Everyday Changemakers: Rachel, The Crichton Trust

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Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Rachel Cooper of The Crichton Trust about taking large strides and small steps in their journey towards their zero carbon future teeming with life.

The story is the third in a five-part Dumfries series of Everyday Changemakers.


Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel


Kaska (Narration): Hello it’s Kaska, your Story Weaver. Welcome to the third Everyday Changemaker story from my visit to Dumfries last October. Today we continue our exploration of the Crichton area South of the town centre. We head to the headquarters of the Crichton Trust in one of the elegant red sandstone buildings which, in the original Victorian Crichton incarnation as a world leading mental health treatment complex, hosted one of the luxurious hospital wards. I found the Trust in SCCAN members directory and Rachel Cooper generously agreed to squeeze me into her busy schedule for our chat.

Rachel: My name is Rachel Cooper. I’m the chief operating officer here at the Crichton Trust. The Crichton Trust is a social enterprise that manages the Crichton estate. So, the estate is an 85 acre plot of land, about one mile from probably the heart of Dumfries, just outside up on a hill.

I stay locally. I’m not a million miles away, about six miles. I know that because sometimes I cycle in, which is not bad. A bit uphill on the way here, but definitely downhill on the way home.

Kaska: Would you mind describing your favourite place at Crichton Estate for people that have never been here?

Rachel: We’re really lucky because it’s a really diverse estate. So, it is a heritage estate. And we have 27 buildings on site, all of which are red sandstone, and 22 of which are listed. So in between all those beautiful buildings there’s a nice amount of green space.

And for me, this summer particularly, we had two large patches which were turned over to wildflower meadows in our bid to try and increase our biodiversity on site. They worked really, really well. They certainly worked better than the sunflowers we planned last year, which basically ended up with a lot of fat pigeons and fat rabbits instead.

Some of the nicest spaces on site, we have a rock garden and a small sort of garden and more arboretum area. That’s really nice to go around no matter what time of year. Uh, spring’s beautiful with the blossoms and the randomness of the trees that come in, but throughout the year you just get colours and context there which, which make it pretty special to be on your doorstep as a place to work really.

I’ve always had a great love of the outdoors so it’s my happy place. So, after being on a computer all morning or all day or whatever it is, being able to just take a stretch of your legs and have a look around the place, it’s a real benefit.

I’m not the only one who thinks that we’re lucky enough to have, um, I think at last count, 131 different business tenants on site who all benefit the same way, really. So it makes a world of difference having space to breathe.

Kaska: Great. Now, how did you get involved in this work? What’s been your personal journey? And what inspires you doing this job?

Rachel: Part of what the Trust is here to do is we are custodians of this environment, um, and our role is merely temporary because there’ll be people after us and for many decades following.

So the estate’s been here since 1839, so it’s merely in our gift and our custodianship currently. So, in terms of what got me to be here, the role I have means we need to look after this estate and make sure it’s future proofed whatever that might mean. And in times of climate change, you know, we need to think here about resilient planting, resilient buildings, resilient green spaces and what does that mean for the future.

So, in terms of how I ended up here, it’s been a sort of conflation of two parts of my life. One part I spent a lot of time working in economic regeneration back in the day. Um, and my specialist area was advanced engineering and manufacturing and energy and environmental technologies. So, if you take the energy and environment technologies and what I learned and understood then, and where my passion was to address matters, it took me part of the journey here.

And as my accent might give away, I’m not born and bred from Scotland. Um, I have a lot of heritage both in Wales and Scotland, but my accent belies that. But when I worked in Scotland for the last 15, 16 years prior to this, it was all around supporting children, young people to have better access to and use of outdoor and natural spaces for learning, for development.

The reason being, one, it’s good for their health and well being, but two, you’re creating people of an empathy and an understanding of our natural world from some of the early stages, and they will be the ones who inherit whatever we choose to leave behind. So it was really a sort of conflation of two areas that came together really in this role, which seems a bit odd, but there is a, there’s a sensible journey in my head that got me here.

