boundary, practising their ‘long shot’ descriptions. Photo: Anna Fineman

A (bio)diversity of environments

The subsequent courses took place in somewhat different settings, both from Leighton Moss, and each other. While teaching the same skills as to those at Leighton Moss, we tailored each course to the environs, focusing on the particular experiences visitors will have at each site.

Perched on the clifftop on the Jurassic Coast, Durlston Country Park in Dorset is a biodiverse site. It comprises ancient meadows and woodland, teeming with wildflowers, insects and birds, all within metres of the sea. On the second day of the course, we were seriously challenged by the weather – it had to happen at some point! This presented the need for adaptability and spontaneity which will be familiar to those working in natural heritage. With outdoor sites there is no guarantee of how a visit will transpire, and the need to be able to respond in the moment. As the rain and wind grew momentum, the safest option was to adapt the practice tour routes and make use of any more sheltered possibilities – both built, such as the visitor centre, and more natural, in terms of the canopy of woodland. The trainees responded with gusto and would certainly take visitors with them on a positive journey, whatever the weather.

‘All the trainers had a deep knowledge of their subject area and a natural gift to be able to share their experiences and skills. The delivery was concise, clear and of expert calibre.’

Trainee at Durlston Country Park

From the south coast it was off to Nottinghamshire, and the extensive ancient woodland of Sherwood Forest. Home to hundreds of species of animal, bird and insect – but it is the oak trees that are such a draw to this site, and in particular the iconic Major Oak, estimated to be around 1000 years old. Training was therefore centred on the woodland, focusing on the features of the trees and how to experience them in a multisensory way. As an RSPB site, birdlife is abundant, so some sessions paralleled those that took place at Leighton Moss.

Finally, we headed to Sussex for the additional course at Sheffield Park and Garden. It was the most formally landscaped of the sites, the result of centuries of horticultural expertise crafting the stunning garden, with four lakes at its centre. However, this is surrounded by woodland and open, historic parkland, which offer a more ‘wild’ experience. The River Ouse runs through the parkland attracting an array of birdlife and insects. As a result, this training course drew on sessions developed for previous sites, exploring woodland and describing bird behaviour, along with a particular focus on the vistas and activity centred around the lakes.

Trainees describe a lake view from a bridge
Trainees at Sheffield Park and Garden pause on a bridge between two lakes to describe the view, with a variety of trees in leaf beyond. Photo: Sheffield Park and Garden

Impact and outcomes

Following the courses, each of the venues has taken steps to become more inclusive to their visually impaired visitors. Leighton Moss immediately implemented their new skills, using audio descriptive techniques within their regular guided tours, thereby ensuring people with sight loss were included across their wider, permanent programme.

Durlston Country Park similarly adapted their existing tours and began forward planning to embed inclusive practice within their HLF-funded Durlston Pleasure Grounds. Durlston also intend to increase the access information they provide online, recognising that websites are a key tool for visitors’ advance planning, and an opportunity to build confidence in people with sight loss that they will be welcomed and supported.

In the spring Sherwood Forest welcomed a group of 30 members from the Sheffield Visually Impaired Walking Group. Three of the trained team supported the visitors for a very tactile, descriptive exploration of the delights of the Forest: climbing into the Minor Oak, walking the woodland trails and listening to the songs of greenfinches, wrens, great tits, coal tits and blue tits.

Trainees at Sheffield Park and Garden are developing a tactile, Large Print guide to support visitors taking independent sensory tours of the Garden, and now have the skills to include audio description within staff-led tours of the site.

‘[I will use the skills I have learnt] in visitor experience planning our whole offer – website through to the day to day offer and one-off experiences.’

Trainee at Sherwood Forest


Learnings and legacy for VocalEyes

This was a remarkable opportunity for VocalEyes to apply our skills and knowledge for training cultural heritage organisations, to natural heritage settings. We met teams of people with huge passion for wildlife and intricate knowledge of the nuances of their environments. They were often already extremely skilled at communicating sightings and stories about specimens as part of their day-to-day work. We realised that rather than suggesting audio description be a new or separate mode of operation, we were offering an extra layer of skills for trainees to utilise within the roles they already undertook. In this way it was not such a leap for them to begin practising audio description immediately. We suggested trainees use descriptive techniques within any guided walk they are leading – all visitors stand to gain from this support, and sighted people often enjoy the ‘focused looking’ that description supports. Furthermore, visually impaired people need not self-identify if they choose not to, and will be naturally included within the experience. Audio description as standard practice can be beneficial for all.

We learnt the value of spontaneous description. Sightings, descriptions and routes cannot be fully planned in advance, there is an inherent need to respond in the moment to weather, wildlife and obstacles; this was refreshing for the VocalEyes trainers. Indeed, a different style of language developed for capturing transient encounters. We also came to appreciate the significance of silence – pausing verbal description in order to connect with the environment in other ways. Outdoor sites truly offer a sensory feast.

The scale of these places was beyond that of most museums, so navigation and timing were crucial considerations, in terms of creating a comfortable and achievable visitor experience. Of course, the ‘journey’ to a landmark view or specimen will be full of sensory opportunities and the potential of chance sightings, so will certainly form part of the experience.

Working across such a variety of sites was extremely stimulating, but a challenge in terms of meeting the needs of each team and their distinctive sites. For each course discrete research was required into the particular landscape and wildlife that made that site special. It is the detail of the specimens that many visitors to these extraordinary places will want to know. This aspect was particularly tricky when creating the manual for participants to use after their course, to develop their knowledge and technique. We needed to attempt to cover situations which might occur at any outdoor site, while avoiding tips too specific to a given environment. We therefore created a draft manual which was distributed to the trainees, and sought their feedback in order to create the most useful and relevant resource.

We are grateful to have collaborated with our Nature Narratives colleagues: Dr Sarah Bell at the University of Exeter, independent sensory coach Andy Shipley, and the brilliant teams at each of the training sites. We learnt a great deal from their expertise and enjoyed developing new ways of working – strengthening and broadening VocalEyes approach hereon.

Trainees touch a dead tree trunk
Durlston Country Park trainees describing and touching the range of textures of a dead tree trunk, where bark has begun to shed. Photo: Anna Fineman

The positive impact of time spent in nature on wellbeing is becoming increasingly well documented. There is no justification for the exclusion of visually impaired people from this. By using descriptive language, and having the skills to guide, everyday experiences in nature become accessible.

‘Fantastic trainers with a wealth of information and in-depth knowledge and experience. I have learned so much on this course. Invaluable.’

Trainee at Sheffield Park and Garden

As a result of the Nature Narratives project VocalEyes have the tools and knowledge to continue training at natural heritage sites, and will be incorporating this support within our Museums, Galleries and Heritage Programme. For further details please contact the Programme Manager Anna Fineman: [email protected]