Richard Clinton, Chief Executive of Delapré Abbey, reflects on a challenging year, while also looking forward to an exciting and event packed 2021.
Richard, you took on your new role as CEO in April – how are you finding it?
Since day one my priority has been to engage with the local communities here in and around Delapré, an area that when you look at certain indices has, like many urban communities, some challenges. Any place-based charitable organisation must be mindful and really think about what direction it is taking and how it is supporting life chances, and its impacts within the community in which it is located.
So, I feel strongly that the Abbey needs to be more than a heritage destination. We have an essential role to play in terms of not just heritage and culture but also wellbeing and the environment.
How has COVID impacted?
We know all communities have been impacted through COVID, but I do not think we will fully understand the impact of this pandemic for a while. While I am worried about the impact COVID has had on wellbeing, I am equally optimistic about the collaboration and opportunities it has presented. Northampton has the potential to respond more quickly than other places in the country because we have such an incredible collective of people and committed organisations within both the public and private sector.
What are your focuses for 2021?
As part of our emerging business plan, we are focusing on two pillars – Heritage & Culture and Wellbeing & Ecology. Throughout the pandemic people have wanted and needed open spaces and we want the Abbey to be a constant in people’s lives, a destination of choice, whether it is to walk your dog, soak up history, enjoy an event, eat breakfast, grab a coffee, or treat yourself to some fine dining. We have something for everyone.
How is all this funded?
We are a charity, but also a social enterprise because all our income is fed back into the trust. Should we be embarrassed about having an AA rosette-winning restaurant in the grounds? The answer is no. Everyone who eats at Hibiscus restaurant plays a part in meeting our charitable objectives. The same goes for our new deli, our café, our events programme, and house admissions.
How do you raise the profile of the Abbey?
My bug bear has always been the use of the words ‘hidden gem’ when talking about the Abbey. Surely, we are failing if that is what we are, it should be a ‘heritage gem’. We worked hard this year to raise the profile of the Abbey and it is working. We have had more press coverage, more social media engagement and greater numbers to the events (when restrictions allowed) than ever before. We ran a high-profile Wedding with Thanks competition during the first lockdown with local PR firm Pilkington Communications and the support of masses of local businesses. We had over 300 couples enter and our winning couple – a police officer and nurse – will now get the wedding of their dreams. This campaign has also resulted in over 20 wedding bookings – some from couples who did not win but who love the Abbey.
What can we expect for 2021?
Heritage, culture, wellbeing and the environment.
Heritage-wise we are reviewing the layout of the house and our volunteers and researchers are working on themes to make the history more accessible and easier to digest.
In terms of culture, we want to look at how we make more of the grounds and in terms of wellbeing we will be developing a new strategy, linking with local organisations such as Action for Happiness. We have developed a MOU with the University of Northampton and have already agreed a joint project to research how people use the grounds for their physical activity and are excited to be building a pool of research and evidence.
How do people connect with heritage through the outdoors?
When it comes to the environment, we want more people to use the grounds and this spring we will launch a Green Gym pilot – to enable people to undertake soft physical exercise through green projects, such as planting, cultivating, footpath laying and hedgerow trimming.
Any capital projects planned?
Yes. In 2017 the Abbey underwent a huge redevelopment, but that really is just the beginning. We are now planning to develop the 19th century stables, which many people will have passed as they walk towards the lake behind the main house. Our vision is to curate a mix of businesses that sit within the theme of wellbeing – potentially the likes of a cycle shop, yoga studio, vet or dog groomer and landscaper. We also want an area where people can come, volunteer, and learn skills such as wood and metal work.
Also in the planning is the refurbishment of the lodge at the bottom of the drive and one of the gardeners’ cottages. The intention being that all rental income will be ploughed back into the trust, to help us deliver our charitable objectives.
And you now have offices inside the house?
Yes, At the start of COVID we realised meeting room hire and the whole conference market would reduce so we have turned these spaces into offices. This is a curated space for businesses that align with our values. So far, we have four organisations that call the Abbey their new home:
Warts and All Theatre, now the Abbey’s new resident theatre company, running programmes where everyone belongs, and all voices are heard.
Shoosmiths Gallery, which focuses on the artistic talents of Thurston Laidlaw Shoosmiths Chroma Conservation, a company that worked on much of the Abbey’s restoration and will support in delivering conservation talks and upskilling volunteers.
Pilkington Communications, a public relations company renowned for its commitment to local businesses and the not-for-profit sector.
We are now seeking other like-minded businesses to join the Abbey.
We were awarded funding from the National Lottery Recovery Fund to give back to the community. We will be contacting all 7,563 households in the Delapré and Briar Hill ward this spring and will be giving them free access to Delapré Abbey.
As I said at the start, the Abbey needs to more than a heritage destination. It is part of the heritage of our communities and we want them to be part of it.
Find out more about Delapré Abbey at www.delapreabbey.org