Kaska: How did you get into the side of things?

Rachel: I got into regeneration. And I’m having to think back now because it’d been nigh on 25 years ago. Um, and it was based upon what my degree was in. I was interested in that area. By the time I started in that sector, the energy environment stuff was just starting to take off and I was very lucky.

I was part of the consortia that brought Al Gore over to Sheffield to do his launch of An Inconvenient Truth. And actually, that really helped focus my opinion and my understanding of where I could work to address climate change in my previous role, which sort of has something that’s just niggled away inside of me ever since in every role I’ve ever taken.

Kaska: Now we’re trying to bust some jargon around climate change action and all that kind of stuff. I would like you to Pick your favourite jargon term,

and explain to our listeners what it means to you personally and define it with examples.

Rachel: Yeah, I think two of the ones that get mixed up and you see it in documentation and stuff you read, and not maybe mixed up, but put together, uh, in an inappropriate way is people talk about net zero, which becomes the two word flagship that most people get behind. But what that means and what that looks like is often lost in translation.

And particularly when we start looking at whole life cost. So, there is that difference between the two, when people talk about carbon and the impact of carbon by doing something at the end of the life cycle of something, rather than looking at building it through. And net zero seems to focus just on that end piece, not the journey through.

So for example, from my point of view, heritage buildings. You know, the carbon that sunk into these buildings that was built in 1839 onwards is done, dusted, and still standing. Whereas people look at achieving net zero now by building something with shorter lifespans, which means to last the time frame some of these buildings have lasted, you’re building something that needs to be rebuilt every 60 years.

And actually getting that balance between whole life carbon accounting and what net zero is and net zero homes and bits and pieces like that are, you need to be very, very careful as to how you show the carbon equivalent and how you look at that. And I think understanding and valuing heritage Understanding and valuing the carbon that’s already embedded in these and looking after something is vitally important.

Kaska: What’s the biggest challenge do you think that a trust of the size that you work in, has had to overcome in keeping going?

And if you can share any insights from overcoming that challenge with other people that might be involved in similar projects.

Rachel: I think there is a massive challenge we face and we sit in an office here talking today that’s slightly warm.

Um, for us it’s our gas bills. So we’d already made significant inroads into having a look at how we can move to a local heat energy network using the aquifer that sits under Dumfries, which is one of the largest aquifers certainly in the UK, possibly Europe, but I might be overegging it there

But certainly the aquifer is there and actually by using his old school technology drilling down. Deep enough to get up the warm water, to look at how that warm water can be pumped around our radiators rather than warm water that is heated by gas. It’s not quite as simple as that. There are additional technologies which will need to boost the heat of the water going round.

To make sure the buildings stay at an ambient temperature. But looking at what other renewables there are out there to use that, be it solar or turbine. Or what new technology, and there’s loads of cutting edge technology still coming out, left, right and centre, that we could become a testbed for, you know.

And we are lucky that it’s 85 acres, big buildings, but we are an independent charity. So unlike, shall we say, some governmental or public organisations, we have the capacity should we wish to try, test, fail, we pick ourselves up and try again, whereas others won’t do anything until they’re sure it’s going to work.

So, we do have a sort of flexibility within our nature to look at that. But I think what we’ve also done is taken a root and branch review of how we can reduce our carbon from the simplest things of mowing less to where we source our fruit and veg for their cafes and workshops through to what we look at doing whole scale with guarding insulation and where our general heat comes from.

So, when we did our audit for ourselves, our biggest carbon emitters were our gas and electric followed by potentially our food and food waste. So therefore, what can we do and what we’re looking at doing in relation to composters, hot composters And things like that to put our waste into, not just our waste and I talk about the Crichton Trust here. But we’ve said 131 business tenants all of them will have probably tea bags, probably coffee, probably cardboard boxes, all of which could go into hot composter on site, which we can use to put into the grounds to plant more trees, to grow more fruit, to grow more veg, and to develop that circularity on site, rather than everything going off site to landfill where it goes and stuff being shipped back on site to eat.

