The Young Person International Training Project, Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust

Finalist for the Best Contribution to a Heritage Project by Young People at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

The Young Person International Training Project teaches conservation building skills through the vehicle of heritage projects. Run by the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, the scheme brings young people from all over the world to work side by side so they can share insights and knowledge as they broaden their horizons and create a global conservation community. 

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A natural fit

“It wasn’t a ‘Eureka moment’,” says Darren Barker, projects director at the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, as he explains the genesis of the training scheme, “but we saw a way to teach unskilled young people new skills through the vehicle of heritage.”

Great Yarmouth was once one of the most significant ports on the east coast of England, and has a rich maritime, trade and cultural history. The area boasts a stunning collection of windmills and churches, as well as Roman ruins.

Today, however, Great Yarmouth is regularly cited as one of the most deprived areas in England, where high unemployment, poor school results and inadequate training stifle youth ambition. Though opportunities for young people are lacking, the town’s historical importance has made it a magnet for millions of pounds of funding for heritage projects over the past 20 years.

The trust’s vision was to address this apparent paradox by putting young people to work on conservation projects, under supervision, to equip them with skills for life while preserving the local heritage.

It was soon clear that many young people, including young offenders and others considered hard-to-reach, responded well to the opportunity to gain building skills while contributing to the conservation of their area. The preservation trust has also set up Norfolk Conservation LTD as a social enterprise company for graduates of the scheme to provide paid employment.

An international dimension

In 2014 the project expanded beyond Great Yarmouth, after the preservation trust bought a farm complex on the Devetaki plateau in Bulgaria, an area with many historic villages that are facing ruin and decline due to emigration and loss of traditional skills. The farm complex now hosts annual workshops, where students from Estonia, Bulgaria and Taiwan, and elsewhere, gather to repair the buildings during a unique exchange programme.

In turn, students from Estonia and Taiwan also spend time training in Great Yarmouth as part of the project, which has partnerships with colleges in those countries. A shared passion for conservation breaks through all the barriers of language and culture, says Darren Barker.

“The experience is really enriching for young people from the UK who may not have had many opportunities to travel abroad or meet people from other countries,” he says. “There is something sublime about seeing a Taiwanese conservation student sharing carpentry skills with a Bulgarian student, or young people from Yarmouth and Estonia communicating through nods and gestures as they rebuild a dry stone wall.”

Traditional building techniques in the area of rely on the native landscape for materials, giving trainees from the UK and elsewhere the opportunity to transfer conservation skills they have learned using similar materials in their own setting to the reconstruction of historic structures in Bulgaria.

The annual workshops enable trainees to develop creative new approaches while ensuring traditional skills aren’t lost, says Darren Barker. At the same time, working on these simply crafted old buildings is inspiring a new generation of architects and conservators as they look for solutions to challenges of the built environment both on a local and international level.

Why this category?

To date, the programme has engaged with 128 young people, delivering 8,745 training hours. In Bulgaria the programme has created a locally trained workforce for conservation projects and preserved and maintained an important collection of buildings that were on the brink of oblivion.

Closer to home, trainees from Estonia and Bulgaria have been helping to repair the stonework at St John’s Church, a short distance from the seafront at Great Yarmouth. The building, which dates from 1857, had fallen into disuse and was on the at-risk list it before being bought for £1 by the preservation trust in 2016. The aim now is involve trainees and volunteers from the community every stage of the conservation.

In many ways, the training project conflates common expectations about young people’s interest in and willingness to engage in conservation work. The programme directly tackles the problems of deprivation that blight the future for many youth by teaching transferable building skills and offering opportunities for cultural enrichment.

But it is also creating an international community of young people who are conservation-minded and eager to learn from each other to develop new approaches to the old problem of preserving their heritage.

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