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Creative care in a beautiful retreat

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We all know that NHS workers and others in the caring profession go above and beyond the call of duty daily. Now a not-for-profit initiative aims to reward them with “creative escapes”.

Mythical creatures coming out of a pond, a real-life Mr Tumnus teetering about on stilts, a string quartet on a boat serenading skaters on an ice rink. These were some of the more outlandish ideas dreamt up by Camilla Thomas and Eleanor Fountain in their quest to recognise carers. Needless to say, none were adopted. “We sat in the garden one summer’s evening enjoying a G&T after lockdown, thinking up ways we could use the beautiful gardens at Toolerstone to do something good, to give something back,” says Eleanor. “We had all sorts of crazy ideas to begin with, possibly fuelled by gin, but that was just the start. It took us until January to pin down something that felt right and made sense.”

The notion they fixed on was using Toolerstone House, Camilla’s family home, in the Cheshire village of Sandiway, as a base for “creative escapes”, gifting carers day-long workshops in things like floristry and gardening. Camilla’s late husband Andy Jeal, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2020, was the inspiration. “Andy had earned his money the hard way,” she explains. “He had a council house background – sharing one bedroom with his two brothers – and he always championed the person who worked hard every day of their lives and still couldn’t manage to make ends meet. So when I started to think about how to give back, I thought about the NHS and care workers. They work so hard and too often for little financial reward..”

Key to the initiative was honouring both Andy, a keen gardener, and the property itself. “I think the most important thing was bringing it back to what was comfortable to me,” says Camilla. “Wanting to be respectful to the property, because it’s still our family home, but finding a way to share the gardens and the unique feel of the place with others. Being here has such a positive impact on emotional wellness. My background has very much been as a creative person, so that was a strong indicator of what we were going to do. It’s not a charity but it is giving. It’s quite an unusual thing.”

@:Toolerstone is a not-for-profit organisation that relies on individuals and companies to subsidise it. Courses are open to everyone, and anyone booking can feel satisfied in the knowledge that part of their fee helps to pay for carers to access the scheme for free. “We’ve managed to negotiate with Leighton Hospital that if their staff come on a workshop here, the hospital is going to give them a day’s annual leave,” says Camilla. “They very much see our offering as valuable staff welfare – they are taking it seriously and this means a lot to us and is something that we were hoping would happen. We also have a similar arrangement with St Luke’s Hospice in Winsford and are keen to reach out to care homes and other care agencies. We intend to keep this going for five to 10 years at least – as long as we can sustain it.”

A great deal of thought has gone into making the experience as nurturing as possible. The courses – from painting to photography – are designed to appeal to a broad range of tastes, and the whole day combines education, mindfulness (things like Tai Chi and gong therapy) and delicious food, courtesy of cook Barbara. Camilla and Eleanor believe their escapes can be invaluable in helping hard-working carers rejuvenate. They certainly seem to have hit the mark. “We’ve had a few boys here recently and they came and sought me out and said what you’re doing for us is beautiful and we’re incredibly grateful,” says Camilla. “All the things they said were exactly how we planned it to be. Home from home, really, is how we’d like it to feel, although we do appreciate that everybody else’s home isn’t like this. We just want people to feel comfortable here and we want to be caring for them instead of them always caring for other people.” “We do get cards saying thank you and people have left in tears as well because they’ve had such a wonderful experience,” adds Eleanor.

So far, they’ve given out over one thousand vouchers, about half of which have been used already. The pair recognise that it can be difficult to get time off, especially in the hard-pressed NHS, and want to do their best to encourage people. “It seems we’re getting taken up from females, rather than males,” says Eleanor. “Males seem a little bit harder to get hold of and bring in – I think they’re a bit nervous about coming because they think arts and crafts are a female thing, but it’s not the case; our workshops are suitable for both ladies and gents.” “When we give a voucher to someone who works for the NHS, we give them two so that they can bring a guest – a mum or a sister or a best friend – so people don’t have to arrive on their own because we know that can be quite intimidating,” adds Camilla. “They’re met straight out of their cars and guided through. Hopefully, from the moment they arrive till the moment, they leave they’re looked after.”

What’s vital is securing more uptake by the general public and, in particular, corporate clients. For the latter, the day can be entirely flexible. “We’re currently working on a corporate programme to offer them a slightly different take on it,” says Camilla. “They will have exclusive use for the day with a tailor-made programme of activities. We’ll plan it with them to make sure we help them to meet their criteria, whether it’s team-building or well-being for their staff. We offer two completely different venues within the grounds, so they can choose either a rustic setting in our brand new ‘Brew Shed’ with pizza oven, fire pit and designated greenhouse or they can choose the more contemporary air-conditioned space of our Glass Rooms.”

For Camilla, establishing Toolerstone has helped dull the pain of grieving. “It is lovely for me to bring about these changes to Toolerstone, it’s like breathing new life into the house and giving the gardens a new purpose. It’s helping me to move away from the pain of losing Andy, using our home and his memory to bring positivity back into my life” she says. “We had a nurse come here on a workshop just last week and she came to see me. She asked if I recognised her and told me that she had been to the house before to help Andy when he was dying. That was a very special moment and felt like a circle had been completed somehow.” Eleanor concurs. “It’s been hard work, but it hasn’t felt like it. It’s all fun – we’ve never sat there and thought, why are we doing this? I think we’ve got there now. I think we’ve found the secret, the recipe for success.”

For details of workshops, including those to restore wellbeing, and to mark the celebrations of life, visit

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