So there is something that we’re consistently looking at. Everything’s up for grabs, um, in relation to that.

Kaska: So, if an organization would like to do a carbon audit like that, what would be a resource you’d recommend, go to resource?

Rachel: We used an organization called Zero Matters, um, and they came in and helped us, look at everything there,

And it’s looking at those things and having an idea of where you’re starting from gives you an idea to know if you’re making a difference. But there are some things where notionally you can know you’re making a difference. So for example, you know, putting the wildflowers in. did increase the butterflies and the insect potential That we know it does if you put more in the more will come more will exist. So there’s little bits you can look at and just think actually how can we do this better?

Kaska: So it’s quite a large organization, uh, obviously in large responsibility and doing lots of experimental stuff. as you said, what do you think is the most powerful thing that you you’re doing as a trust, uh, in terms of creating a better future?

Rachel: It’s an interesting word, powerful. I would say we are working steadily towards a significant program of works with the district energy network. That is huge, that is a huge piece of work.

If that works, it’s pretty much groundbreaking because one, we’re a charity, two, it’s 85 acres, three, it’s 27 heritage buildings, and four, the data from it is good. So it might not just be us. There might be the scope to actually use it further afield and work with our neighbors to support them.

So, in terms of what will be potentially of significant impact rather than powerful. That should have quite serious and significant impact.

Kaska: But there’s a lot of work to do. And a lot of conversations does be had. So that’s just in the research phase, this project?

Rachel: No, no, no, it’s gone past, we’ve done research, we’ve done feasibility, and we’ve dug the boreholes. So we’ve done stage one, stage two, looking at stage three, really, of what we need to do. And we’ve even had discussions with significant institutions with regard to funding it and making sure it’s sensibly fundable for us now and for the future and how we can build in that longevity to it which is a key absolutely key piece of the equation.

Kaska: Who or what inspires you?

Rachel: Do you know what? I am, like I said, well you kept taking the mickey out of me, my old job for it, for being a bit of a tree hugger. Big landscapes, big skies, big vistas. I always find is a happy place, a space to breathe. That’s what inspires me personally.

Um, having that there. In terms of what inspires me from a people point of view, there are a few individuals around who you think, do you know, my god, what have you done and how have you achieved certain things? There’s a very obvious one, um, for me, and that would probably be David Attenborough for how he’s brought the natural world to so many people’s screens that so many more people are aware of what’s happening in the world and what us as a species has as an impact against others of the planet.

Kaska: What’s the thing that you’re personally most proud of?

Rachel: There was a lot of work I did in actually my previous role which was around inspiring people to consider how they use the outdoor and natural world to support children. And I did quite significant pieces of work with Scottish Government and my colleagues in my old team, where we brought around and worked with Care Inspectorate to bring around guidance nationally for Scotland that explained how you create outdoor nurseries for children.

So where children of three, four and five could go for their formative years that were much more forest kindergarten and less square room, bright lights, plastic toys. Um, huge amount of work and to that end work with some incredibly inspirational leaders. Nearly all women who had brought forward these entities, you know.

And back, back when I’m talking about there were probably only 18 outdoor nurseries in Scotland. I would suggest at the moment it’s probably in excess of 60 or 70 in scope for more in the pipeline. And where they physically look at, you know, supporting children in the outdoors. So, you know, all the research says it’s better for physical health, emotional health.

But in terms of creating little custodians of the environment for the future, people who understand seasonality and have an empathy for the natural world, I think it’s a crucial part of the equation.

One of the local authorities that had one of the biggest step changes bizarrely was Glasgow. Oh, and there was really quite inspirational leadership in Glasgow to recognize if we always did what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.

And they, they took a punt and really pushed it. And I think the local authorities saw the biggest increase in outdoor nurseries was Glasgow. And how they encouraged and retrained staff to get out there and do it rather than talk about. You know, don’t, don’t read a book about squirrel nut king. Go out and find a squirrel and look for nuts.

Kaska: And, the last personal question, what’s your favorite meal?

Rachel: Oh God, I love all food. That’s the problem. Oh, I just like all sorts of nibbly food rather than big meals. So things where you get to try and taste different things.

I think personally probably one of the nicest ones I’ve had is at a restaurant well about 40 miles from here. It was the Clachan Inn at Dalry and they had beautiful locally sourced cheese, meat, fishes, all sorts of bits and pieces and the quality was just exceptional.

But then I’ve given away the best kept secret.

Kaska: Well, other inns are available, not with such nice food.

Now, ask everybody to do this sort of a leap of imagination at the end of an interview.

Think about the Creton and think about 10 years from now. And imagine everybody’s done the best they can to tackle all the crisis that we are facing right now. I would like you to imagine the space as it is 10 years from now. And bring one memory back and share it with our listeners.

Rachel: So ten years from now, I sort of want it to be where Tick, local heat energy network in, done, dusted, that’s fine.

Tick we have hidden on the historic buildings, new technology and old technology that helps continue to reduce our carbon footprint yet enables us to operate. So, turbines, solar panels, etc, etc, which are all going to be allowed on heritage buildings if they’re done well.

But in terms of the spaces in between, that’s where I’d like to see the biggest change. I think certainly from my point of view. having and seeing a diversity of growing environments around the green spaces that we have. But we still have the open spaces that everybody enjoys to run and walk and stretch their legs.

But we have areas where there’s growing and this community is engaged in growing and fruit and vegetables for themselves and for other entities and there’s flora and fauna of different shapes and descriptions in more areas and that the mowing is still a lot less and that we have a mix of ages knocking around the site all enjoying it for their own ends whether it’s kids chasing butterflies or old people just enjoying the sun and the breeze you know and everything in between there is the chance to make it so much more that I think Not just myself, but the whole team here are really keen to hold on to that vision of what it could be in the future.

And how it could benefit, not just the humans on site, but everybody else around. The flora and fauna, the insects and the biodiversity.

Kaska: So, what do you think it would smell like?

Rachel: See, I think it would smell quite tree . Quite tree. Tree. So, um, I like the smell of when you go into the woods and you get that clean, crisp smell in the air.

And that, that sort of really strong feeling you get and senses in your nostrils when you walk into a woodland. You know, that always feels to me as a really clean and happy place. and having that experience when you’re walking between buildings I think would be a lovely one for people to have.

Anything else you’d like to share with our listeners that we haven’t spoken about?

That we always have to balance, and I think whenever we talk about things like this, is it’s, climate change is a scary, overawed topic.

It’s huge, but it is happening. And people can get upset and concerned, um, about it. And actually, you know, it’s just sometimes about taking the first step, or the second step, or the third step towards it. You’re not going to solve everything today. And you might not solve everything tomorrow, but there are little steps along the way that everybody can take and it’s that collective action.

So it’s not to be fearful, but always just to keep nudging and creeping and stepping along in the right direction and not give up hope, because I think that’s what will get us there if collectively we don’t give up hope.

Kaska: Great. Thank you.

Rachel: Thank you.

Kaska (Narration): I walked out of the building with my head filled with Rachel’s visions for turning the Estates lawns into productive spaces teeming with life, human and beyond human. Perhaps they will even resurrect the southfacing veranda on her building and use it to grow tomatoes in the summer and salads in the winter…

In the next episode we are heading back to the town square for a visit with the Stove collective and a chat with Martin about their ideas of creative urban regeneration.


The Crichton Trust https://www.crichton.co.uk/